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.