Early one morning when my son Reed was around two years old and my daughter Violet around three, I shuffled downstairs to brew my first pot of tea of the day and discovered these two involved in some skullduggery.
Completely naked except for their favorite blankies, thrown cavalierly over their shoulders, they were trying to feed a desert box turtle some vanilla ice cream. After rescuing the turtle, I scolded the children, admonishing that they should ask before getting into the ice cream, and explaining that turtles don’t eat ice cream.
A few days later, as I headed toward the kitchen with an armful of laundry, I was surprised to hear Reed talking to himself. “Can Reed wanna hab some ice cream?”
“Yeah, Reed can wanna hab some ice cream.”
And then, in the most Rain Man-esque way, “Yeah.”
I peered around the laundry basket to see Reed sitting on the floor, a half-gallon of Vanilla Bean ice cream in front of him, shoveling spoonfuls into his mouth.
“Reed! Mommy said you should ask before getting into the ice cream!”
Brow wrinkled with disbelief that his mom could be so dense, my toddler explained, “I ask my self and my self said yeah.”
I’ve been writing about mothers as containers of the psychological and emotional lives of their infants and toddlers, a building block of attachment that must be established by 48 months of age if a child is to grow up normally. In my work with wounded children in the past, and indeed with my own adopted and foster children, I’ve learned that for every year of motherly containment that a child misses, good and real parents will spend two to three years healing that child’s broken heart and re-training it to love, if they can heal and re-train it at all.
My experience with Reed illustrates the normal development of language and cognitive capacity. By the time a child is two to three years old, he has internalized his mother so that the container is now contained. He is able to use words to indicate his thoughts, feelings, wishes, and intentions in a way that makes sense to others. He can look out for himself emotionally in a childlike way. He is already a little philosopher and a logician; he can explain how he asked himself for, and gave himself, permission to eat the Vanilla Bean ice cream.
The reason why the normal child is ready for kindergarten by age five is that he has had the experience of being mothered during the previous four years. He knows he is a person, and he knows his mother is a different person. He can talk about ideas as well as emotions, because this is what has been mirrored by his mother and father.
Children who have not been contained by their mothers are unbalanced. They don’t have a swinging door to regulate emotion and thought, so their doors are either wide open or closed tightly. There is no middle ground and no negotiation with the unattached, uncontained child. He withdraws from the world and uses words only for things, for objects–not for the thoughts and emotions he has, or for experiences or relationships. He cannot tell stories about himself or others. He doesn’t know his own story. He doesn’t know his own experience, for he has never had a container or a mirror. This child’s door is closed tightly, and he peers out (if he looks out at all) through a tight little peep hole that distorts his view of the people standing on the other side.
Or perhaps the child’s door is wide open and he has little or no focus, direction, or meaning in his behavior. He also lacks discrimination. Like a woman without an animus to give her the ability to judge and discriminate, he is missing an essential part to his self.
Being a container and a mirror to one’s own infant is different from being so to another mother’s baby. We know this. What differences there are between the infant whose containment from gestation to birth to age five was continuous, and the one whose containment was faulty in the womb, or whose spirit was poured away from his mother-container through abandonment or separation, would take volumes to describe. The differences are as many as there are stories of waifs and foundlings who struggle to attach themselves to anyone.
Last night, my son and I watched the final episode and movie of Firefly, a quirky and beautiful science fiction series we’ve grown to love. In the last scenes, the Captain of the star ship Serenity explains to one of his crew, “It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. Y’know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.”
“I do,” she replies, “but I like to hear you say it.”
“Love,” says Captain Malcom. “For all the math in the ‘verse, you take a boat in the air and you don’t love, she’ll shake you up sure as a turn in the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, . . . makes her a home.”
The two sit companionably in silence.
“Storm’s getting worse,” she says.
He smiles. “We’ll pass through it soon enough.”
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