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For a few decades now, as both a mother and a psychoanalyst, I have puzzled over what I consider to be an essential question that all mothers must ask themselves: as mothers, how do we embrace the togetherness, the fusion of selves between mother and child that characterizes his or her first relationship?
From conception, every biological mother’s ultimate challenge is to open her body and mind to this foreign being that has implanted itself within her womb — sometimes unexpectedly and uninvited (60 percent of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended) — and then to embrace this tiny, living being as part of herself.
Next, after a period of time in which the two, under the best of circumstances, have gotten used to each other and enjoyed their synchronized duet of togetherness, the process of birth demands that the mother must allow her body to let go of this biological sameness. She must annihilate the very union that she has so preciously guarded for those previous nine months.
And similarly, as children — infants, toddlers and throughout the phases of psycho-social development — how do we move away from our mother, the person who was initially our very link to life? How do we then create for ourselves a symbolic umbilical cord to fetter us to our own sense of self? How do we perform this terrifying act of separation from our mothers while simultaneously marching toward the unknown of individuality?
I have come to believe that separation is a primary conflict that we experience as we begin our path toward emotional maturity. The way mothers and children answer this core question — how can we negotiate successfully the perilous waters of separation, not just cognitively but emotionally as well? — is crucial to the psychic health of each.
The meaning of the challenge of separation from our mothers is the meaning of the birth of the ego, the coming into existence of an “I,” a self, an identity. The part of the self that is capable of mature love hinges on this mastery. It is only by coming to know separateness, by honoring the differences between a child and a mother while still wishing to reunite, that mature love can be created. If the cut between mother and child is not made cleanly, the individual suffers greatly.
Inadequate separation can result in a variety of difficulties throughout one’s life. Children who do not master separation may falter in developing the independence that is necessary for the creation of an alert, curious intelligence. As young adults, they may have difficulty in loving others; they may find themselves unable to attach meaningfully to another, or they may cling to their beloved as though they were not of two, but of one body, one mind, one soul. Later, as parents, they may find themselves inadequate to the task of nurturing their children; they may fail in taming both their own and their children’s negative feelings.
Although birth is the most obvious demarcation signifier of the separation process, it is not the first step toward this inevitable progression. Long before birth, the fetus — the bourgeoning baby — begins his march toward his own individuality. Through sound, which he hears even through the intra-uterine wall, he becomes dimly aware of an existence apart from his own being.
The intra-uterine environment is a cauldron of sounds. The fetus hears a constant pounding that is the mother’s heartbeat; he hears gurgling that is her digestive sounds; he hears swooshing that is her circulatory system. But more than these sounds of her autonomic functions that are keeping both mother and fetus alive, it is her voice that comes to have special meaning to the developing baby. Research shows the mother’s voice is able to profoundly affect the still-developing fetus. Her soothing voice calms the fetus’ heart rate; her excited voice activates the fetus. Because her voice travels from her throat, down her spine, through her pelvic arch and into the amniotic fluid, it is probable that the fetus experiences its mother’s voice as both sound and as tactile vibration. The vibrations on the fetus’ eardrums and skin are felt as well as heard. When mothers talk, then, they are giving their fetus not just localized auditory stimulation, but a whole body-to-body experience of togetherness.
The placenta is the biological representation, an imprint, of all that will come later: the dependence and connection, and the simultaneous separation. The placenta ties mother and fetus together, the very life of the fetus depending on this nutrient connection. The placenta, too, serves as a biochemical tie between mother and fetus, linking her emotional states to his. The molecules of the mother’s emotions cross the placental barrier and affect the fetus. Each fetus “feels” its mother’s fears and her joys.
But, as well as tying the two together, the placenta also serves, as physician and author Christiane Northrup has described it, as a “living, responsive physical boundary,” separating mother and child for the first nine months of the child’s life.
The mother’s voice surely gives the fetus an early experience of separation. Her voice ebbs and flows; it’s present and absent, and these sounds and non-sounds are all unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is perhaps in the absence of mother’s voice that the fetus first comes to experience unresponsiveness that can lead to the psychological states of post-birth that we call anxiety, fear, frustration and a sense of loss. Perhaps it is in the very stopping and starting of the intrauterine sounds of mother’s voice that painful and frightening separation begins.
After birth, newborns — as young as two hours old — prefer the human voice above all other sounds. They can distinguish and favor their own mother’s voice over any other female voice, and this recognition holds true even if they have spent most of their time in a hospital nursery and have been barely exposed to their mother’s voice ex-utero. A 4-day-old infant can distinguish one language from another: French babies will suck more vigorously when they hear French spoken; similarly, Russian babies are more activated by Russian than by French. The mother’s voice is probably the strongest aspect of continuity between prenatal and postnatal life, a “sonic version of amniotic fluid,” as author Anne Karpf has referred to it. Unlike her visual presence, which is detected through directional looking and can thus be blocked out either by will or accident, the mother’s voice is more like surround sound from acoustical equipment, a 360-degree sound bath for the infant.
Psychoanalyst Kaja Silverman describes the maternal voice as “the acoustic mirror in which the child first hears itself.” The mother’s voice, even without language, helps the infant to feel secure, to establish strong emotional ties, to develop empathy as well as a host of other social skills. Through the mother’s voice, the infant receives information about itself that begins the formation of its own sense of self.
After the first birth wail, infants’ cries will be mostly cries of desperate discharge, signaling discomfort. Newborns haven’t yet learned that crying is their most effective tool, and weapon, for communication. But after six to eight weeks, the infant will become interested in exploring the use of crying as interactive. He will go silent after a bout of crying, waiting to see if there is going to be a response. He will wait for Mother’s appearance, and even before he sees her, his ears will be on alert, listening for her voice. Her voice can reassure the infant of her presence even when he can’t find his mother visually. Mother’s voice seemingly floats in the air, perhaps the most miraculous of all communications from her.
The audiovocal communication between mother and infant cannot be underestimated — not only in terms of the particular relationship that is forged between specific mother and child, but also in terms of its evolutionary significance. Brain researcher and theoretician Paul MacLean has postulated that the separation cry of the infant has served as the driving force in the evolution of the neo-cortex, the part of the brain that is distinctly human, the place from which language derives. We are the smartest species on the planet, in part, because babies don’t like to be separated from their mothers, and they cry to tell us it is so.