Do What I Say, Not What I DidNov 10, 2021
As the song in the movie, “The Sound of Music”, says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” In my previous article in this series, I said that I was going to talk about how to start off on the right foot with a newborn.
*To understand how to avoid the mistakes I and others have made in the first years of their children’s lives, let me tell you my cautionary tale… read more I do it, not to seek your sympathy, but for two important reasons:
- To help new parents see how you can avoid the pitfalls
- To offer hope to those of you who, like me, made many mistakes in bringing into the world and raising your, now grown, children
Unfortunately for my children, before I started my climb to my better self, I was a mother with unresolved trauma, trying to raise two toddlers. I was, like so many, ill-informed about the influence my mental and physical health had on my girls while I was pregnant and after delivery. The first years with my toddlers featured very few moments of true attunement (more about this word later). Instead, those first years were riddled with my rage, anxiety, and fear.
The quality of attunement and connection in the first hours and days after birth may determine the template on which a child will build her or his self-regulation skills. Dr. Scaer says that the infant’s ability, later in life, to “self-regulate” and stay emotionally and psychologically balanced in the face of adversity will be determined by the early bonding relationship between mother and infant. If the mother has not resolved her own trauma, she is less able to pick up on the subtle hints she is getting about her baby’s needs. Instead, the mother is more likely to transfer her tendencies toward neurosis, fear, anxiety, and internal stress to the baby through her behaviors. (119)
Accounts of the positive effects of mother-child bonding can be found throughout Scaer’s book. He points to research by Klaus and Kennel, and their book, Maternal and Infant Bonding: The Impact of Early Separation or Loss on Family Development. (1976) Klaus and Kennel observe that, if the mother herself was not well taken care of at birth, she will not possess the vital intuitive skills necessary to bond with her infant in a soothing and supportive manner after the child’s birth. (116)
Furthermore, Dr. Scaer introduces the founder of attachment theory, John Bowlby (1976), who, through his research, has concluded that the infant exhibits inborn behaviors designed to encourage the appropriate care from the mother. Again, if the mother is not able to “see” these behaviors, much less respond to them, the baby’s chance at a balanced start is greatly undermined.
“Attunement” is the crucial word here. If you are a young mother, and even if you, like me, are well past the early years of your children’s development, you need to understand what that word means and how it underpins all your interactions with other people, especially little children.
According to R. G. Erksine, in his article written for the International Journal of Psychotherapy, “Attunement is a kinesthetic and emotional sensing of others and knowing their rhythm, affect and experience by metaphorically being in their skin, and going beyond empathy to create a two-person experience of unbroken feeling connectedness by providing a reciprocal affect and / or resonating response.”
What I like most about this definition of “attunement” (and there are many definitions) is the notion of “going beyond empathy” to a situation in which both parties experience connectedness. It reminds me of a word used in music that is linguistically tied to “attunement” – the idea of tuning an instrument. When the piano key is at the same vibrational level as the tuning fork, they are said to be (at)tuned to each other.
Dr. Scaer includes in his writing material from Allan Schore’s book, Affect Development and the Origin of Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. He points to the “behavioral structure” developed through “bonded pairing” between infant and mother, the child being the piano key taking its cue from the maternal tuning fork. We are reminded that, in this behavioral structure, the pressure is on the mother.
Scaer points to Dr. Allan Schore’s model (1994), which says that we are born with a “plastic and malleable unfinished genetic template on which life experience will build a behavioral structure.” In other words, the paint used to draw our blueprint for life is not dry. The canvas can easily be altered with parenting that is anything less than “perfect”. The most important ingredient in a mother-infant relationship to establish a balanced and strong template is the calm and supportive “face-to-face and eye-to-eye connection of the mother and infant.” (119)
My own children experienced eye-to-eye contact alright; their eyes were met with my intense stare of panic and agonizing fear that they were going to die, just like their older sister had a couple of years earlier. I have since then spent many sleepless nights pondering what destructive brush strokes I had applied to their canvasses. Dr. Scaer shows us how we mothers have the power to ruin our children’s chances for a good start with our looks alone.
Then we have to ask: What is a perfect template? How is it created? According to Dr. Bruce Lipton in his book, The Biology of Belief, Dr. Schore’s version of the “plastic and malleable unfinished genetic template” is being created in the uterus. He says that,
Information acquired from the parents’ perception of their environment transits the placenta and primes the prenate’s physiology, preparing it to more effectively deal with future exigencies that will be encountered after birth. (176)
In other words, the mother transfers her perception of the world (not necessarily the world as it is) through the placenta to her child. If the mother has unresolved trauma and intense fear of life, the child will be equipped with the same kind of tools her mother has been using to navigate her kind of world. After birth, the children will be epigenetically triggered to live life in the heaven or hell where her mother has been living.
I still have to hold on to myself when I imagine the blueprint my two girls, born after the child I lost, received as they developed in my uterus and that then was embellished by the first five to 10 years of their life while I was healing.
Because, you see, I didn’t heal before I had more children. I was healing as I had my children. This meant that my children spent the beginning of their life shaken by the same earthquake on which I lived. Still, I hang onto the belief in repair and awakening (and the hope that comes with that belief) on which Dr. Schore’s theory stands – that the malleable, unfinished genetic template stays malleable for a long time!
My personal emotional scars were so old and deep that Kristina’s death only revealed the tip of the iceberg. Consequently, I have always been motivated to become a better (less damaging) mom by melting down the entire structure for living I had built for myself over the years. I have had to start all over by integrating into my style of living an understanding of how the body-mind-spirit works in an integrated manner.
References for This Four-Part Blog Series
Erksine, R. G. “Attunement and involvement: therapeutic responses to relational needs”. International Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 3, No. 3. (1998). Available online at: https://counselling-vancouver.com/attunement/
Kornfield, Jack. A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. New York: Bantam Books. 1993. Print.
Lipton, Bruce H. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles. Santa Rosa: Mountain of Love, 2005. Print.
Oakley, Doug. An article published in the Daily Review, February 22, 2010. Hayward, CA. First page. (Note: Daily Review is no longer published, as of November 1, 2011.)
Scaer, Robert. Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005. Print.
Siegel, Daniel. Mindsight. New York: Bantam Books, 2010. Print.
Siegel, Daniel. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: The Guilford Press, 1999. Print.
Siegel, Daniel. The Neurobiology of “WE”. Sounds True, 2008. Audio Series.
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