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The mother-observer relationship: an examination of the participant role of the observer in mother-infant observation

Helga Coulter

The relationship between mother and observer in mother-infant observation as described by Esther Bick is examined. Specifically, the question as to whether this relationship influences what is being observed is considered. The author gives an account of her own relationship as an observer with a mother. The mother was an epileptic and fell with her baby (then six weeks old) causing the baby to suffer a broken skull. Exploration of events during the period of observation leads to the conclusion that the relationship between the mother and the observer was one of transference. Within this transference the observer seemed to be the mother of the one observed. This together with the effects on the observed mother's unconscious conflict with her own mother due to epilepsy is described. Given transference in the mother-observer relationship doubts are raised as to the tenability of the attitude of distance and non-interference prescribed for the observer. The conclusion is drawn that, in any case, the role of the observer is a participant role, which poses the epistemological problem of the interference of the observer with the observed.

"Psychotherapists are pyramid sellers", he said briefly without looking up from the paper he was reading. It left me hurt and thoughtful. After all, being at the bottom of this "pyramid", I had to admit to myself that there was a grain of truth in it. In any case there was no point in debating his statement since I was there to observe his baby as part of my training to become one of these "pyramid sellers." I asked myself why he had said it and vaguely felt that he might have been indicating to me that I was not a welcome, social occasion, but rather someone his wife had invited in, for reasons known only to her. As far as the hurt was concerned I decided to take this up in my next analytic session where, I assured myself, it would be dealt with helpfully.

But the thoughtfulness never left me. In fact the experience of my mother-infant observation has stayed with me ever since. Not only has its learning effect been thorough and lasting, that is it has equipped me with an understanding of the infant in the adult as it was supposed to do, but it has also left me with the uncomfortable feeling of some unanswered questions. I had hoped that with time and more training I would find illumination and answers to these discomforting thoughts but, in fact, they have become more pressing. Unlike ghosts from the past, which tend to obey the exorcism of being put into words and being understood, these stayed. Believing in the powerful magic of words, I decided to take to heart Loewenstein's statement, "It is true that unspoken words are our slaves, and spoken ones enslave us. The mere conscious awareness of psychological realities still keeps them in the realm of privacy; communicated, they become an objective and social reality" (1956, p. 463). I decided to speak up.

The ghosts are the unanswered nagging questions: "What exactly is the relationship between observer and mother?" and "Can this relationship influence what is observed?" If it can then the prescribed attitude for an observer towards the mother and her family to be unobtrusive, and to refrain from giving any advice becomes questionable.

The relationship between mother and observer is not a social relationship, a friendship, but neither is it a therapeutic one. It is certainly an interpersonal relationship as defined in general terms by Rycroft (1956). However, it was discouraging to find him stating "knowledge and theories of how we relate (interrelationships between individuals) have never been satisfactorily incorporated into metapsychological theory" (p. 469). Whatever it is, any relationship is a twoway traffic where people relate to each other via the communication vehicles of speech, affect, the total range of behaviour—all of which, whilst more or less perceptible, are unfortunately (or sometimes fortunately) not always understood.

Ideally, speech is a substitute for action and, if all is well, the most reliable source of understanding each other. For example, the statement, "Psychotherapists are pyramid-sellers" might stand for "Your profession serves no purpose except the generation of and distribution of money amongst the members of your profession. You are here for no good purpose and I wish you would go." I did not wish for verification of this inferred intention and so remained silent. My reaction was also a communication whose effect, however, could not be explored in my role as observer. (He was Italian. I later learned that his whole family except his parents who had fled Italy were killed by Germans in the Second World War. Being German myself might have been a reason for his aversion towards me.)

Matters get more complicated when affect comes into play. Affect has an intrinsic and well- known tendency to evoke either an identical or a complementary affective response in the other with the possibility of blinding the objective stance of the recipient. To complicate matters further, there are various modes of communication and understanding other than the ones already mentioned. Unconscious communication between two people and the intuitive grasping of this might lie outside the realm of verbalisation. According to Lagache (1953), the total sphere of behaviour is a language. Every move is at the same time a gesture and comprises an attempt to communicate things. There are actions and bits of actions. All these have meaning: hence behaviour is discourse.

This makes it seem common sense that whenever two people get together their relationship will operate through these channels of communication—which ultimately is the relationship. All this is well known. The observer is therefore advised to find a position sufficiently distanced to create a mental space for observing. In other words he has to find a useful stance that potentiates a friendly non-intrusive relationship (Bick, 1964). In order to achieve such a relationship, the observer is advised to resist being drawn in, to remain detached in order to introduce as little distortion as possible into what is going on in the family. By implication this also spells out that the observer should not do the contrary of the foregoing.

This sounds at first glance easy and straightforward but an examination of this friendly nonintrusive relationship, especially at first hand, reveals it as being ambiguous. As Brafman (1988, p. 49) has pointed out, "unfortunately, it is easier to define the observer's role by stating what it is not than by saying what it does involve." He recommends an "ordinary human relationship" for the observer in his role within the family.

It is worthwhile pausing at this point to consider the set-up of an observation. There is a mother soon expecting her baby. She is approached by someone needing her cooperation for about a year as part of professional training. She is not approached for a "relationship" for her own sake, but for the needs of the observer. She may herself have some interest in the process of observation consenting to it on the basis of her own expectations and fantasies as to the benefits of this observation to herself and her baby. Naturally these fantasies are as varied as there are mothers.

A first meeting takes place before the birth of the baby. Mother and observer get to know each other. The observer has been told not to reveal too much about himself/herself but to state what he/she will be doing, namely, visiting once weekly, preferably at the same time, together with why he/she wants to do so. There will be no mention of notes on the observations nor of weekly discussions in seminars. There will also be no mention of a report at the end of the observations. In short, part of the contract is not revealed. Hence the mother is left ignorant as to how her services will be used. If everything goes well, she will never ask.

It is only the mother's part of the contract which is clearly defined, that is, to give observation material once a week for an hour. A lot of good will is expected from her in making time available and in letting the observer share the experience with her baby. Therefore, an amount of trust is also needed. However, the mother is left to her own fantasies and expectations as to the meaning of these observations, and what sort of a relationship she is about to enter.

On the one hand she might expect a helper or an advisor (or even "getting her baby analysed" as one of the participants in my weekly seminars reported). On the other hand she might expect to be scrutinised as to her ability to be a mother to her baby. Whatever her expectations, these will be an ingredient in the relationship with her observer and might in turn influence what the observer will observe. The communication which is to take place will have already been influenced by the mother's expectations. Since all our external relationships derive meaning from what exists in our internal world, they have a certain transference quality right from the start. Countertransference necessarily appears as its shadow. Mother and observer embark on a relationship that is as unique as the relationship between an individual mother and her baby.

However, unlike the therapeutic setting where countertransference is a vital clue to the understanding of the patient (Heimann, 1956), in the mother-observer relationship it is regarded as an undesirable factor (Bick, 1964) interfering with finding an objective enough stance from which to observe. The observer is therefore advised to have any such feelings sorted out in his own analysis.

If the observer's countertransference could be clearly grasped and understood as a response to the transference feelings of the mother rather than belonging to the observer's own psychopathology, one might be able to say what the relationship between mother and observer actually is. This brings me back to my original questions.

But to develop the answers, I have to bring the questions to life by giving a partial description of my own mother-infant observation. In doing so, I will focus more on the mother than on her baby. However, I am at a loss what to call this description. It is not a case study because it was not a case. Nor was it merely an observation. Observation conjures up the idea of something being objectively observed, studied and maybe explained from somewhere more or less outside. This cannot be the case when the observer is part of what is being observed. So I will call it what it was:

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