I have written before on the well-tried subject of the importance of a child “being held in a healthy mind”, but in the light of some sustained close observations over the past couple of years I now realise that a critical element of the theory underpinning what I wrote may need substantial revision. What Goldfarb, Spitz, Bowlby and others observed after the Second World War, memorably captured in harrowing films of children separated from their parents, were the tangible reactions to that separation, and the loss of a trusted significant other. With this evidence in mind I tended to stress the significance of a child beginning to learn that even though the parent was at a distance, or sometimes absent, the parent had not forgotten them and would return. When not being held in a mother’s arms, they began to discover that they were always on her mind, in her thoughts and affections. This assumes, of course, that the mother does indeed at times hold the child in her mind, notably of course when the child might is physically present and held in her arms.
What I hadn’t realised sufficiently was the possibility that even when some children are being held in their mother’s arms, or close to her, they may still not be held in a healthy mind. One of the obvious examples of this is the trope of a mother holding a smartphone to her ear and communicating with one or more others while her young child tries in vain to gain her attention. And this is indeed a very pressing contemporary issue. But my observations took me deeper into what might be going on.
I have had the opportunity to observe a mother (who had not experienced secure attachment as a child, and who suffered from chronically poor foster care) relating to her own pre-school age children over a period of years. To ensure anonymity I will not say on which continent she lives. She is intelligent and doing well in her studies and is certainly seeking to make a go of her parenting. But as I reflected on my findings as she interacted with her children, a new awareness began to dawn in my thinking. I made the salutary discovery that for much of the time though she might be within touching distance of her children, she was usually completely unaware of their presence: what they were doing, thinking or feeling. So often when they were enjoying an activity or exploration, this would be totally unobserved or noticed by her.
For example, imagine her children playing in the sea, on a rowing boat, a sailboard; or painting stones; running in and out of the water with evident excitement and joy. If you were there, you would surely respond to their discoveries and play with smiles and encouragement. But in her case there is not a flicker of appreciation or empathy on her face or in her body language. Unless she had initiated an activity with or for them, or was trying to teach them something or draw their attention to something that she wanted them to see, it seems that they did not exist for her. This seems a pretty drastic thing to say, which may be why it has taken me so long to be open to the possibility of this truth. As I realised the depth of the problem strong feelings were aroused in me: I have been churned up with a combined sense of despair, of being negated, even despised on their behalf.
So how to attract her attention and persuade her that they did exist? The only reliable tactic that I observed was for them either to cry out in suffering or pain, or to give her a present of some kind. To speak to her, or even call her name, often provoked no response. It follows that the attention-seeking had to be ratcheted up. Crying and shouting were so common as to be accepted as normal background noise, and this appeared to be filtered out of her hearing or reception. Lacking a response from her in the normal course of events, the children resorted to annoying each other as a way of getting a reaction. There seemed to be no other way of them confirming that they had any place in her mind. And the most common way of getting her (frustrated and annoyed) attention was to accuse a sibling of provoking or attacking them in some way or another.
This is a well-tried method. For example, in William Miller’s autobiography, Gloucester Crescent, he records that the only way the son of his neighbour, the philosopher AJ Ayer could attract his parents’ attention was “by being cruel” (Times Saturday Review, 1st September 2018, page 15).
For some years all those concerned for and seeking to help and support this mother and her family have been worried at her lack of awareness of her children and interaction with them. There is a chronic problem with her smart phone, which always takes precedence over their presence, enjoyment or needs. But this is just part of, or an indication of, the way she is oblivious to her children for much of the time. They appear not to exist in her mind for large slices of time. It is something that is startlingly obvious and saddening to all observers. She continues her life much of the time in the same shared space, but they are completely off her radar screen until a serious explosion occurs. This lack of awareness has obvious implications when those seeking to help and support her in her parenting seek to plan with her the simplest of strategies to improve the skills of her children. To my shock, I realised that she simply hadn’t and didn’t observe what was going on. There was no possibility of a plan because she was blind to the practical and recurrent issues that stared everyone else in the face.
So what did happen when she did interact with her children at the meal table for example? It was always be a matter of short-term solutions, with no hint of helping them develop skills or to help them develop a sense of delayed gratification. Her default mode was to give them the nearest thing to what they are asking for. And to those who are seeking to help her children with consistent role modelling of social skills, there is the unwavering problem that she undermines any such strategy, by giving in to the demands of her children. It follows from what I have described thus far, that her resourceful friends do not exist in her mind any more than her offspring. So, when we interact with her children out of her presence, it is of no significance to her. The interaction might just as well not have happened. And when it happens in her presence interactions with her children go unnoticed. To try to describe progress or a positive experience on behalf of her children falls on deaf ears.
What is more, to talk of progress or strategy seems like a threat to the parallel universe (habitus?) which she has created for herself and in which she lives. For she believes that only she understands her children, and her presence is vital for their well-being, oblivious to the fact that they are consistently happy with others, singly and together. She is bound to be defensive on all fronts because all suggestions are a threat to her own sense of identity and self-worth. In an ideal world she would home-school them all: that is the extent of her delusion. For their own well-being they sorely need to be in situations and contexts where they know security, consistency and predictability.
Routines happen, and she reads stories at bed-time, and tries to teach them all sorts of facts, but at the very heart of things, hard though it is to contemplate or even say, they are simply “unheld in her mind”.
These may seem unduly bleak, but it is the unvarnished truth as I have come to see it. She is figuratively speaking a million miles from her being attuned to her children, and there is no way to help, because for her there is no issue or problem. She continues to take decisions on the spur of the moment unaware of the problems these cause for her children. She is an impulse-buyer. She can always find a justification for any purchase. She might buy lollipops for her children just before a meal for example, and then tell them not to eat them until later. When this happens prolonged unhappiness and crying follow, without her being the least aware of the dilemma she has created completely of her own making.
And all of this goes back to and derives in my view in some measure from her lack of attachment as a young child. Unless some way of helping her with her own internal world is found, it is patently obvious that the same dynamics will be likely to recur in all her children and will in turn be passed on to their children.
How to help? I think, of course of Dan Hughes and his pioneering work in building (rather than re-building) the bonds of attachment. But there do not seem to be the resources for this to go around. This means that we who are engaged with her and her family need to find some form of strategy. The problem is that it does not seem possible to involve her in it: her denial and defences are far too well developed and set. Might it be necessary to create alternative living experiences for each of her children in her absence where over time they can feel what it means to be held in a healthy mind?
I ask this not as some abstract or academic question, but from my heart. Please do feel free to respond. The more practical the advice and links the better. Meanwhile we, and others, are doing our best, but it hurts to feel the marginalisation and pain of her children whenever present as she interacts with them (or not) and as they interact with each other unconsciously projecting their feelings of rejection and worthlessness on to each other. Family support is the preferred mode of response nowadays, rather than say residential or foster care. But how do you provide it, and where are the resources?
Meanwhile I have memories, records and photos of each of the children taken during times spent with the children. I need them to assure me, and perhaps them in future days, of the good times that we enjoyed together, mostly when she was not present (either physically or emotionally). And they were very good times. Could it possibly be that in years to come the children might be able to draw on these and to be reassured that there are those in their world who genuinely share their joy, excitement and delight, as well as anticipate and notice challenges and difficulties? We continue in that hope, while conscious that we are operating around the circumference of a crater where the damage caused by the absence of early attachment and bonding in a mother is currently preventing any significant working together for change.