Ghost Busting

“In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents; the uninvited guests at the christening” Selma Fraiberg

 So far, I’ve written a lot about how important it is to trust your instincts. Today, just when you were getting comfortable, I’m going to turn that on its head. Because, while trusting your gut is crucial, it’s worth looking a little closer at where those gut instincts come from. Why is it that some mothers can’t bear to put their baby down for a second, while others are happy to hand that baby over at the earliest opportunity? How can some mothers turn off the baby monitor when they hear their baby call, while others are standing over the cot checking their baby is breathing?

It’s all about ghosties.

Not just the ghosts of your own childhood, but your mother’s, father’s, carers’, grandparents’…It’s the parenting that they experienced which influenced their own parenting, and is now influencing yours. And while it can feel pretty abstract to look back in time in order to understand your present, those ghosties have a nasty habit of rearing up just when you least expect them. And sometimes those ghosties get right in the way of your gut instincts, steering you away from listening to YOUR baby and instead listening to some other needy baby from a long, long time ago.

Psychobabble, right? How can we remember how we felt as babies, never mind how our parents felt, and their parents before them? But when we dig a little deeper, it’s not hard to find some ghosts floating close to the surface. There are the ghosts of experiences – our own memories of growing up, being comforted, being disciplined. And there are the physical ghosts, the nose that looks just like grandpa’s and I bet she’s stubborn like he was, the wide eyes that are straight from Auntie Jane and she was a real daydreamer don’t you know. All of which makes it hard at times to see the baby who is actually there in front of us, and not the baby we were and the people who defined us.

It makes sense that how we were parented influences our own parenting, and attachment theory (which I’ve talked about before here and here) has consolidated this into three main attachment ‘patterns’ – That is, three distinct ways of describing the parent-child relationship. This relationship is then seen to form the blueprint for all our other relationships.

To massively oversimplify over 50 years of research – In infants, these three patterns are: secure (a caregiver who is appropriately responsive, with a child who uses them as a secure base for exploration); avoidant (a caregiver who is unresponsive to distress and encourages early independence, with a child who shows little outward sign of distress) and ambivalent (a caregiver who is inconsistent in their responses, with a child who concurrently seeks and resists interaction). A fourth pattern of ‘disorganized’ attachment was added to describe relationships where no coherent pattern is identifiable, with caregivers who are ‘frightened or frightening’ to their infants – often seen in abusive or neglectful families. More recent researchers have further explored differences in attachment behaviours, leading to more detailed classifications for children and adults (such as Pat Crittenden’s Dynamic Maturational Model).

Let’s put it this way. A baby who has learned that Mum (or another caregiver) is there for him or her will explore the world with confidence that Mum will be there to pick up the pieces, and will get the idea that people can be trusted and relationships are stable. A baby who has learned that Mum won’t respond when they’re upset will explore the world independently, learn that emotions are not for sharing, and will get the idea that intimacy is a bit weird. A baby who has learned that sometimes Mum will come running, but at other times may get upset or angry, will find the world pretty blimmin confusing, and get the idea that you have to hang on tight to people and make a bit of a scene if they’re going to be there for you. And a baby who has learned that Mum can sometimes be scary will find the world, and the people in it, pretty scary too.

Another way of looking at this is to think about your own past relationships. The partner who bombarded you with jealous texts at 4am? Ambivalent (or preoccupied, in adult attachment terms). The one who ran a mile when you started planning a holiday together? Nice and avoidant. And the lovely one who didn’t freak out when you talked about your feelings, and even talked about theirs too? They were probably secure.

So it becomes a little clearer why certain feelings might be raised when you’re faced with your own baby. Your wish to turn off the baby monitor might lead all the way back to your dad crying in his pram at the bottom of the garden. The amazing thing about attachment is that it spans generations, and is stable over time. In fact, the security of attachment between you and your baby can be predicted before your baby is even born.

Systemic therapists have added to this idea with the concept of ‘family scripts’, describing repeating patterns of family interactions In other words, the roles people play within the family which keep particular patterns alive (such as the misunderstood ‘teenager’ responding to a critical mother).  This also introduces the idea of ‘rewriting’ scripts, by changing those patterns so that new scripts can be improvised.

We can also think of ‘community’ scripts, the messages we receive which might influence our parenting. How much does your discomfort over a meltdown in the supermarket relate to that old adage ‘children should be seen and not heard’? And how much does that discomfort influence your decision to ignore the meltdown, thus passing on that message to your child too? And what about the social expectations which affect how we respond to our children? For example, women often find it hard to openly express anger, and can be blindsided by the unadulterated rage of a frustrated toddler. How can we allow our children to healthily share their anger when we struggle with that ourselves?

Wow. So how do we separate out those instincts I’m always telling you to follow, from the influence of your parents, your grandparents, your family, your culture, society and community?

Well, first you’ve got to hunt for those ghosties.  And we’ve all got ghosties. Lots of them aren’t harmful, and there may be many angels too, providing memories of positive caring experiences. But the harmful ghosts – the unresolved traumas from your own childhood which haunt your interactions with your own baby – are the ones that need a bit of attention.  One way of ghost hunting is to think about your first response when your baby cries. A sudden flash of anger? An urge to run for the hills? A heartwrenching sadness? All ghosties. In the adrenaline-filled times when your newborn becomes inconsolable, or your toddler hits you, comes the response that you learned as a child, through the way you were responded to.

Second, instead of pushing those ghosts away, listen to what they’re trying to tell you. Selma Fraiberg and colleagues, who coined this idea of ghosts in the nursery, describe a clinical case with a ‘rejecting mother’ which only progressed when the therapists realised ‘When this mother’s own cries are heard, she will hear her child’s cries’. The mother was only able to respond to her child when she had acknowledged her own losses. To take that a bit further, another psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff, describes the notion of a ‘baby self’ – the little baby that lives on in us all. This baby can be soothed or distressed by our actions towards our actual baby. It can be hard to cuddle a wailing newborn when your baby self is jealous of all that attention. It can be tough to pick up a screaming baby when you’ve got your Mum’s voice shouting “Stop crying!” ringing in your ears. And it can be impossible to empathise with a frustrated toddler when you can see your granny’s stern face floating in front of you, sending you to your room without any dinner.

Then, tune in to what your baby self might be longing for, and find a way to ‘mother’ it. This might not only lift the confusing clouds around your own baby’s needs and help you truly meet them, it could also ensure that your child has less clouds when they come to be a parent themselves. And what your baby-self needs might just be a big cuddle, a soothing word, an early night. Or it might be a discussion with your own mum, a visit to your granny – or an appointment with a therapist. What’s important is that it is heard.

With all these influences – personal, familial, cultural, societal – it goes without saying that they will get in the way sometimes. Sometimes our mum’s voice WILL come out of our mouths, and we’ll see reflected back the disappointment or hurt we felt ourselves many many moons ago. But there’s nowt wrong with making mistakes, and apologising to your 6 month old for losing your rag can be healing for both of you. In this way, we can become the authors of our own scripts rather than blindly repeating the past.

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