blog

  • rupture and repair

    Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking and writing a lot about attachment--about the ways in which we learn to be individuals only in the context of relationship. And I've been thinking, too, about what happens when relationship changes dramatically, goes away, or just stumbles--as in the Still Face experiment. What happens to the developing person when their primary attachment figure--the person who cares for them most consistently--fails to mirror them? Is damage done? It can seem that way. Just a few seconds of the nonresponsive mother, and the baby begins to experience distress. The mother's emotional absence is experienced by the baby as a rupture in the relationship.

    And yet, how can this damage ever be avoided? If, as Winnicott suggests, the ordinary devoted mother sometimes feels tired or anxious or irritated, and fails to be perfectly attuned to her baby--if she doesn't mirror her baby's experience--isn't this bad for babies?

    Research suggests that misattuned parents miss their baby's cues about 30% of the time. So as babies try to communicate their needs, their desires, their wish for engagement, one out of every three times, their parents just don't get it. Over and over and over again, these babies are shut out or shut down. And research finds that well-attuned parents miss their baby's cues... about 30% of the time.

    Missing cues is normal. It's part of being in relationship: sometimes we notice bids for attention, sometimes we don't. The significant difference between misattuned and well-attuned parents isn't about the missed cues--it's about what happens next, about what they do next. And that's part of what you can see in the Still Face experiment. The return of warmth, the genuineness of apology, the willingness to hear how it felt to not be seen, the pleasure of being together again are all part of what allows babies--and children, and adults--to get reconnected, and to trust that those they most care for are willing to come back over and over and over, to keep trying even when they've made a mistake. And that trust reinforces the bond.

    Attachment theory is encouraging because it's not about urging us to become more perfect parents or partners--it's much more about making room for us to acknowledge the moments when we've failed and missed seeing the other person, because in that acknowledgement, the relationship grows stronger. 

  • this halloween, dress in costume, but don't mask mental illness

    I read about Kathleen “Katie” Marie Shoener's struggle with bipolar disorder and her death by suicide just after Halloween last year--her favorite holiday, and the holiday close to which her family chose to host the first 5Kate Mental Illness Awareness Walk/Run run in her honor. This year marks the second such event. Funds raised will go to support the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) among others. I was moved by her story, by her devout family's deep love for her, and by the tagline created for the run: "dress in costume, but don't mask mental illness".

    On the walk/run website, her family has these words to share: 

    So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness. People say that “she is bipolar” or “he is schizophrenic.” Over the coming days as you talk about this, please do not use that phrase. People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar – she had an illness called bipolar disorder – Katie herself was a beautiful child of God. The way we talk about people and their illnesses affects the people themselves and how we treat the illness. In the case of mental illness there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further. Our society does not provide the resources that are needed to adequately understand and treat mental illness. In Katie’s case, she had the best medical care available, she always took the cocktail of medicines that she was prescribed and she did her best to be healthy and manage this illness – and yet – that was not enough. Someday a cure will be found, but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from cancer, heart disease or any other illness. Please know that Katie was a sweet, wonderful person that loved life, the people around her – and Jesus Christ.

    The walk/run takes place in Scranton, Pennsylvania--but NAMI is a national organization that offers support groups here in Portland. If you'e so inspired, consider making a donation to them to further their important work.

  • self care

    Someone recently suggested this podcast to me, an episode of The New York Times' Still Processing podcast entitled "We Care for Ourselves and Others in Trump's America". If you follow the link, (I'm hoping) you'll find both the audio and the transcript. It's a moving conversation about the ways in which caring for ourselves is at once a personal and a political act, an individual and a collective act. 

  • the ordinary devoted mother and the good enough mother

    Several weeks ago, I wrote about D.W. Winnicott and his idea that "there is no such thing as a baby." Winnicott began his working life as a pediatrician in England in the 1920s, went on to train as a psychoanalyst, and made a great number of important contributions to our understanding of parent-child relationships.

    Some of his contributions though, like "the ordinary devoted mother" who offers the holding environment that babies need to develop, can seem oppressive at first glance: sexist, demeaning, unobtainable, and more. And to be honest, I'm not yet sure what his own intention was--I'm not a Winnicott scholar. But I do think that the phrase can be used to support us as parents in the present moment.

    "The ordinary devoted mother" is in fact closely linked to Winnicott's lovely idea of "the good enough mother," the mother who in her individuality and in her imperfection does enough of what her baby needs to support its development in all arenas, but not so much that the baby has no room to develop its own capacities at each developmental stage. He is suggesting that in fact our children need ordinary rather than extraordinary parenting--that in the face of extraordinary parenting, there is not enough room for individuation and autonomy-in-relationship.

    Ordinary devoted mothers forget things, drop things, lose things; they feel tired, they feel irritated, they feel sad; they wish they could sleep through the night (when their children are babies, and again when their children are teenagers), they wish they could take a bath (when their children are babies and it's hard to find the time, and again when their children are teenagers and gaining access to the bathroom for that long has become a different kind of challenge), they wish they could walk at their own pace, and more. 

    Ordinary devoted mothers have their own imperfections, their own feelings, their own desires--and still they are present with and to their babies. And that is enough. That is what good-enough mothering looks like: an adult who is at once present to themselves and their own inner world, and to their child and their child's developing personhood. 

  • a poem for the fall equinox

    Living in the Pacific Northwest, it seems as if there are certain poets who are especially cherished, certain poems that are handed on among readers. Mary Oliver is one of those poets, and this poem one of those poems.

    The Journey

    You do not have to be good.

    You do not have to walk on your knees

    for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body

    love what it loves.

    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

    Meanwhile the world goes on.

    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

    are moving across the landscapes,

    over the prairies and the deep trees,

    the mountains and the rivers.

    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

    are heading home again.

    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

    the world offers itself to your imagination,

    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

    over and over announcing your place

    in the family of things.

  • the presence of the caregiver and the still face

    Part of what Winnicott argues--along with others interested in what has come to be called attachment theory--is that babies come into an awareness of themselves only in the presence of another. But that other must be available to them with consistency and with presence. What happens when the other goes away--either physically or psychically--for extended periods of time?

    This is exactly what Ed Tronick set out to discover when he devised what is now known as "The Still Face Experiment" more than 40 years ago. In the initial experiment, he asked mothers to engage their babies in social interaction for three minutes, to turn away for a moment, and then to turn back with an expressionless, nonresponsive face.

    The effect on the babies was profound. Within seconds of encountering the non-responsive mother, babies first registered a kind of wary surprise, glancing uncomfortably at their mothers, then working hard to re-engage them with behaviors that they had developed in concert with their mothers over these first months of life: smiling, cooing, coughing artificially, reaching towards, and more. Then, when their mothers failed to warm to these bids, babies descended rapidly into distress, registering discomfort vocally, expressively on the face, gesturally, and posturally. These visible changes were accompaied by invisible ones, as blood pressures rose, respiration and heartrate altered, and hormone levels shifted.

    The experiment has been used by researchers to explore a wide variety of hypotheses about babies, learning, and relationships, but here, as we're thinking about attachment, relationship, and the development of the person, we can say that a consistent and responsive mirroring presence is so essential to a baby's wellbeing that without it--in the face of absence--the baby begins to come apart physically and psychologically. (If you like to see the experiment, please go here to view a clip that is narrated by Ed Tronick.)

    And the good news? That this effect can be repaired. Check in in a few weeks to see how. 

  • what is a baby?

    One of the best known, and arguably, most important statements by a therapeutic figure about babies is this, from D. W. Winnicott: 

    There is no such thing as a baby... If you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. 

    People sometimes take this statement to mean that babies cannot survive without the nurturance of another person, who commits themselves to the baby's care. And that it is accurate. In babyhood, we are profoundly dependent on another person to ensure our physical security and wellbeing.

    But Winnicott is saying something more than this here. He is suggesting that the very personhood of the baby is dependent on the ongoing relationship between the baby and person who loves her/him. That without that loving attention, the baby cannot become a person in the truest sense of the word. That to develop a self, and a sense of self, a baby must see her/himself reflected in someone's face, someone who mirrors back to the baby what it is that the baby is experiencing--and who in doing so demonstrates that the experience is bearable, that it is meaningful, that there are ways of talking and thinking and feeling about it, that it can therefore be shared, and that it belongs to the baby--that the baby is its own distinct person. Without that mirroring presence, the baby is lost in a morass of sensation that has no proportion and no meaning; without it, the baby cannot make sense of her/himself, or of the world.

    This, Winnicott suggests, is the way in which the develpment of the person unfolds, in the awareness of another who lends their presence to the developing person we call "baby," who helps the baby to be with their own experience by being with the baby, and who in doing so helps the baby to become a person. That person is what Winnicott calls--writing in the 1940s--"the ordinary devoted mother," the subject of a future post. 

  • connection and the circle of security

    I've studied attachment theory with a variety of people, among them the folks at Circle of Security International (COSI). COSI has put together this video about being in relationship with your child--about being biggerstrongerwiser, and kind while offering both a secure base and a safe haven. Those eight bold words are pretty much all you need to know to parent a child--and finding a way to live them takes lots of support and practice. Head on over to their website through the link, or watch it right here:

     

    I'm hoping to pull together a group of parents who are interested in supporting one another in this practice. Email me or call me if you're interested. 

  • what does empathy look like?

    Brene Brown has created this video to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy. You may have seen it already, but if not, give it a look. Offering empathy is a skill we can all develop, and it feels good for everyone involved. 

    Developing empathy can feel hard because we can feel pressed to respond to the distress we see in front of us, pressured to make it go away. I wrote recently about acronyms to remember when we find ourselves in challenging situations. Here's another. In those moments when someone shares their pain with us, we can WAIT. Ask yourself before you say anything: Why Am I Talking? Consider if your words are necessary. Maybe they are. Maybe they're not. Maybe your quiet presence is enough to start. And if you need to say something, maybe you can start with something like: "I'm right here with you." Or "Thank you for telling me." Or "You can say whatever you need to here." 

    Give yourself a break. Your being right there with that person, not sure of what to say, but hearing their heartbreak--that's a wonderful gift to them, a balm for their wounds. 

  • STOP

    Some therapists love acronyms. I'm not generally one of them. But I know that sometimes it can be useful for me and for others to have a tool those moments when we find ourselves overwhlemed, shut down, reactive--challenged to summon whatever it takes to respond appropriately to what is right in front of us. This acronym--STOP--is useful for those situations. Those times when your partner promises to do the dishes and you come home and they're still piled in the sink. Times when you're cut off in traffic. Times when your child looks at you with careful deliberation before slowly pouring their milk onto the table. 

    What's funny to me is that when I was sharing it with a client for the first time, I couldn't remember the last part of it. I started to explain it this way. 

    S is for Stop. Stop to buld in a pause before action. Stop before rolling your eyes at your partner. Stop before shouting at the other driver. Stop before sighing in exasperation wth your child. Give yourself just a moment. 

    T is for Take a Breath. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Then inhale. Notice how deeply you can bring the air into your body: into your nose? Your throat? Your chest? Still deeper, into your belly? Maybe not. That's okay. Just making the effort buys you a little more time before you react. Making the effort reminds you to bring your attention back to yourself, and to your own efforts to be aware of your reaction. And if you're able to draw breath, the breath may begin to calm your bodily response.

    O is for Observe. That's all. Just observe yourself with as much compassion as you can muster. Listen to your body first. Notice the feelings of tension: the sweaty palms, the fluttery heart, the clenched jaw, the tingling belly. Or the feelings of heaviness and of lightness. Whatever it is that is happening in your body, attend to it. Then be curious about the emotion below the sensation. You may notice anger or fear or hurt. Or something else entirely. 

    P is for... and my mind went blank. My client wondered--was "plan" the next step, as in planning one's actions? I didn't think so. That sounded so cognitive. I wasn't sure that a person could there so quickly. Maybe it was "be present"? That felt right to me. I had to go back to this article to be reminded that the next and last step is Proceed.

    P is for Proceed. Just go ahead and do whatever comes next, with the greater awareness that comes from slowing down, calming the body with the breath, and noticing what's happening in the moment. Maybe you'll go ahead and do the same thing. Maybe you'll make a different choice. Either way, the awareness you bring begins to create space between the trigger and your reaction. And you get to choose who you want to be in that moment.