In the last two blogs we thought about emotional milestone 1: ‘developing an inner coherence’ and emotional milestone 2: ‘managing the absence of mummy’. In this blog I am going to think about the third emotional milestone:
- Sharing mummy with daddy, siblings and other people
So where are we in the life of our baby, he is now about 6 months, weaning has begun, and solid food is being introduced. As we noticed in my previous blog this is a tough time for a baby, who must begin to accept that the lovely feeding relationship with mummy is getting less and less and will be coming to an end. About this time the baby begins to become aware that not only is he losing this lovely feeding relationship, but that his mummy might also spend time and energy being with and maybe even feeding other people, for most families, his daddy and if he has them siblings. This is going to mean that for the first time in his life he may feel that he is on the outside and must begin to manage the feelings which are stirred up by being left out. He may also notice that his mummy has a different relationship with his daddy. She does many of the things that she does with him, and he so enjoys, she smiles at daddy, laughs with daddy, plays with daddy, kisses and hugs daddy. She also does things with daddy that are different. Her and daddy talk together, sometimes about him, she also sleeps in the same bed as daddy, when he must sleep in his own room, on his own. In psychoanalytic psychotherapy we call this milestone the Oedipal period and just like with other milestones the feelings it stirs up must be confronted and worked through, rather than avoided.
If there are other siblings, he must also share mummy with them.
Recently I saw a baby, about 6 months old, lying under a baby gym. Let’s call him Micah. He could hear his mum and older sister talking and laughing together. He grabbed hold of the toys on the baby gym and tried to pull himself up with them, looking back over his shoulder towards the sound of his mother and sister, He started to grunt, initially softly and then more loudly. He looked at my feet, before repeating this sequence several times. I had a very powerful feeling that this baby had clearly got the idea that feet would allow him to get to his mother and this would be a much more preferable solution than having to bear feeling lonely and on the outside of his mother’s relationship with his older sister.
In this sequence, Micah is feeling frustrated and determined but there may be times when you see your baby looking down and miserable. This may feel difficult to see and bear. It can also be difficult if your baby feels angry and turns away from you. He may prefer his dad, or grandparents for a while. While this is painful, he is showing you how he feels and you can talk to him about this.
But I hear you thinking surely it would be preferable to never allow my baby to feel left out. It would save him (and me) a lot of heartache. These feelings are too painful for such a tiny baby. Well think about it, are you prepared to sleep next to him every night, never kiss or interact with your husband when your baby is around or indeed your other children. This would be unhelpful for you and your baby. You need another life, the love and care of your partner and vice versa and to ignore your other children would be neglectful.
It is also unhelpful for your baby. The problems that arise if your baby avoids coming to terms with this milestone are many, including getting in the way of the babies continued healthy emotional development. Freud said that every baby must fall in love with his mother, and think her perfect, but he also needs to be disillusioned by her. A baby must come to love his mother not because she provides him with everything all the time, but because she is ordinary, and cares for him in an ordinary and good way. He must also notice when he is being greedy as opposed to when he needs her. If a mother always tries to do what her baby wants, she may never disillusion her baby, but he will not learn the difference between his need and his greed. He needs to know when he really needs his mummy she will come. It also begins to allow your baby to see the world from someone else’s point of view, yours, his fathers, his siblings. He will begin to notice that others might need you for a time, or you might need help from daddy. It allows him to understand that he is not the only person in the world who needs time and support. This enables the development of empathy and a concern for others, which as time goes on allows him to be able to take care of others. If your baby always has been the centre of attention – the one who must have all the eyes upon him, he will struggle with friendships. We all know people who struggle to give time and space to others and how difficult it is to enjoy their company. It will make adolescence very difficult because the young person cannot move from having a ‘best friend’ who is just for them to becoming part of a group, so essential to helping adolescents begin negotiating their way out of the family.
Another good reason was noticed by Britton (1989), a psychoanalytic writer. He believes that if we can bear to be on the outside, looking in, rather than always being the one who is directly involved, we can develop insight. Insight is one of those things which is an essential part of good mental health. It allows us to think about ourselves and our feelings, make sense of who we are and why we think and behave in certain ways.
I believe it also impacts on a baby’s ability to begin to face the reality of the world. This reality is the basis for good mental health and goes something like this, ‘The world is made up of people who can be relied on most of the time to meet my needs. I would like them to be there to meet every need I have, maybe even to be in my control, but I know sometimes that is not possible, sometimes they have needs of their own, and sometimes other people might need them. Sometimes they might want to spend time with other people, my dad, their friends. Sometimes I might have to meet my own needs and sometimes, if I can’t wait, I might have to find someone else to help me, a teacher, my nursery worker, my grandma. Despite this I know they still love me, and I still love them’.
Finally, this deprivation can also be a spur to development. Think again about Micah, how might being on the outside help him. He is working hard to manage his feelings of frustration and doing it very well. I always say that emotional muscles are like physical muscles, we must exercise them to make them strong. Secondly, when his legs become strong enough, he will want to use them. In fact, Micah did not crawl. He went straight from sitting to walking at 10 months old. What a testament to his family. Micah also must be aware that he wants the company of his mother. He cannot kid himself that he is in control of her. However, I have no doubt that if Micah could not bear his frustration any longer and starts to cry it would not be long before his mum came to find out what was wrong.
The role of fathers
This can be a lovely time for fathers, especially if baby has been breastfed. It means fathers can suddenly be much more involved in his baby’s life. If the father has managed to be a helpful presence up to now, not too intrusive but supportive to the mother and intervening when she is struggling, the father’s relationship with the baby will already be established. Fathers often represent for babies the pull of the world away from mummy, the world of independence, danger, exciting newness and adventure. While the mother represents the safeness of the ‘known’.
Around this time, baby’s relationship with his father may change. He might go one of two ways, father is seen as the enemy, the person who interferes with the baby’s right to be king of his mother’s world. On the other, the baby might turn away from his mother, who will not give him what he wants, believing his father can give him this longed-for central position, meeting all his needs. Most babies will land somewhere in-between these two states or will move between them, while at other times they can take their place as the baby who can relate to and enjoy both parents.
What can a parent, or indeed parents do to help their baby to negotiate this time?
- Don’t try and avoid the feelings your baby is struggling with. At times your baby will feel, furious, at times disillusioned and lonely. At this time the world may look like a very bleak place for them, as they try and come to terms with the end of their belief that this wonderful oneness with mummy would just go on and on. Despite being difficult to see this is ordinary.
- Remember there will be many new and amazing things which this new phase in the baby’s life will bring. Your baby can’t know this, but you can. For a start there is not just a closeness with mummy to enjoy but an increasing closeness with daddy and siblings.
- Be firm with your baby, but don’t reject him or be punitive. He is going to need you to be understanding. It is hard to lose the place he believed he had. On the other hand, don’t give in to his tyranny. Most babies are not going to have the strength to give up something that feels so special. He needs you to help him.
- Mums need to continue to spend lots of time with their baby, find new things that they really enjoy, while continuing with some of the old, like allowing them to curl up on your lap. Your baby needs to know that although they can’t have all of you, you still want to be with them.
- Dads need to also spend lots of time with baby, doing new stuff, playing and caring for baby.
- If you struggle as a parent with your own feelings of being left out or find it unbearable not to always be the best, you might struggle to allow your baby to give up this belief about himself. Freud came up with a very helpful idea in which he noticed that some parents live their lives through their children. He said that if parents, in their childhood resented not being the number one person all the time they might not be able to frustrate or disillusion their baby. This is not helpful for your baby, who might quickly feel that it can just take whatever he wants long after the time when he really needs it. It is also unhelpful for you as a parent and a person.
- While the known is important, it is also important for mum’s not to pull baby back to her. If you are doing this, ask yourself why? Is it because you are struggling to allow your baby to move away? Maybe you believe newness is frightening and the world outside your care is dangerous for your baby? While your baby still needs your protection, he also needs to have a belief that the world outside has opportunities for him.
Where to get help
If you are concerned about your relationship with your baby or your baby’s emotional development do get help as soon as possible. Sorting things out at this stage of your baby’s development might only take a few sessions. Many professionals, even mental health professionals do not have training which includes working with infants and mothers. A safe bet would be to get help from someone who is registered with the Association of Child Psychotherapy (ACP) or who has trained with OxPIP. Both these trainings spend many years observing and studying babies and how their emotional world develops. They also spend time understanding about parenting and how to help parents make changes which can help their baby grow and develop.
Philippa Boulter Consultant Child, Adolescent and Family Psychotherapist