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On becoming a mother: the 'replaying' our infant-selves

If you are a mother, or have ever been pregnant you may well know exactly what I am talking about! That sense of simultaneously feeling more grown up, becoming a mum, and at the same time feeling so small, even as small as the foetus in your womb or the babes in your arms. Having memories, pleasant and not so pleasant / clear and hazy, just pop out of nowhere, taking you to a far and distant past – that of your own infanthood.

It was many years ago when I first became aware of this process, long before my own rite-of-passage into parenthood. Friends, whom on becoming pregnant for the first time, were repeatedly sharing their fascination with their own maternal relationship, birth and early life. I became aware that this was a process that was, at times, far from a conscious exploration. I was noticing a recurrence of this need to make sense of experiences that occurred during an unconscious time of these women’s lives. It was this replaying of our infant selves that I held as an interest on entering my Dramatherapy training in 2003.

It’s appreciable that on embarking on a new role (one that we have only ever experienced as reciprocator to) we examine the only known occupier of that role – our own mothers. In doing so we re-remember our experience of the baby we once were. As for me, I found myself eager to glean as much information concerning my own birth and babyhood during my ante- and post-natal months with my own daughter. I was especially interested in my experience of breastfeeding. I remember sitting in a secluded corner of an IKEA café with my breastfeeding daughter and my mother, listening attentively to her account of mine, and that of my older brother’s, limited experience of breastfeeding in the early seventies. I was aware of my maternal empathy towards my mother’s mixed emotions of not being able (due to lack of professional support) to breastfeed her 2 oldest children. At the same time I was remembering: somewhere in the depths of my being, rising like a mist into my emotional consciousness, the pain of being separated from my mother’s breast. I was sat in that cafe, simultaneously embodying the nurturing mother, breastfeeding my daughter, whilst at the same time emotionally connected to my infant-self and my/her deficit need. Not only this, but I was also linking, mother to mother, to my own mother’s experience. My deficit need as a baby rose up its head wanting to make some sense of it – ‘why did my mummy’s breast go away?’

As babies we are unable to make sense of life in a conscious and contextualised way. It is my opinion that there is some reawakening of memories for women when we are so intrinsically (physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually) bound in the process of growing a baby. It’s almost as if our infant-self brain is triggered into alerting our adult-self brain demanding some understanding. Perhaps the infant’s confusion actually gets carried into our adult brain as a dormant, outstanding and unanswered query. We know that patterns of emotion, thinking, and behaviour are passed down through generations. This may happen at a cellular level – after all, the egg that went into growing you as a foetus was actually created and grown in your grandmother during her pregnancy with your mother. Cellular memory in this case could even be passed from grandmother to granddaughter in a generational leap frog, a potential hypothesis for the phenomenon that we recognise when themes in personalities are inter-generationally linked.

Conceivably this reawakening is partly triggered by the change within our identity and the process that occurs here. Parental identity is irreversible even if we experience miscarriage, abortion or are separated through adoption. In order to adopt this new and vitally important role we draw on our experience of our own mothers and our early relationship with them. This naturally takes us to connecting to our experience of ourselves as a dependant infant in relationship to our mothers, reminding us of what it was like to be mothered by her. She was, hopefully in most cases, our primary carer, attuned to our needs, guiding us through our early milestones.

To consider this notion of re-playing our own babyhood during the mothering of our offspring will, for some of us, feel an unsettling concept. Our memories may not have been ones we ever wanted to consciously replay, buried deeply in the recesses of time. What if mum wasn’t available or absent, or even abusive? Are there benefits to encouraging these memories to surface? Or, could this replaying of our infant-selves be detrimental to us or our actual babies? We wish to protect our little ones from the traumas and unmet needs of our own past. However, the experiences filed under ‘past’ in all its pleasures and pains is absorbed on an unconscious level by our children. For mothers taking the leap to work therapeutically to potentially replay early trauma and poor attachments, understandably have concerns regarding protecting their offspring either in or outside of the womb.

Working with mothers and their families during childbearing years, I have had cause to consider this notion. When a new mother suffering with postnatal distress (to cover many ills) makes contact with a therapist they are generally are at their lowest ebb, struggling to stave off crisis and maintain some element of control. They need to be reassured, to be held in a nurturing therapeutic relationship, see light at the end of the tunnel and be guided through a process that they can trust will return them to what they were or had before, as fast as possible. Understandably, ‘digging’ may not be their first priority.

It is also my position that if the mother feels sufficiently emotionally supported and ready to allow difficult memories to surface, then her internal infant-self has the opportunity to finally do some ‘sense-making’ and understand what was previously just confusion. Also, for a woman’s infant-self to experience being taken care of and supported by her adult-self in a safe and compassionate way is profoundly progressive for the woman in repairing her past. Allowing this process to occur on various levels of consciousness to a point where healing and clarity can take place is, I believe, a positive experience for the mother’s actual baby. Not only can the woman find closure for an early life experience but also in the process she offers her baby the deep, preverbal knowledge that engaging in a mixed and uncomfortable emotional process can have good outcomes (i.e. not engaging in replaying negative patterns on an unconscious level).

It may have occurred to you whilst reading this that there may be a link between this experience of triggered baby memories and ante / postnatal depression. When treating mothers with symptoms of depression or distress / anxiety, I’m curious about the experience of their own birth, and early relationship with their mother, and even their mother’s early life experience and birth. It follows that women who have had a traumatic birth and/or early life experience, are more likely to find the perinatal period problematic and struggle with being 100% emotionally and mentally accessible for their babies. For me, as a therapist, being fully available to a mother, helping to ‘hold’ the space for her to find the internal resources to access herself and her baby is the most powerful and rewarding part of my job.

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