During my career, I have talked to many women who were left depressed, anxious and frightened by their birth experiences. Their memories were not of the experience they had expected or wanted, but of a situation in which they had control and sometimes their voices taken from them.
She loves me, she loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not. What’s it like to not know, not be certain of love, when it’s your parent? There’s the profound joy when you’re received and held, and then the plunge – ignored, sent away, yelled at. You just never know which one it will be. David Wallin describes it as “parents relatively responsive in one encounter, intrusive or unavailable in the next.” For a little one there are no clues how to respond to this. Whatever he or she tries could meet with any of these responses. There is no pattern.
Some of us don’t feel much, you know. There are various reasons for this and some of these reasons occur later in life. If it has always been like that, though, it probably happened very early when the little one found that feelings were too painful and learned to avoid them. This is done by suppression. The feelings get put away in a safe dark place that is often known as the unconscious.
Parenting, like almost every other facet of our lives, has always been subject to the prevailing fashion of the day. It has been influenced by what we have believed about the development of small children and how that should be managed. In the 1950s, Behaviourist John Watson wrote:
“Mother love is a dangerous instrument. Never hug & kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight.”
I used to notice, when I was a midwife, the differences in the way little new beings were present in the world and in how that changed in the following days, weeks, months. Sometimes the little one would be as if still asleep at first, like a tiny quiet dormouse, not really here yet. A few days later, someone had arrived, eyes open and full of depth and curiosity.
Other babes roar into existence outside their mums. I recall a new person shouting at me when only her head was born and we were still waiting for the wee body to come forth. I used to wonder about these differences.
David Wallin writes”…the need for comfort and connection in the face of threat or pain is built in by evolutionary design. It cannot be extinguished but only defended against.”
And why would it need to be defended against? It happens when, in the very beginning of life outside the womb, the need for comfort and connection has not been met. And this is so very painful to the little one that he or she has to bury the pain, and to find other ways to defend against it, against even knowing about this terrible, this deeply debilitating loss. The ways of being in the world that arise out of these circumstances are described by the kinds of attachment styles that are less than optimal.
“Mama loved her baby Ben, her small and precious child, but he always disobeyed her, he was reckless, loud and wild.” This was a favourite book in our house and now it’s being read to another small and precious child – one who is, at times, reckless, loud and wild. And at other times is thoughtful, gentle and considerate. Who is he becoming?
David Wallin writes: “It is in the crucible of the child’s first relationships that, for better or worse, the self is originally shaped.” He is writing about attachment and how the bones of who and how we are in the world are formed.
"Psychotherapists are applied neuroscientists who create individually tailored enriched learning environments designed to enhance brain functioning and mental health." (Louis Cozolino)
I put this great quote on the front page of my website because this extravagant way of describing my work made me smile. In retrospect, I guess people sometimes wonder what it really means
Lots of folk come to therapy for the first time, of course, & don’t know what to expect. Some of those will inevitably ask me: So what’s the management plan? How is this going to work? And there always is a plan, of course, but not a one size fits all.
“Therapeutic jurisprudence says that the processes used by courts, judicial officers, lawyers and other justice system personnel can impede, promote or be neutral in relation to outcomes connected with participant wellbeing such as respect for the justice system and the law, offender rehabilitation and addressing issues underlying legal disputes. Developed by Professors David Wexler and Bruce Winick in the United States in the 1980s in the context of mental health law, it is now seen to apply to all areas of the law and across cultures and is the subject of international study and development.”
You know those moments when regret sneaks up on you? Something that happened long ago and you would rather not remember it. Inflated with time and reeking of shame it circles you for a while. You think you’re on your guard but suddenly you’re on the floor. Got you again.
In the Oxford dictionary transition is described as “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.” This can be a hiatus, a pause, a waiting and resting time, or it can be a very intense time when there is a realignment or a turning.
If you're thinking about doing some psychotherapy, you can go about it in several ways. Group therapy is one option you might want to consider.
There are many kinds of families but in this blog I am addressing fathers and one or two things that may be important to them. I’m writing about this because I have noticed that sometimes fathers are confused about their role in a new family.
Recently I have been involved in a discussion about difficult choices.
Then, in a great book I am reading by Henning Mankell called 'Quicksand: What it means to be a human being', I read this:
Quite often, people come to psychotherapy and say: Oh, I don’t want to talk about my childhood and my parents and all that. I know you therapists like to talk about that but I don’t think it’s relevant. I had wonderful parents and a very happy childhood.
The thing is, they’ve been working on this for months. They’ve collected enough tiny clothes for quintuplets and they have a total of 15 rattles in various guises, along with a variety of things that beep, squeak and have flashing lights. The room has been redecorated according to the expected gender, and there are shelves of toys and walls splattered with decals. There is a row of tiny but very cute shoes although the owner won’t be walking for about a year. But who can resist little leather shoes that look like they belong to an elf?
Although the song claims otherwise, having a baby is very often NOT a lovely way of saying how much you love someone. Quite often it is an accident, or an act of loneliness – the desire to be a family because that might make everything all right. It’s a push, a biological one, a cultural one, a family one. Lots of reasons which are usually complex and, for many, not really thought about.
Slow down. Calm down. Don’t worry. Don’t hurry. Trust the process. (Alexandra Stoddard)
You may or may not have noticed that worrying about things does not change the outcome. What it does do is increase your heart rate and your anxiety level (with all sorts of physical sequelae), and close down small chinks of light that may remain, as well as clouding your ability to think clearly.
OK. So here is another story. This one is called Seven Ravens. It is about not knowing what you know.
Once upon a time (well, where did you expect to begin?), many aeons before you were a glint in your father’s eye and a seed in your mother’s belly, a man and a woman lived and loved together and produced seven sons. They knew the worth of this gift, of course. Who would not? But nonetheless they longed for a daughter. Why do we always want what we do not have? Why do we not sit with joy and gratitude for the gifts we already possess?
There are many versions of this story and this one is about how women may use each other for good or ill.
A young woman had lost her mother early in life and so was raised by her father deep in the forest (as he was a hunter by trade). There came a time when she thought she would go out into the world and see how she got on. She was a pretty young woman and likeable, being friendly and not possessed of jealousy or guile.
I find I am not writing to you as often. I apologise. A blog is a difficult thing because mostly there is no response. I guess that means I am not striking a chord for you. I don’t really know who you are. Again I feel that perhaps I should…and I apologise.
If you’re not an old Trekkie (yes, I confess) that phrase will mean nothing to you. It was the command that made things happen on the Starship Enterprise and sometimes it runs through my head when I am trying to control my future. Generally I have found that, unlike the starship, my future does not swing round into the direction I have planned for it to go in. It seems there is a different plan and I am not in charge of it…or am I?
So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun
The time of reckoning is upon us again. There have been quite a few of these for me now. I look back over the last year and wonder how it went by so quickly, and then I think about what I achieved. Quite a lot really. But I don’t go there for long. I whip over into what I did not achieve and then I berate myself and begin to burden myself with promises about what I will do in the coming year. Generally I’ll hit the ground running, with those urgent goals ahead of me, like the flashing ads on google pages: the ones about 10 easy tips to a flat belly.
You’ll think I’m a bit crazy going on about this perhaps. But I saw another one today and they always make me want to give chase and give them a good dressing down. I drive around a big city and in this big city, flitting in and out of all the cars, which in turn flit in and out of the lanes, are the cyclists. Lots of them are sensible but there are lots too like the one I saw this morning, who risk their minds, or at least a large and important part of their minds.
I was out shopping recently when I witnessed two very different scenarios:
In the first, a little girl was out with her family. She was about 4, I’d say. Other siblings and her mother were exploring a shop and she was bored. So she had taken hold of the baby buggy and she was idly pushing it back and forth. Not very far. Not doing any harm. Then I noticed a man I hadn’t realised was connected to the family. He called something to the mother and indicated the little girl. The mother rushed from the shop, grabbed the little girl’s arm and yanked her away from the baby buggy. Then she snarled something into the child’s ear and stalked off back into the shop. That little girl didn’t even cry, just turned away and scuffed the floor with her shoe.
Maybe you know the story of Stone Soup. I think it comes from Eastern Europe because there is a dark and ice laden forest in it. The snow is thigh deep and it hurts to breathe. A light sleet has started to whirl through the trees and thick dark clouds are moving across the face of the moon. The man who moves through this landscape knows that he will not see the frozen morning if he does not find shelter.
“Listen – are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
Mary Oliver (from Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?)
This is a serious and pervasive problem – this lack of breath, this lack of a life. How many of you sometimes notice that there is not enough air in your lungs; that thoughts race through your mind about what happened today, yesterday, before that; that your concern is with the future (a future that may never come, not as you imagine and worry about it)?
“Sometimes in the darkness of my own shadow I know that I could not see at all were it not for this old injury of love andgrief, this little flickering lamp that I watched beside for allthese years”. (Wendell Berry)
My conscious journey began with the knowledge that I had not learned how to mother in my family of origin. Yet here I was with two extraordinary beings in my care. I felt I had been entrusted with a sacred task about which I knew little and which I had been performing already for some years without giving it much thought beyond the day to day of getting everyone fed and rested and cleaned and all the rest of those consuming early life tasks. Everything else has sprung from that realisation because once I knew that, I had to try and do something about it. And from this came a consuming interest in families and what makes us tick.
I am in an abandoned village and suddenly I round a corner and find a large beautiful brick building with designs on the outside. I am delighted and amazed at this unexpected find.
1 in 3 to 1 in 5 of you will know what depression is (the figures vary) because you live with it, or you have experienced it and found a way through and out the other side. If you have never been depressed then, trust me, you cannot know what it is like. And no, the sufferer cannot just snap out of it.
Someone spoke to me recently of the ‘dark’ emotions: anger, envy, hatred, jealousy. These are the feelings we don’t think we should feel and so we have learned to try and suppress them. We often do not recognise them, let alone dare to name them to ourselves. The one I notice most people avoiding is anger, maybe because they associate the feeling with violence. But anger is just a feeling. And feelings never hurt anyone. Whereas what we do as a response to our feelings may indeed be hurtful or damaging. And not necessarily to others, but to ourselves.
A wise woman once told me that I could have the freedom of responsibility. It took me a while to get my head around that phrase. I didn’t like the sound of it. More stuff for me to do? In what seemed an already overly responsible life? I could not relate the two terms for a while. Freedom and responsibility…how do they go together? But eventually I realised that she was talking about magic: the magic that I secretly relied on, in my deep self, where my knots of anxiety reside. The secret something that would intervene when all else failed. The benign energy that would say: OK, she’s had enough. Give her a break now.