Puck & Pearl
Upon becoming a mother, and experiencing firsthand the birth, psychological awakening, and unfolding cognitive development of a baby, my very own son, I noticed concepts from the field of psychoanalytic and developmental psychology resurfacing from the recesses of my brain from grad school years. Some concepts which I had only internalized intellectually were now taking on new meaning, and others seemed downright ludicrous. (For those interested, her are some concepts that came to mind: Melanie Klein’s The Good and Bad Breast, and her notion of object relations and primary envy containment, Mahler’s separation/individuation, Bowlby and others’ attachment theory, Winnicot’s holding environment, the concept of annihilation anxiety, Freud’s instinct theory.)
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Baby A was born right after the most painful moments of my life. I was courageous, “a hero” everyone said, for wanting to face childbirth without the epidural (Never again). Contractions were so painful that I lost God in those moments- What kind of a God would allow this natural process to be SO painful, I concluded.
And then A emerged, with clenched hands, crying his way into his first medical exam (the AGPAR), passing with flying colors and hardy lungs. And then the nurses put him on my still bare chest, and he quieted down. His fresh skin against mine, I inspected him with my eyes and fingers. And then came his first sneeze. The light of the new world tickled his nose , and he let out a huge “Appchooooo”, followed by a scream, the second cry to emerge from his tiny Betty Boop lips. You’d have thought that someone had just tried to pummel him, the way he was screaming….
Well, as you can well imagine, he cried so many times since, and just like that first sneeze, for the most benign and mundane life events. DRAMA QUEEN, we would eventually call him. In the first few weeks, every time my husband and I went to change him, you’d have thought we were beating him mercilessly in the nursery. In similar histrionic fashion, during a feeding, he would suddenly yelp uncontrollably thinking that the nipple had disappeared, when in reality it was still in his mouth- he had let go of it mistakenly and hadn’t realized it was now back. Or, sometimes, he would cry, again like a banshee, because his own hands would flail uncontrollably in front of his face, startling the living daylights out of him. The way he would scream in all of these instances, I would think to myself, “wow, if I’m to judge what’s going on based on his reactions, I would think myself an abuser”. Fortunately, I know better.
So what does this have to do with psychology? Well, there are many theories that explore the psychology behind early infant and mother relationships….really VERY many diverse points of view as to the child’s psychology/internal experience from birth to early infancy.
One concept that suddenly resonated with me was Freud’s notion of primary or automatic anxiety, now currently referred to in the literature as annihilation anxiety. From Freud’s perspective the child is born with a bundle of instincts that serve to protect him from annihilation. The baby will have a STRONG/FERVENT reaction to hunger, thirst, etc. because in his case he must get his needs met by a caregiver, otherwise he will be annihilated. This makes so much sense in light of the examples above of my son A, lovingly referred to as the drama queen. Really there is no exaggeration at all from this perspective…each event is a life or death situation from his vantage point, an evolutionary imperative, hence the histrionics.
However, you might think to yourself: “wait a minute, the baby perceives annihilation in moments devoid of threat–what’s so dangerous about a sneeze? or your parents changing your wet diaper? ” Well, it seemed that at first EVERY challenge was a life or death situation for A. Perhaps, this is an innate biological mechanism that promotes life- the intensity of his reaction would ensure that we would attend to him, and therefore assure his survival, whether he was under threat or not.
This perceived threat of annihilation is something the infant continues to struggle with and try to manage. Fairy tales and children’s stories often tap into this conflict as they allow the child to come to terms with this fear of being annihilated (Humpty Dumpty) to the point of disintegration, devoured (Little Red Riding Hood), or having their whole world/home collapse around them (Three Little Pigs).
SELF VS OTHER
Beyond A’s sense of possible annihilation at any instance, what struck me more than anything was A’s inability to differentiate himself from the world around him- some would say in this instance, Self and Other were fused, but I prefer to say Self and World were fused. He would react to his hands as though they were the tentacles of an octopus reaching out to maul him. The sneeze was some external event that befell him. And similarly, he had no awareness of his own autonomy in pushing the nipple out of his mouth. As he matured he would gradually come to realize his own contribution to events. For instance, he would soon discover his hands! Then he would learn to control them; Then he would notice his fingers, and with some dexterity learn to manipulate objects.
Margaret Mahler wrote about the phenomenon of separation/individuation. The baby (after the initial “autistic” few weeks), experiences himself as merged with mom. In fact, that is true when the baby is in the womb. However, I would disagree with Mahler and assert that rather than feeling fused with mother, the baby is fused with the world. Everything is outside of him, everything is happening to him, and he has no sense of where he begins or ends. Slowly, he will begin to discover himself as separate. He will also begin to distinguish different aspects of the world, for instance that mother and father are two separate people. That the music or sounds in the background are separate from the people there.
I could go on and on and explore what other theorists have said about the psychology of early infancy. I feel I can’t even touch this subject without mentioning Melanie Klein, who also made critical observations about the infant’s psyche some of which ring true (paranoid/schizoid and depressive positions), and others which seem a bit forced to me (primary envy and the good and bad breast). Perhaps I’ll write about these in a more academic forum.
WHY IS ANY OF THIS RELEVANT?
Why Am I thinking about all of this in the first place? Well, in observing this gradual unfolding of my baby’s psyche, it occurs to me that we adults continue to struggle with the very same issues, but in a more sophisticated manner. For instance, in many ways, people come into therapy flailing their arms in their own faces while asserting “look what he has done to me; look how terrible the world is treating me”. Their therapy process then becomes a gradual exploration into their own contribution into the “bad things that have happened to me” and how they might change their own fates, and discover their own hands. They also begin to distinguish between real threats and imagined threats, just as my A is learning. Some patients even come in with a sense of annihilation anxiety, an incessant panicked feeling that their “house will blow down” or that they will be ruined, and that all the king’s men and king’s horses would not be able to put them back together again. Watching A navigate some of these challenges (annihilation anxiety, Self vs Other, imagined vs real threats) will inform my work with my patients as well, and continue to teach me about the magical ways of the human psyche and ways to heal it.