I haven’t been able to write as much, or as frequently as I desire. This post, originally called Othering of the Mother, remains one of the most widely read posts even today, and so I take the liberty of reblogging it.
Of recent, my psyche has gravitated towards explorations in developmental psychology and the mother-infant dyad. It makes me wonder – what is the universe attempting to verbalise and make conscious thru my experiences ? But since I am compelled by my psyche, I offer my intellect willingly in the service of the work that seems to be flowing thru me.
This piece, in particular, is a tribute to the universe that enables my psyche, to my physical mother who was hospitalized for the first three months of my life (it wasn’t her fault, of course!), to all symbolic mothers in the universe who carried her work forward, to the phenomenon of motherhood that makes existence, and such explorations possible, and to George Lenroh from the Krishnamurti board, whose writing on the subject of “the other” has inspired my own internal and external quests of the other, the mother and how the awareness of this widening of the otherness is negotiated by the two. To be fair to his work, George’s use of the expression “there is no other,” is quite different from my use of it, so there, you have been warned!
In my previous writings, I have touched upon the importance of maintaining the mother-infant dyad, and the effects of separation on the tender psyche. Here we explore this unity, and the subsequent division, using a slightly different conceptual lens – we examine the relationship in terms of ancient philosophical framework of duality and non duality to understand the process that I call “the Othering of the Mother.” This expresses the process by which a child, in blissful symbiotic union with the mother separates and comes to its own. Though I use the term othering losely, here are more precise definitions of Othering. A curious reader may get a brief synopsis of the concept of non duality from the internet. And please, don’t forget to thank the universe for Wikipedia!
We explore pre-conception, pregnancy, infancy, and childhood in context of the mother-fetus-infant-child dyad, focusing on the psychological birth of an infant. My apologies to Margaret Mahler but I use the expression in a manner quite different from hers. Whereas she has discussed the develop spanning a period of 0-36 mos, my concern is primarily with the first few moments, hours, weeks of being of an infant, a process that Mahler casually refers to as hatching.
Before conception, there is a couple that carry within themselves the potential for the future, the potential for evolution of mankind. The mother carries within herself the potential of being a mother, of mothering. The mother enables sentience in the child. Her potential is unrealized before conception, existing as a mere possibility. She also carries within herself conscious or unconscious memories of her own infancy and childhood. The father carries within himself the potential and probability of fathering, of fatherhood and all its concommittent possibilities and responsibilities of protecting, providing, initiating him into the world of adults and creating a conscious, autonomous, responsible adult. And he carries the memories of his own infancy, and childhood. How their respective potentials are actualized, determines how the evolution unfolds.
The impregnation thru the union is the creative act subsequent to which the embryo/fetus exists in a unity which grows weaker with time spent in the womb. The fetus has a potential of I, but does not have a fully developed I yet. It is separated by the skin,but the skin is tender and poros. The separation is an unrealized possibility the fetus exists only as an added organ of the mother. The mother accommodates in every which way to allow for this new organ. This nascent stage progressively becomes less unified under the omnipotent protective umbrella of mothering. Research studies show an elementary sense of self slowly begins to consolidated, though this is primarily a pre-logical (before the ability for logic is created) , pre-verbal (before the ability to articulate words is created) self buried in the soma (body).
The birthing process widens this chasm of separation. Now one has become two, and the separation has physically been completed with the skin, and the space as a barrier to the one-ness of the merged unity. The nascent, psychological self begins to cohere rapidly in relation to the (m)other after the physical separation is completed – it becomes increasingly relational, perceived to be separate from the symbiotic one-ness of the womb.
The above can be conceptualised in many different ways. It is as if the one-ness of the universe is split into two, the split being two different universes, each a mutation of the original. Both universe carry some characteristic of the parent process, but both are changed in the process of splitting, hence the derivatives of the original, primordial unity are different from the entity that is the primordial mother. That original form recedes to the background like a perfect parent, never to be experienced again. Even though the beneficence of the mother becomes an inert, latent potentiality to be realized in times of infant’s distress, or threat to his self, there is no going back to the absolute, protective one-ness of the womb.
Under normal circumstances, where the mother-infant dyad is able to maintain proximity and the environment is supportive of the togetherness, the awareness of separation will gradually dawn on the infant psyche, creating a progressive fear of abandonment, and fear of survival. The fear in turn creates anxiety, anger, resentment, and envy. The infant feels anxious for the mother to return, helpless in his dependence on her, and envious of her power over him. The infant can progressively metabolize this fear and learn to cope but anxiety, anger, resentment and envy become etched in the psyche if the fear is too high, and/or is not allowed to mitigate by the return of the mother. These first experiences of negative emotions leave memory traces create templates that will be evoked whenever loss is experienced or perceived in the future. All subsequent events in life will be pulled into these complexes, re-enacting the same primal othering situation over and over again with external objects – regardless of the real nature of the object. The object can be any attachment object – an ideology, a cult, an authority figure, a nurturing figure – any other that is symbolic of the mother, the feminine principle.
In the mother, the loss of an integral part of self is experienced, and this experience may fall on the prior experience of her own othering process in infancy. These latent memories of her own loss, and the way they were negotiated, are experienced either consciously or unconsciously.
Thus experiences of birth of an infant bring forth many debilitating emotions in the mother-infant dyad. Compensatory emotion of love arises to alleviate distressful feelings of fear and/or loss, an emotion that defends against loss due to compulsive “othering of the mother” – a process over which neither the mother, nor the infant, have any control. The psyche defends against these debilitating emotions by promoting a mutual bond in both participants – a bond that will help them remain in close proximity as proximity supports an illusion of unity. Love enables the nearness to be maintained despite the growing physical separation, and gratitude arises as a consequence of the other’s willingness to remain. The inability, or refusal of one party to remain in the relationship may lead to anger, rage, envy in the other and these emotions too get etched on the human psyche. Hence human love can be viewed as a reaction to the helplessness, dependency and vulnerability of either, and both (the mother and the child), as well as the awareness of the fragility of the relationship. It is an emotion that seeks to alleviate the distress created by the uncertainty that proximity may not be maintained. The seed of gratitude is set as a consequence of the willingness of the other to remain in close proximity. And anger is a consequence of the instinct for self presevation. Love and gratitude, amongst many other “positive” emotions, are primarily based on the substratum of fear of loss, as are anger and envy. This fear becomes etched on the human psyche, and is readily evoked in situations of real or imagined loss of any attachment object – human or idealogical – of any kind in the future.
In the infant, this etching is pre-logical and pre-verbal simply because the nascent psyche lacks the capability to metabolize these emotions, or verbalize them, but for the mother it is partly conscious, partly unconscious. The fear falls on the primal, pre-verbal, pre-logical wounds of her own separation from her mother and causes sadness, despair, depression, anger, helplessness, envy. Because the trauma is pre-verbal, this fear is felt but not really understood or verbalised. Hence we associate post partum depression with moodiness without cause – the baby blues!
Thus love, fear, loss, and terror of annhilation become intractably linked in the human psyche to the growing realization of the otherness of the mother in the infant, and the otherness of the infant in the mother.
No matter how favorable the environment, the process of othering has to be intensely traumatizing and anxiety provoking for both the infant and the mother, even if such trauma occurs mostly at the unconscious levels. In more favorable environments, there is a gradual escalation of the fear associated with this disunity, the fear that a wonderful part of one’s existence has become an-other and there is no way to bridge this divide, and that the divide has to be endured.
The mother negotiates this trauma consciously thru post partum depression but the infant cannot handle this level of trauma consciously. Repression steps in to contain such debilitation. In other words, trauma still exists, but the awareness of it is banished into the unconscious where it lays dormant – as a seed or a potential for adult neurosis. We can say that survival of an infant is negotiated by making a pact with the devil which always lurks around in the form of a potential for psychopathology and neuroticism. The nascent psyche gladly pays this price because this is indispensable for the first ego formation. Thus potential psychopathology is an inherent part of our human structure. As long as the threshold of such pathology remains contained, the adult psyche will negotiate adult life with reasonable ability to cope.
Where this othering process has been more traumatic than usual due to adverse environmental conditions, and infant psyche has been unable to gradually adapt to the change in the environment, a sense of total despair, futility and terror of annhilation may become too overwhelming for the tender psyche, creating the potential for debilitation and psychopathology. Even if such an adult proceeds through life without any major issues, this vulnerability to loss may be realized by the separation experienced as an adult; the magnitude of neuroticism depending on the severity with which the process of “othering” was experienced by the nascent psyche. As stated previously, the experience associated with a brutal and abrupt separation from the mother bring terror of annhilation, and one can see how loss of relationship in adulthood may leave some people absolutely devastated, others defend against the loss and remain unmoved, while a large population fall in between these extremes and copes with varying degrees of resiliance.
It is futile to believe that the adult partner or the relationship has characteristics and properties that has caused these feelings of loss. The partner or the relationship may simply be guilty of having triggered the primal wound of separation, and an awareness of this wound may enable freedom from such deterministic bondage. The adult loss reactivates the pre-verbal wounding from the othering process with an intensity similar to the primal wounding, and this time the repression does not work as it did before. This process is repeated in life many time, until the psyche achieves the ability to handle loss. Progressive losses during life provide opportunties for mastering this process of othering. However, if a person has led a relatively protected life, and has not experienced many losses, the magnitude of losses in adulthood would be experienced as annihilating although the psyche is merely trying to master the fear associated with the feeling of annihilation.
The primary emotion for a person experiencing adult loss is a wish to merge. It is a desire to return to the undifferentiated stage of one-ness with original mother, to that which exists no more. It is an escape from learning to cope with separation, with duality, with the otherness. It is one more grab for the primordial unity of the womb, the undifferentiated state of being where there would be no sense of loss, no division between the self and the other and hence no fear, no terror – no suffering of any kind. The overwhelmed self wishes to crawl back to safety. But becoming (an adult) brings with itself the capabilities that tax and stretch our internal resources because that is the part of growth. And beside, there is no where to go, nowhere to get into. That which was, exists no more.
As discussed earlier, the post-partum depression arises in the mother as memories of her own wounds of the othering process of infancy are re-activated – the intensity of post partum depression depending on the fragility of the repressive defenses, and how the mother-infant dyad had been maintain by her own mother. This new unraveling, this new wound cannot be defended by repression for the adult capacity to endure trauma is different from the infant’s capacity for the same. The dungeons of the unconscious are crowded full of repressed fears from childhood, and there is no more space. What cannot be accommodated there, needs to be endured. If it cannot be endured, it will have to flow over to the body as physical disease. The psyche knows this, is coded for such, and persists. Hence the suffering and disease associated with adulthood.
But What Does All This Mean?
Awareness and insight into our own wounding, our own fragility brings freedom from deterministic bondage that otherwise unconsciously would chain us to our past. In order to protect and control its sovereignty, and to hide the vulnerability of our souls, our ego instinctively puts up resistance to acknowledging our woundedness just like a turtle puts up its shell. Psychological wounds are not pathological by and in of themselves but they become breeding grounds for psychopathology to the extent they remain unconscious. When we insist that the psyche in not injured, there is no possibility of healing because what is uninjured cannot be healed. However, if we will not have our wounds, our wounds will have us.
It is only when the protective defenses are relinquished in the safety and security of a trusting relationship, that the psyche begins the process of undoing some of that duality that had been heaped upon it at a time when it was not strong enough to handle it, at a pace that was not of its choosing, with consequences that were not acceptable to the psyche. In re-experiencing those emotions at a time when it has the strength to deal with it, and the conscious willingness to do so, it re-enacts the process of othering, with a hope to complete the process more holistically so that it can find its own balance, its own garden, its own paradise, its own universe from where it can enable another, healthier process of division, for in that subdivision, lies evolution, and future.
For an adult psyche on the path of individuation, there is no (m)other.