The human brain, born so immature, is shaped by the environment in which it develops. Our earliest experiences matter. Yet it is not the actual experiences that define our unfolding sense of self; it is the meaning that we make of them (Hornstein). If we were securely attached as children, by adulthood we have developed a coherent narrative of self – we can integrate the good and the bad, and understand how our past helped make us who we are today. The unique details of our personas, our perceived strengths and weaknesses, our self-criticisms and beliefs in our abilities, are all encompassed in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Most of this occurs in the realm of automatic thoughts, the train of self-talk that runs along beneath conscious awareness.
Human beings are makers of meaning. We each create our own subjective understanding of the world as we filter objective phenomenon through the “inner felt texture of lived life” (Siegel). No two people will ever have identical interpretations of a shared event. However, we also make meaning inter-subjectively. Inter-subjectivity is how we come to understand ourselves when we are mirrored back by another: how I perceive myself being seen in your eyes. As we share experiences with our loved ones, we redefine ourselves in the co-creation of a “we”. As Winnicott observed, there is no baby without mom and no mom without baby – each identity is constantly transformed as it is played out in relationship with the other (Seligman).
Much of the information about our inner worlds is transmitted through non-verbal exchanges of energy and emotion, so that our loved one’s smile or frown impacts our mood instantly and wordlessly. This is especially true for infants, whose only capacity for meaning making lies within the implicit realms of the unconscious mind. Adults layer an explicit, language-based narrative upon these silent exchanges, but infants make meaning exclusively through felt experience. For the first few months of life, meaning is physiological. For example, the baby of a chronically anxious parent will pick up on the anxiety around them and display physiological signs of hypervigilance – more rapid heart rate and breath, etc. – without any conscious interpretation of their aroused state. By 3-months old, meaning making is increasingly affective in nature – infants relate to their world, and perceive their place in it, through emotions and emotionally driven behaviors (Tronick).
Our sense of self is being defined inter-subjectively long before we develop the capacity for self-awareness (Siegel, p 43). Even the youngest infant is an active participant in the intersubjective meaning-making process. Temperament plays a role in how infants perceive an objective event. For example, an easy-going baby who can nap anywhere at any time, will have a very different interpretation of a busy day at the fair than a baby who requires a strict routine and schedule to maintain healthy sleep habits. The baby’s response influences how their parents understand them: is “my baby is a great sleeper” or is “my baby is fussy” or “difficult”? The parents’ perception then influences their behavior – do we stay home until nap time is over? Go out anyway and respond with empathy to the overtired baby, or respond with irritation? The emotions we communicate define how the baby perceives herself in this moment, and another layer of inter-subjective meaning is born.
Babies participate in making meaning, but it is the adult who is responsible for the content of the shared story. We are the ones with the capacity to create, reflect upon and change explicit narrative. The stories we tell ourselves about our babies influence every interaction we have with them. And our babies learn by procedural memory. They implicitly encode our perception of them in each moment-by-moment, repeated shared experience, into their developing sense of self (Tronick).
At its worst, the parent’s narrative can be profoundly limiting for the developing child. A parent who was abused as a child, for example, may not have the capacity to hold a coherent narrative of their early experiences. They are unable to bring explicit awareness to the emotional impact of their abuse. These whispered, unconscious influences of the past are known as “ghosts in the nursery.” They impact how such a parent sees the naturally emotionally intense behavior of an infant or toddler. Tantrums may trigger unconscious reminders of their own abuse, and they may mistakenly see the child as “aggressive” or “out to get me”. Every developmentally appropriate aggressive behavior, such as stealing another child’s toy, reinforces the parent’s story of their child’s hostility. The child comes to believe it and live it – acting on aggressive tendencies that may have otherwise been mild or dormant, getting in trouble in school and at home, and ultimately integrating this negative image into their sense of self.
Human beings become a reflection of the world in which they develop (Seligman). Once more in my parenting journey, I find myself facing a responsibility that is staggering in its breadth and potential impact. The stories I tell myself about Dani– and therefore unconsciously tell Dani – will come to define her.
Most recently, I have seen my potential to create a limiting story for Dani in the realm of napping. Over the past couple of months, Dani had become increasingly bad at it. Sometimes she would scream and cry in my arms for twenty minutes, only to fall asleep for fifteen. It seemed that the more engaged she got with the world, the more interested in her surroundings and eager to move, the less she was able to slow down and sleep during the day. At some point I will publish an entire article (or series!) about our experience with the great baby sleep saga. For now, I will just say that as the napping distress escalated, my wife and I told ourselves the following story: Dani was resisting sleep. She did not want to nap, and as she grew more overtired, she was even having her first little baby “tantrums”.
It was a recent article by Janet Lansbury that enabled me to begin telling a different story. She reminded me that: “babies can become unsettled and resist sleep… when we’re anticipating a battle or… when they sense our impatience… These attitudes make it far more difficult for our baby to do his or her job, which is to relax and let go enough to let sleep happen.” And also that: “being an aware baby is exhilarating, but also exhausting, and over-tiredness can happen easily” leading to crankiness and difficulties falling and staying asleep (Lansbury).
Suddenly, Dani was not “resisting” sleep, with the implied idea that she was doing something wrong. Instead, she was just the tiny, new being she still is, easily over-stimulated by the great big world around her, and needing my help to down-regulate into sleep – something I cannot offer her when impatient or anxious about the prospect. When my narrative about her shifted, it became my responsibility to change the energy around our nap time ritual. Since then, I do nap time meditations – breathing deep, grounding and repeating soothing mantras as I hold a baby who now cries far less frequently, and for far less time, than she did just a week ago. And Dani is no longer being immersed in the story that she is a “bad” napper, a narrative that could have haunted our whole family for years to come, had we chosen to continue believing it.
Just as sleep has been a primary source of disorganization for our family at 6-months old, our main concern during the 4-month Touchpoint was Dani’s reaction to my leaving her. At the time, Dani seemed extremely sensitive to my absence, even when being cared for by her other mother. We attributed this to her dislike of bottle-feeding, and increasingly began to believe that she was a “mama’s girl”, destined to struggle whenever we were apart. This was a daunting prospect, since I was gearing up to return to work. But during a long 3-day weekend of school, it became clear that the intensity of Dani’s reaction was strongly correlated to my own. The more anxious I was about leaving, the worse her day without me seemed to be. Once I realized the connection, I was able to focus on reducing my own reactivity to leaving her, and on making my departure time as mellow as possible. Perhaps we are all just getting used to it, but her time without me has been getting easier. And I no longer label her “mama’s girl” in my head.
My urge to create a story explaining Dani’s behavior is natural. It is part of my job to figure out what is troubling her so that I can take steps to remedy it. And since I know how important attunement is, the perfectionist in me takes this very seriously. The more I understand Dani, the better I can meet her needs. And the consequences go far beyond the immediate moment. In the absence of her own explicit narrative, it is my narrative that helps her to organize and integrate her experience (Seligman). Knowing whether her distress is due to teething, a bellyache, or exhaustion matters, because when my inter-subjective view of her matches her subjective experience, it benefits the very structures of her brain. My ability to make sense of her emotions helps to develop the neural systems she needs for her own emotional regulation (Siegel, p 135).
Yet what matters most is not whether I precisely understand Dani’s inner world, but whether my interpretation is spacious and empathic. I can support her emotional regulation with contingent, compassionate actions even if I do not know exactly why she is in distress. If I am open to her experience, I can make space for whatever it may be. If she seems over-tired all day, I can still make room for the possibility that she really has a bellyache, and shift my narrative as I learn more. Inter-subjectivity is an ongoing mutual negotiation. Our role is to provide enough sense of safety to allow the flow of meaning to continue. To do so, we must be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. (Seligman)
The problem with the narratives I created in the examples above is that they became too rigid. Defined more by my assumptions and expectations than by Dani’s actual experience. Heavily influenced by my guilt – how my going back to work must be harming her! And my fear – what if she never figures out how to nap well again? In order to provide our infants a story that is integrative without being limiting, we must be mindfully present – able to bring our own thoughts and feelings into awareness and reflect upon their origins. Are they in response to the real baby right now, or to our own biased interpretations? The more conscious we can be in the moment, the more we can focus on our baby’s actual behavior and allow meaning to be built around it. To do so, we must let go of our need to be right, and trust in the process of relating, the flow of inter-subjective experience, and our ability to repair when needed. (Hornstein)
Hornstein, J. (January 9, 2015) Learning, Play & Childhood Development. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.
Lansbury, Janet. “The Subtleties of Baby Sleep.” Elevating Childcare. Retrieved from http://www.janetlansbury.com/2014/02/the-subtleties-of-baby-sleep-4-important-things-to-know. February 26, 2015.
Seligman, S. (January 10, 2015) Attachment, Intersubjectivity and Mentalization Within the Experience of the Child, the Parent and the Provider. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.
Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press: New York, NY. 2012.
Siegel, D. (November 9, 2013) Interpersonal Neurobiology, Mindsight and Wellness: The Essence of Working with Children and Parents. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.
Tronick, E. (January 18, 2014) Neurobehavioral & Social-Emotional Development in a Cultural Context. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.