Mother as Container | 2

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.

Mother as Container | 1

The idea of the mother as a container is ancient, of course–think about the baby in the womb and it is easy enough to see why. Jung wrote about the symbolism of vessels thus:

The motif of the vessel is itself an archetypal image which has a certain purpose, and I can prove from this picture what the purpose is. A vessel is an instrument for containing things. It contains for instance liquids, and prevents them from getting dispersed. Our German word for vessel is Gefäss, which is the noun of fassen, that is, to set, to contain, to take hold of. The word Fassung means the setting, and also, metaphorically, composure, to remain collected. So the vessel [. . .] indicates the movement of containing in order to gather in and hold together. You have to hold something together which otherwise would fall asunder (The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Eds. Read et al., Princeton University Press, 1989. Vol. 18, 407).

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein theorized that, from the first few months of life, infants got rid of their negative feelings such as anxiety by projecting them onto the mother, whose job it was to receive or absorb the baby’s feelings of anxiety, transform them, and then return them to the baby in the form of comfort, nurture, sustenance, or whatever else the baby needed, a process called projective identification. Whatever unwanted or undesirable parts of the baby’s internal world were experienced by the baby, were externalized onto the mother, who was then regarded as possessing them. In this way, the mother became a sort of object to the baby, an object whose sole function was to receive and transform the anxieties of the baby.

As an example, supposing the baby becomes hungry and begins to scream and cry as a result. The good mother responds by going to the infant, gathering him into her arms, comforting him and feeding him. The child’s unbearable hunger and anxiety have thus been transferred onto the mother, who has received them and transformed them into something bearable. Even the mere act of taking the baby into her arms and soothing him will begin to allay his anxiety.  The infant then re-introjects his anxiety, along with the image of a mother who can contain him, and who also thinks for him. Thus, from his earliest hours of life, the baby learns that containment of anxiety is possible, thought is possible, transformation is possible, and (in short) the universe can be safe. If the mother is a good quality mother–that is, she is consistently responsive and warm–then the universe (and the baby himself) are also good quality, consistently responsive, and warm.

 Contrast this picture with the image of a baby who has been separated from his mother within hours after his birth, or who must return home with a mother who is depressed, immature, narcissistic, or otherwise unable or unwilling to nurture her baby. The baby is relegated to an isolette or a crib, or, if born with a medical problem, to an NICU unit where he is not held or nourished at what Jung termed the “good breast.” Or perhaps the baby returns home with a poor mother, a bad mother, a self-obsessed mother who sometimes responds to her baby’s cries with warmth, other times with irritation, other times not at all, and still other times with anger.

This baby becomes lost in a vast, unpredictable, and painful world over which he has no control and from which he cannot draw any kind of predictable, consistent nourishment or comfort. When he howls in hunger or pain, he may or may not receive a response that may or may not come from the same caregiver. Whatever means the baby uses to survive his own anxiety thus become his warped container, which may or may not allay his anxiety, but which most certainly will not allay his anxiety the way that a consistently nurturing mother would. Most babies who have this sort of a start build for themselves a container for their anxieties and needs that comes to resemble a fortress more than a simple vase or vessel that is quickly filled, then quickly poured out in an endless cycle of receiving, transforming, and giving.

The failure of the mother to be the best sort of “container” arises in all sorts of situations besides adoption. A mother’s containment is only as good as she is; thus it is that mothers of all sorts fall into a bell curve of responsiveness-non-responsiveness, good-bad, selfish-selfless, whether they are adoptive, step- or other sorts of mothers or not. Put another way, the more conscious or self-aware the mother is, the more able she will be to receive her child’s anxieties and transform them, modeling containment and self-control to the child, who will take these qualities into adulthood with him. The mother who is appropriately responsive to her baby thus transforms hunger into satisfaction, loneliness into company, and “the fears of impending death and anxiety into vitality and confidence, the greed and meanness into feelings of love and generosity and the infant sucks its bad property, now translated into goodness, back again (W. R. Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, London: Karnac Books, 1963:31).

But if the mother does not fully comprehend the infant’s terror of death or annihilation, but refuses to receive the terror and comfort (and thus contain) the child, then the child simply re-introjects (receives back into himself) countless unnamed terrors–a nameless, abiding dread.

This should serve to give a brief background of the concept of the mother as container; in my next post I’ll elaborate and give examples of what it looks like when the containment process goes wrong for the infant, and how the effects of the lack of an adequate “container” can be repaired or healed by the mother (or others) later.

%d bloggers like this: