During my midwifery training, we considered a baby’s 9-month birthday to be the end of a “second gestation”, a time of major transition in the mother-child relationship. Pregnancy and birth were valuable metaphors to normalize the intensity of change many mothers experience around this time. As a baby begins to move outwards into the world, mom feels called to do the same. I have frequently heard mothers of 9-month-olds describe missing who they were before baby, many for the first time. They are beginning to wonder who they are now besides “mother” and how to fit this previously all-consuming new role into their larger sense of self.
My own experience is offering me new insight into this transition. The shift in my psyche is more than a simple mirror of gestation; it is directly related to one thing: crawling. Dani’s new found ability to move away from me, with goal-directed intention, has changed everything about our relationship and how we see ourselves in it.
We have only experienced one prior transition of this magnitude. When Dani mastered holding her head up, the shift within and between us felt equally profound. As explored here, prior to 3-months old, an infant’s main concern is neuro-physiological regulation: the maturation of the brain stem, and its capacity to regulate heart rate, breath, temperature and other physiological factors in response to stimuli. As a baby masters control over her head movements, her central nervous system is simultaneously maturing. The combination creates a clear demarcation: the end of the newborn phase. At about 3-months, the developmental task of self-regulation shifts from neuro-physiological to sensori-motor in nature, defined as “the child’s ability to engage in a voluntary motor act (such as turning their head, soon followed by reaching and grasping) and change the act in response to events that arise” (Kopp, p203). As Dani’s development unfolded, we had to discover new forms of mutual regulation, adapted to her new self-regulatory skills.
I was very aware, during that process, of how the changes in Dani were changing our relationship. What I am now realizing is how much they changed me as well. My development as a mother parallels her development in fascinating ways. As Margaret Mahler points out, mother and baby are “two organisms, intimately tied to each other, developing along in parallel… the circular mother-child interaction shapes not only the personality of the child, but also that of the mother” (Edward, p14). Mahler’s theory, known as “separation-individuation,” shines a light on this unfolding parallel process.
Margaret Mahler was an Object-Relations theorist. The Object-Relations school bridged Freud and modern Developmental Psychology, as they were the first to recognize that infant development does not simply follow predetermined internal drives, but is altered by the quality of primary relationships (in their terms, mother is the “object” to which baby is relating). They were also the first to see that the infant is an active participant in shaping relationship quality, rather than a blank slate to be molded by the mother.
Mahler postulated that prior to about 5-months old, infants are only dimly aware of an external entity catering to them, and cannot discern the difference between their mothers and themselves. As long as the good-enough mother meets their needs, they exist in a state of harmony and bliss, what Freud termed an “oceanic experience of love,” in which the boundaries between self and other dissolve away (Edward,p17). Mom’s needs are also met by this “symbiotic exchange” as she slowly adapts to the loss of the bodily connection she once had with the baby she held in her womb. “For a time, she continues to relate to her infant as if the baby’s body belongs to her” and both benefit from this “obligatory sense of oneness” (Edward, p18-19).
Mahler’s theories fell out of favor as “researchers have shown that the infant’s sense of self occurs much earlier in development than has been imagined” (Seligman, p 311). Brazelton’s Newborn Behavior Observation, for example, shows that babies have individualized capacities to communicate and engage in relationships, beginning mere hours after birth (Brazelton). Yet as a mother, my felt experience confirms an inherent truth to the unity-without-boundaries that Mahler described. Mothering a very young infant demands an unparalleled subsuming of self into relationship. It is the closest we ever get, as adults, to a complete unawareness of self. It does not seem unreasonable to imagine that the infant’s experience is similar. Crawling away is a definitive moment in the process of separation. Which is why, as babies begin to move outwards, moms start to grasp just how much we have “lost ourselves” to the previous months of mothering.
Until very recently, Dani did not initiate movement outside the orbit of my physical space. Even when down on the floor playing, her early rolling and creeping never took her far from my arm’s reach. Our dance of mutual regulation – through which we navigate both shared emotions and behaviors towards a state of optimal attunement – was a purely embodied experience. When I needed to help her down-regulate, I held and rocked her. When I wanted her to up-regulate into shared joy, I met her eyes and made her laugh; just as when she wanted to share joy with me, she met my eyes and flashed her dazzling smile. When I wanted her to change her behavior, I redirected her by physically moving or adjusting her body. For example, when I needed her to hold still to clean a dirty diaper, I used my body to hold hers in place; or I let her lead the dance and practiced diapering a rolling, rocking baby-on-the-move.
The common denominator in all these interactions was a fluid and diffuse felt-experience between us. We were enmeshed, our relationship based solely on connection. Even during moments of “competing agendas” (my phrase for dressing, face wiping and other motherly missions that illicit protest from my babe) our negotiations felt expansive. I shifted my movements to flow with hers, and we figured it out together.
Now (scarcely a week after her first, awkward forward movements) my baby is crawling out of the room I am standing in and taking off down the hall. Our boundary-less, expansive relationship suddenly requires boundaries and limits. Literally, as I speed off ahead of her to close doors and gates on her path, noting the disappointment on her face as her unbridled, purely inspired exploration comes to a halt. I must do so, of course. It is the only way she can be and feel safe to explore. The container I must create for her has grown beyond my embodied space. Suddenly, my role is not just to flow with her movements, but also, when necessary, to stop them. And as she moves further from my physical reach, my body alone is not enough to hold her back. It is time to start saying “no” to my baby.
Up until now, my speaking to Dani has been an exercise in exposure to communication. I did not expect her to understand me, because she was too young to have the capacity for receptive language (word comprehension). “No” is actually one of the very first words infants learn to recognize, some time between 6-10 months of age. Most likely, “no” sticks early because of the strong affect we show in our tone of voice and facial expression when we say it. It is also usually said alone, apart from the difficult-to-distinguish stream of sounds that is a typical sentence. I will never forget how shocked Dani looked the first time my wife said a strong “no” to her for biting; she had never elicited that kind of emotional reaction from one of us before. Recognizing this simple directive is a critical capacity, as it allows babies to move from the sensori-motor stage of regulation into the stage called “control.”
The control phase occurs between roughly 9-12 months and 18-months old. It is defined as “the emerging ability of children to show awareness of social or task demands that have been defined by caregivers, and to initiate, maintain, modulate or cease their behaviors accordingly”. The first step in achieving control is “compliance to the here and now commands of a parent” (Kopp, p204). Compliance “is highly dependent on key signals because the child does not have the capacity to recall events” nor “the cognitive capacity for reflection” (Kopp, p205). Which is why parents spend much of early toddlerhood repeating “no” to the same behaviors in an endless-seeming loop. Babies must hear the signal – the now familiar sound and accompanying vocal tone – over and over before they can internalize the desired response.
There is an interesting confluence between the end of Mahler’s symbiotic phase and the shift from sensori-motor to controlled regulation. Both speak to how a relationship that was once purely embodied is moving into the realm of language and the mind. Soon our dance of mutual regulation – our co-management of Dani’s emotions and behaviors – will grow increasingly reliant on my words and her expanding cognitive abilities.
Infants and young toddlers rely on the non-verbal messages that accompany “no” to fully understand its meaning. Which is why it is always more effective to approach a toddler and get at eye level when directing them. Dani is a long way away from responding to my “no” from across the room. Yet she is on the move now, and in need of a form of limit setting that can reach across distance. How we navigate this dilemma will deeply influence the unfolding of our relationship. At this stage, developmentally attuned parenting means constant childproofing. By making her room a completely safe space for her play in, I am regulating our interactions to maximize positive flow. I am also helping her to increase her tolerance of highchair time – a form of mutual regulation, as we work together to build this skill. If I were unaware of the need to preempt trouble during this challenging time, I would likely find myself increasingly exacerbated by a baby who is into everything and requiring constant redirection. However I choose to manage it, our interactions now will have profound influence over how we perceive each other and ourselves as we move forward into toddlerhood.
This is the dance of inter-subjectivity: how we regard one another as we negotiate specific behaviors, and ultimately, how we come to understand ourselves as we are seen through each other’s eyes. We constantly redefine ourselves in the co-creation of a ‘we’. “Even as it is rooted in individual history and personality, personal experience becomes what it is by being shared with someone different” (Seligman, p311). In my previous post, I explored how infants participate in this process of shared meaning making though their inborn temperament, which affects their subjective experience of the world, in turn influencing how their parents see them and respond.
Now, I see that infants also play their part in inter-subjective meaning making through the genetically programmed timing of development. Both motor and language development have a wide range of normal timing. Dani is crawling on the early side at 7-months. On the other hand, she is not yet babbling with streams of consonants (baba, mama), as many babies her age do. Expressive language, such as babbling, is very different than receptive language, and the latter is much harder to measure. Still, the difference between her motor and language capacities raises interesting questions. Will she internalize “no” on the later side? How many months may she be on the move before I can rely on “no” to set limits? How might this make our experience of mutual regulation different than that of a baby who crawls late but talks early?
Of course I will never know the answers to these questions, but they are fun to contemplate. It is extraordinary to think of all the elements that weave together in “complex, shifting, dynamic and nonlinear patterns” to create the person Dani is becoming, and the person that I am becoming, through our relationship with each other. The factors touched on above include: genetics, epigenetics, emotions, motor and language development, temperament, parental attunement and caregiving (Seligman, p311) There are countless others. And that is just among the two of us. It does not begin to account for the influence of my wife, our extended family, community and culture. Amidst it all, our repertoire for negotiating our relationship is expanding in leaps and bounds right now, as she develops an explosion of new skills. Our dance together is growing infinitely more complex, mysterious and beautiful.