Mother as Container | 3

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.

Art by Thomas Paquette.

7 responses to “Mother as Container | 3”

  1. henitsirk Avatar

    And I was just conjecturing too, but I wonder if a baby could develop some level of etheric bond with another person. Probably not the same kind, or the same amount, especially given that the newborn is really the flesh of the mother, and the etheric would go long with that particular flesh. I’m not sure how that would reconcile with someone else’s physical and etheric structure.

    But you’ve reminded me somehow of heartmath, I think it’s called. Where two people can experience entrainment of their heart activity? It’s something I remember from long ago, so I’m not very clear on it.

  2. henitsirk Avatar

    Oh dear, it’s that “What’s the best Steiner book to start with?” question. I’ll ponder it.

  3. Lee Avatar

    This has been a fascinating post and equally intriguing comments. I am an adoptive mom of 4 and I do see the profound difference in children who came to us from birth (one at 5 days old the other at 3 days old) and children who were older or adopted from an institution. My son who is now 4, came to us a preemie at 5 days old. A wee mite of a babe but I felt that connection spiritually and physically with him literally the first time I held him. He co-slept with us, literally lying on top of me (after terrifying us one night nearly aspirating in his baby bed) the first year of his life. I think there was something about that shared time and hearing of my heartbeat corny as it sounds that reassured and firmly cemented that connection that we have.

    My daughter was also an infant and was born drug exposed. Her withdrawal was longer and more painful to her than my son’s was and I think it slowed the connection between us. She simply was too uncomfortable to be able to accept soothing etc. However that did pass and she began to show signs of feeling safe, contained and loved by about 6 months.

    My 12 y/o came to us at 5 and had multiple placements. He is a great kid but I know (even though I wish it otherwise) that that deep level of connection and safety isn’t there in the same way it is for his younger sibs. I know he loves us. But trust us enough to come to us with a problem? Trust us enough to be honest when it is hard to? We aren’t there yet. We keep plugging and there is improvement; he does meet our eyes now and it took years to get there, but I can visibly see what the wounding has done to him.

    My eldest came home from an overseas orphanage at 16 months. Never had toys to play with, had very little in the way of physical touch and stimulation. Very much came across as autistic. Was a head banger, had no “tickle” response etc. He also has been subsequently diagnosed as having Aspergers (when he was in his late teens; he is 22 now) and that likely played in as well. But his growing years were very hard.

  4. charlotteotter Avatar

    Fascinating post, Eve. I love Anthromama’s comment too. It makes me sad to think of all those babies who don’t spend time “in arms” being contained and connected to, because their parents, adopted or otherwise, don’t understand what they need.

  5. lilalia Avatar

    My son has that energetic bond with his biological father, even though the father has not been regularly present in his life. My son, also has that to the my husband who did all the fathering since my son was one year. I can see so much of what you talk about having instinctively experienced this deep attachment from the moment I discovered I was pregnant and witnessing the process again with my husband-to-be, as well as in the moments of greeting with his biological father.

    Children do need this attachement and they need it when they are young. Hospitals and social services should write a prescription for daily tend loving care on their hospital charts and do what is necessary to see that these children receive such care. The same could be said for old people, don’t you think?

    I’m going to ask at the pediatric ward what their policy is.

  6. Eve Avatar

    Oooh, Anthromama. You’re opening a can of worms and we’re going to go fishing! Ha ha!

    I’m not much familiar with Steiner (yet–on my list of things to do), but I am familiar with energy psychology (yes, it’s an entire field now). I wonder if some of these energy psychology gurus didn’t simply steal some of Steiner’s ideas?

    You asked whether a child separated from his mother might be able to share an etheric bond with another mother. I think this is a fantastic question! I read an adoptee’s blog the other day in which she described her first physical meeting with her birth mother and her two half sisters. She commented about how she had shared the same womb with those sisters (a great realization).

    And then she said that upon meeting them, she felt for the first time in her life that she was connected to others. In spite of my disbelief in the primal wound, I believed her. I know too many people who have felt this way–although many were not adopted people, but merely were somehow split off from their mothers.

    I don’t have answers for this stuff, mostly speculation. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time. And, coincidentally, today my daughter with the new baby told me that the hospital pediatrician told her that because of the biological connectedness of breastfeeding mother and newborn infant, the antibodies in her breast milk enhance the antibiotics the baby is receiving for her infection, rather than working against them as would normally be the case biologically. She said that at the moment, the two of them are functioning more like one organism than two. Interesting.

    I do think a child could share an energetic bond with another mother; however, I do not think this is the norm, and I’m not sure what it would take to achieve the bond if one didn’t initially have it. I think often the adoptive or replacement mother does not “feel” like a real mother to the child, just as the child does not “feel” like a real child to the mother. It’s common in adoption, which I find horrible, and eh, there’s no solution other than spiritual and/or energetic work.

    And nobody believes in that these days. ;o)

    By the way, if I wanted to read something of Steiner’s, what would you recommend? I was thinking of buying his second book. Is there something better?

  7. henitsirk Avatar

    Rudolf Steiner talked a lot about the “etheric body,” those forces that give the human body its structure and that could be considered the “life force.” People, animals, and plants have etheric bodies, minerals do not. (Well, not on the physical plane, but that’s getting too esoteric for a little comment box.)

    Steiner also talked about how the baby essentially shares the mother’s etheric body for about the first three years. After that, the child experiences a freeing up, a new level of independence–having more or less conquered the primary challenges of walking, talking, and thinking. Physically, the child is much more “formed,” both in the internal organs and externally less round and fat, and the facial features often become more distinct: manifestation the work of the etheric body. The mother also experiences a freeing up at this time, often felt as a restored level of physical and emotional energy.

    Some people have described this etheric bond as the mother extending a protective cloak around the child. Sounds a lot like your image of the container.

    What I wonder is, if an orphaned child finds a “replacement” Real Mother, will they come to share this etheric bond? And if so, perhaps that is why children whose bonds of containment are broken too often or for too long often seek solace in repetitive or aggressive behaviors: they weren’t given the external etheric containment they needed, and so they cannot properly control or manifest their own etheric forces. Or rather, their etheric body does not come into proper relation with their other bodies.

    Well, that’s probably a bit off topic…unless you’ve been reading up on Steiner 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: