I’ve been writing about the mother as a container. A reader asked me what motherly containment looks like, which was a very good question. I’ve elaborated on what I meant by “container” earlier, so if you haven’t read the previous entries and are interested in the subject, I hope you read them.
Babies Need Real Mothers
The first year of life with a mother who acts authentically is essential to normal developmental attachment in the human being. This is widely accepted and I’d think anyone a fool who disputed it. Certainly, a baby can recover from the loss of his biological mother-and, in fact, some mothers do their babies no favors by sticking around. However, mothers need replacements as soon as possible, authentic replacements who will behave like real mothers if the biological mother will not do. I should add that it also does a baby no favor if his replacement mother is a fragmented twit who is so overcome by her own need to get a baby that she can’t give the baby what he actually needs, which is a REAL MOTHER. I’ll write more about real mothers later; suffice to say that Babies Need Real Mothers.
Attachment expert Foster Cline said once in a seminar I attended that most children can survive one break in attachment from their biological mother; many can survive two breaks in attachment; few can survive three breaks in attachment; and no human child can handle more than three breaks in attachment with a primary caregiver.
Think with me for a moment about the many orphans and foster children in the world, and about the way America handles its children whose parents have left them; then perhaps we’ll understand why our prison system is expanding and exploding with inmates, male and female, who have experienced so many changes in caregivers throughout their childhoods. It is a statistical fact that an unmothered child is much more likely to end up incarcerated, addicted, or dead than a child who had a real mother.
My daughter and son-in-law and their newborn baby girl are in the hospital for a week due to a staph infection in the baby. Next door to them is a one month old baby boy whose mother abandoned him to the care of the hospital. We can hear his pitiful cries from our room, our room full of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great-grannies, and (of course) mommy and daddy. Our little granddaughter is so loved, so held, so contained.
Not so for the little boy next door. He cries and no one responds. He cries until he exhausts himself. The beeping of the monitor is his only comfort.
I thought today that I should call the state and see about renewing our foster parenting license so that we can once again accept emergency foster children into our home. Then I realized that by the time the little boy crying in the room next door gets foster parents who will hold and comfort him, he may well be two or three or five or ten months old. My husband and I adopted several children who had lived in hospitals and suffered a unrelenting pain before they came to us. At the hospital today with my newborn granddaughter, I realized that what these abandoned, sick babies and children need is hospital volunteers who will come to them, hold them, look into their eyes, and comfort them while they are still in the hospital. How I wish my children had had that much.
Oh, it breaks my heart to think of the damage being done to these babies as we sit here in the luxury of our surroundings, our children nestled in the nooks of our arms, and we blog about what is wrong with adoption in America.
Developmental Attachment by Age 18 Months
By the time a child is one year old, if he has a mother, he has been able to become both self-possessed on an infantile level, as well as to become attached to his mother (and father, of course). He is a social being, and he understands when he falls into disfavor. He has healthy shame and remorse already, if he has parents who are good and fair about things.
Children who are neglected, abused, or raised by unstable, inconsistent, and unpredictable parents do not learn normal shame. Instead, they often learn from this young age that they are shame. They begin to develop what I call the “fatal flaw,” the thing wrong with a person that cannot be fixed and that makes him reprehensible to himself on the deepest level.
By 18 months of age, the well parented child already knows and can express his feelings. He knows he is angry, he knows he’s sad; he’s hungry, he’s happy, he’s silly, he’s afraid, he’s vengeful and spiteful, he’s goofy and he’s thirsty. He knows how his body feels, where it ends and begins, and what his body needs. He knows his heart and the way into his mother’s. He’s curious, inquisitive, and full of joy and happiness.
Not so, the person who was unloved during the first year or two of life. I’m reminded of The Bucket List, a movie about two older cancer patients who meet in their shared hospital room. The men, played by Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, talk one day about the Hindu idea of entering heaven. Freeman’s character explains that the deceased is asked two questions, “Did you have joy in your life?” and “Did you give others joy?” If a person cannot answer affirmatively to both questions, he cannot gain access to heaven.
Nicholson’s character appears to be an unloved person, for he is not a man who gives others joy. The unloved child, too, cannot give others joy; nor does he experience much joy. If the unattached, uncontained, unloved child cannot get a mother (or father) who truly loves him by the time his childhood is about half over, the chances are that he will not easily be able to grow into personhood later. What might have been accomplished in the first few years of life must now take decades to achieve.
If Mother has not contained Baby by the time he is 18 months old, baby becomes passive, withdrawn, and begins to engage in repetitive behavior that does not include others. It sounds like autism, and it looks like autism-it’s not, but it can appear to be. Anyone who has spent much time in orphanages knows what type of behavior I mean. It’s heartbreaking.
There’s another reaction to being unloved and uncontained if a child has a more aggressive, resilient, or outgoing personality. He may become very demanding, stubborn, and aggressive, and this behavior will be repetitive. Flexibility is a sign of psychological and emotional health, and children of unattached parents are not flexible little people.