Yesterday I wrote the first installment of a series I’ll call “The Mother as Container” series, about what is meant by mothers as containers of their children’s negative feelings and even their shadowy selves, and about what the lack of an effective container does to a child. The topic arose when we attended a middle school graduation last week.
As we watched the slide show depicting the previous year at school, along with the lives of these 8th graders, the pictures of family continuity in this pricey private school were striking. As photos of planned-for, wanted, cherished infants, toddlers, and children flashed before us, I murmured to my husband that these children didn’t know how blessed they were. As we pondered the fact that several of our adopted children spent their childhoods suffering the effects of having no mother or father, the grandmother of one of his classmates sat nearby and sniffled sentimentally over her grandson’s graduation.
I felt like crying for entirely different reasons.
Children who spend months in the hospital before being released to an institution or, if they are lucky, into the arms of competent foster parents, begin life with obvious deficits. While the wanted child is received into the arms of an eager mother, struck blind with the love she has for her tiny infant, the unwanted child is thrust into the arms of one nurse or foster parent after another, people who usually have their own children and who care for the children of others for pay. Thus it is that orphan babies are commodities on some level, even though we don’t like to admit this or see it; and so it is that this knowledge on some hidden, unconscious level trickles down into the cavernous, innermost being of the child and becomes the pool from which all of her self evolves.
Some of the giants in the field of child attachment include Stanley Greenspan, Margaret Mahler, Allan Schore, and Daniel Stern. These writers have written much about the needs of infants and young children for regularity in their family lives that leads to normal attachment, and lays the groundwork for subsequent mental, emotional, spiritual, and even physical health. It is estimated that today, 22% of all American children live in stressful family settings, a statistic that does not include foster children. Many of these stressed children end up living in residential, out-of-home placement after their families fall apart, or when their own stress reaches critical mass and they begin to act out. Of these, 30-85% suffer significant emotional disturbances as the result of living away from their families.
Imagine, if you will, the predicament of the baby who has never lived with either biological parent, but instead was released from the hospital to an institution, where hired caregivers changed shifts every eight hours, or into the arms of one or more foster mothers whose interest in the child may arise from the desire to supplement the family income as much as it comes from a heart for orphans and other lost children.
With so many American children living in splintered, stressful, chaotic families, the number of emotionally disturbed children is increasing. Few would argue that the signs of mental illness abound in our culture, and that the efforts to save this generation of emotional orphans and cripples are not significant enough to slow, much less halt, the decline. This is why so many parents turn to home schooling and private or parochial education in an attempt to protect our children from falling into the widening gap between those who have, and those who have not.
I want to make it clear that the problem of being unmothered is not unique to orphans; we’re a nation full of emotional orphans, whether we’ve been raised with our original families or not. The fascination of the collective unconscious with orphans (Superman, Batman, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter) is apparent. I believe we are generating more and more orphan stories because we are cultures who produce emotional orphans. And I also think that every person is an orphan, in part, because without that lost part we have no real reason to do the hard work of transforming ourselves, nor of seeking a home outside our mother’s arms.
In spite of the beliefs of many in the field of depth psychology that orphanhood must necessarily precede individuation, though, the fact is that actual orphanhood-separation from one’s original parents-is a trauma to the human infant. Whether that orphanhood lasts for a few days, or for weeks or months or forever can determine much of that person’s subsequent development.