by Dr.Moira Borg MD Gestalt Psychotherapist
When John Bowlby put forward his Attachment Theory in the late fifties he brought to light the dynamics of a relationship that dates back to the inception of humanity that is the relationship between a mother and her child. Bowlby in fact believed that the primate infant had a natural tendency to form attachments to familiar caregivers as a result of evolutionary pressures of survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements. Progress meant that most of us were spared such primordial challenges; as a result, the need of the human infant to form a relationship with a primary caregiver in today’s world stems more from a requisite of emotional survival than a physical one.
Likewise, the attachment or the connection between a child and his primary caregiver, which role in our society is usually (but not exclusively) taken by the mother, is of paramount importance for the child to learn the principles of human relationship and subsequently how to regulate his/her feelings and integrate in his/her world. As a result, any form of severing of this vital connection at any stage of the child’s development can have a deleterious effect on the emotional and social well-being of that child.
There are various factors which can cause a loss of connection between a mother and a child. Death is the most profound form of loss as is any form of abandonment of the child. Verrier (1994) explains how the bonding between a mother and her child “does not begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal period” As a result, “when this natural evolution is interruped by postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abondonment and loss is indelibly printed upon the unconscious minds of these children….”, leaving what she describes as the primal wound. Likewise, no other caregiver can really replace this deep bond and in fact, many children who lose their mother at a very young age experience what Roos (2002) describes as chronic grief which is usually also associated with significant psychological/emotional disturbances.
Abuse be it physical or emotional can also seriously compromise the mother-child relationship to the extent that in the severe forms the child’s personality splits into what Winnicott (1960) described as the true and the false self, keeping the true self to him/herself so as to protect him/herself from the onslaught. In such cases the mother-child relationship is reduced to an inauthentic encounter where the child adapts to the whims of the caregiver putting his/her survival as a priority even at the cost of his/her physical and emotional needs.
At times, even when the mother is fully present and available for her child the connection can still be challenged as happens in various forms of mental retardation, autism or attention deficit disorders. Mental health conditions in older children/adolescents and personality disorders can also put a severe strain on the mother-child connection as can social conditons like poverty, family conflict and breakdown and substance abuse.
When such disruptions in the mother-child relationship are brought to therapy by either party, the challenges to the therapist are various especially considering the unique and sacred nature of the bond. Excluding the most antisocial personalities, both sides of the divide usually come with the hope that things could be worked through somehow and the bond restored even if to a small extent. I believe that as therapists we need to have the utmost respect for that hope and the love that nourishes it even if it is expressed in the most awkward of ways. Female therapists like myself, especially if also mothers, need to put extra caution not to assume that we could be better mothers than our clients and enter into unnecessary conflict and competition with them. After all every child craves a relationship with his/her own mother no matter how limited that might be.
This hope and respect for the mother-child bond, however, can bring up another challenge for the therapist especially in situations where either one of the parties is abusive to the other, more so if the perpetrator is the mother. Sadly, in some cases, after trying to work through all channels with a young (adolescent) client as to how to connect with his/her mum, I come to the conclusion that the only way out is to teach the child how to protect him/herself from the abusive relationship even if at times it means letting it go completely. As a mother and a therapist, I can safely say that it is one of the most painful experiences to behold and contain for both parties and it is the experience of the depth and rawness of this pain that has mostly sharpened my senses and presence with these experiences.
For any woman, being a mother is one of the most challengeing but uniquely beautiful experiences to behold. Being aware of the uniqueness and privilege we hold in this role is important. Likewise we can both respect and cherish the beauty of this bond and most of all its fragility whilst we still have it not when we lose it.