ANGELS IN THE NURSERY:
THE TRANSMISSION OF NURTURING EXPERIENCES IN EARLY DEVELOPMENT
The pivotal role of human relationships in shaping the sense of self, beginning at birth with the mother – child bond, has been extensively elaborated. The importance of caregiver emotional availability and empathic responsiveness in helping the infant and young child to regulate affect and organize internal experience is a recurrent theme in these investigations, and efforts to describe the speciﬁcs of these processes have yielded terms that have become the coins of the realm in describing different facets of these early interpersonal-affective experiences such as “mirroring” (Winnicott, 1971), “attunement” (Stern, 1985), “containment” (Bion, 1962), “security” (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978), “felt security” (Sroufe & Waters, 1977), “refueling” (Mahler & McDevitt, 1982), “secure base” (Ainsworth et al., 1978), and “mental- ization” (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2002), among many others. All these terms share the virtue of evoking in the reader an intuitive sense of their meaning, despite their highly technical deﬁnitions. In this sense, they do justice to the visceral quality of the processes they describe. Moments of particular connectedness, characterized by mirroring and intense shared affect, are not merely growth-promoting but become an integral part of the child’s identity. Kohut (1971) used the term “transmuting internalization” to describe the process by which interpersonal experiences become incorporated into self-experiences.
Phenomenologically, speciﬁc instances of these exchanges may be remembered as moments of heightened intimacy between parent and child, when the child felt (almost) perfectly understood, accepted, and/or protected. This allows for moments during which the interaction may unfold as if in an effortless dance where each partner unselfconsciously anticipates and responds to the moves of the other. Sometimes these experiences do not occur with the parent but with another adult who is seen as providing the kind of unconditional care that is not available from the parents, as shown in the following edited excerpt. My aunt . . . she was just always a very gentle, very loving. . . . . she’d brush my hair very gently and never pulled my hair, like my mom did. My mom was always in a hurry to get the hair brushed . . . get it over and done with, and my aunt would just take her time, and be so gentle. . . . She was like a warm blanket, she was just wonderful. . . .
The body-centered quality of these memories highlights the centrality of preverbal and nonverbal experiences in creating an enduring sense of well-being. The integration of bodily experiences is a primary building block in deﬁning the physical boundaries of the self and its relationship with the world because the parent’s recognition of the baby’s physical and emotional needs is expressed nonverbally starting at birth and is a prerequisite for effective sym- bolization (Dennett, 1978; Stern, 1985). The following edited excerpt illustrates the enduring importance of nonverbal communication in evoking a sense of belonging together in a relationship. Everything about my dad just was warmth. I mean, you just walked into his presence and you just felt like smiling. He used to like to sit on the couch when he’d get home and read the newspaper, put his feet up . . . he always had his arm like this, like arched around, and it was like that was your spot, and he’d just wait for you to come.
This narrative conveys a strong sense of being unconditionally embraced by the loving father. This is not to say that a parent’s behavior must be perfectly attuned to the child’s needs at all times. One mother spoke of her father as a man for whom it was not easy to spontaneously convey love for his child: “He didn’t know how to express himself. He could be loving, but it was hard for him to express it. That’s when you’d get the card that would say ‘I know I don’t express myself much, but. . . .” In this example, the father’s insightfulness regarding his difficulty in expressing feeling allowed room for negotiation and repair, and generated in his daughter a grateful acceptance of the father’s limitations and of his effort to overcome it. This
recollection is reminiscent of the ﬁnding that a very high degree of maternal responsiveness to the infant’s signals in the ﬁrst months of life is associated with later anxious attachment whereas medium levels of coordination are optimal for secure attachment and easygoing temperament (Beebe & Lachman, 2003). Repairing mismatched communications may be as valuable in creating the capacity for intimacy as impeccably empathic parental responsiveness to the child’s signals (Tronick, 1998). This process of recognition and repair in the development of the self is not restricted to infancy and early childhood but may continue throughout the lifetime, as shown in the following excerpt.
When my son was born, I immediately took to singing to him. One day, as I was rocking him to sleep and trying to remember the lyrics to favorite songs from my childhood, I found myself singing the ‘I found a peanut’ song while I cuddled him, gently rubbing his back and smelling his sweet scent. Instantly, I remembered sitting in my mother’s lap in the rocking chair in our small den as a young child, hearing my mother sing the lyrics to this song as I snuggled against her, feeling tired but comforted and soothed in my sickness at the time. I then remembered several gentle, loving moments with her comforting me when I was sick, holding me, loving me.
Akin to the unknowing replaying of ghosts described by Fraiberg and colleagues (1975), there is an effortless recapitulation of loving interpersonal exchanges that brings back memories long forgotten. The mother in this case was not reﬂecting on her own past to remember scenes from her childhood. She “ﬁnds herself” singing, which “instantly” pulls with it the associated images of her being cuddled by her own mother. What is described here is not a vague sense of having being loved but rather speciﬁc moments, woven with recollections of sensory experience, expressed in words such as “warm,” “cuddly,” “rocking,” and “smelling his sweet scent.” The narrative brings us back to the present as she goes on to describe the intergenerational effect of such experiences.
These moments came full circle for me when my parents were visiting three weeks after my son was born. During the one night of his early months that he cried incessantly through the night, I was at my wits’ end trying to soothe him with my own songs and rocking him. Nothing was working. My mother woke up and came in, asking if she could help. I willingly offered him to her, and she began rocking and singing to him in much the same way that I had been doing for the last few weeks. I felt warmed by her ability to tolerate his cries and attend to him so lovingly, realizing she had done this many nights with me when I was little. I felt joined with her that night in a surprising, delightful way as we shared in the experi- ence — both the trials and delights — of mothering across generations. I realized she had this capacity to offer unconditional love to me in times of distress, sickness, or injury, if not in the conditions of everyday life. . . . Despite my continued sadness over what she didn’t give me emotionally growing up, becoming a mother and ﬁnding myself enacting some of the moments of love and delight with my son that I know my mother had with me feels like a gift that she gave to me in helping me develop a sense of trust and comfort with others.
When this young woman recalls her childhood memories and connects them with the forgotten affect that accompanied them, she is able to recognize the effect that such experiences had on her. Fraiberg (1980) described the process whereby ghosts in the nursery might prevent a mother from hearing her baby’s cries, due to her own unmet childhood needs. Like ghosts, angels deal with the particulars of life and etch themselves into memory and personality, leading
to an identiﬁcation with the parent that provides “motive and energy for repetition.” One young mother described herself as having a sense of “de´ja` vu” when dancing with her baby across the room. She felt herself as a baby and as a mother at the same time, leading her to reﬂect that she was now repeating with her baby a pattern learned long before she could speak.
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