maternal ideals

Transforming The Maternal Ideals Into The Social Idea

The Maternal Ideals of the Motherhood Constellation

Daniel N. Stern’s 1998 book The Motherhood Constellation has continued to exert a lasting influence on the field of child development. A recent article in Psychology Today cites portions of the book in describing the cognitive shift in priorities of expectant mothers as they prepare themselves emotionally, and socially, for the demanding role of motherhood. Stern asserts that all of the relationships in a mother’s life, including the relationship with her own mother, have an effect on her ability to successfully care for her child.

His theory addresses four basic elements of successful parenting. One of those elements is referred to as “identity reorganization”. This term is used to refer to the mother’s ability to imagine herself as a mother and shift her priorities towards meeting the responsibilities of motherhood. Research suggests that identity is constantly being reconstructed according to changing motivational goals.

Six recognized motivational goals are

  • self-esteem,
  • self-efficacy,
  • continuity,
  • distinctiveness,
  • belonging, and
  • meaning.

Identity is also shaped through meaningful social interaction.
Identity reorganization has an effect on the other themes, which include the level of concern for the development of the baby, her level of connection to the child after it is born, and her social system of support. That social support system is what Donald Winnicott referred to as ” the holding environment”, in which an expectant mother can develop her future maternal behavior. Ideally, this environment consists of several experienced mothers and other adults who can provide encouragement and support as well as serving as positive role models for the development of positive maternal ideals.

This support system is especially important for teen mothers. One study investigating the concept of the motherhood constellation in the context of teen pregnancy found that one of the difficulties faced by teens becoming mothers was an overlap in developmental tasks. For example, mothering skills would have to be acquired at the same time as other difficult skills associated with young adulthood. While teen mothers often require more assistance as a result of this overlap, achieving that delicate balance can be difficult. Studies show a link between excessive grandparent involvement with a teen mother’s firstborn child and the teen having a second child more quickly.

Impact of Family Therapy on Maternal Ideals

An article from the Mental Health Journal is critical of the delay in incorporating the research findings into modern methods of family therapy. According to the author, family therapy is still too focused on the dyadic relationship between mother and child, rather than taking into account the many familial and community relationships that play an important role in child development.

Ideally, therapy for new mothers can help reshape the maternal ideal by offering a wider variety of possible examples of mothering for her to choose from, or avoid, in creating her own maternal ideal. The majority of infants in most cultures around the world are influenced and acculturated during their formative years by a number of significant caregivers in addition to their mothers. The influence of these caregivers, as well as the quality of their relationships with both mother and child, are often minimized by mental health professionals who continue to focus primarily on the maternal ideals reflected by the mother-child relationship.

According to author Patricia Minuchin,

“studies of the parent-child dyad…do not represent the child’s significant reality, especially after infancy”.

The child’s reality, rather, consists of the complete family and community that serve as the center of the child’s security. Many experts now believe that it is more beneficial to observe parents and babies within the context of interactions between the larger family unit to successfully diagnose potentially damaging patterns such as interference, undermining, exclusion or disengagement. Diagnosing such patterns is considered critically important in understanding and treating maladjustment.

One of the useful diagnostic tools that help reveal familial patterns is called Lausanne Trilogue Play, which utilizes information gained from body postures and affective signaling. In one study, researchers were able to document four distinct family alliance patterns, which they labelled disordered, collusive, stressed, and cooperative.

Therapy that focuses primarily on altering a single relationship, such as the mother-infant relationship, can potentially cause a negative ripple effect, such as increasing competition, within the larger family system.

Further research has also revealed the importance of considering the family’s cultural context when analyzing data, which in the case of bi-racial families, may include multiple cultural contexts. Patterns of engagement between grandparents and children can vary widely between, and even within, different cultural groups.

The Expansion of Maternal Ideals

Dr. Stern’s work has contributed significantly to the understanding of the importance of multiple relationships in healthy child development. Perhaps more importantly, by advocating the conscious development of healthy maternal ideals by all important caregivers in a child’s life, it has relieved mothers of the stress associated with the belief that they alone are responsible for their children’s well-being.

After his death in 2012 at the age of 78, a tribute in the Telegraph praised his efforts towards transforming maternal ideals into social ideals for the benefit of future generations.

149.W Mother with two children II.Oil on canevas, Egon Schiele 1915. Leopold Museum, Vienna (Austria). Inv.Nr 457, CC3.0

April 6,2016  |

infant and child psychoanalyst

Human Growth and Development: It’s a Life-long Process

”These small moments, rather than the traumatic or dramatic moments of a baby’s life, make up the bulk of the expectations that adults bring to their relationships.”

–Daniel N. Stern

Controversy Surrounding Infant and Child Psychoanalyst Daniel N. Stern

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a view inside the mind of a pre-verbal child? Infant and child psychoanalyst Daniel N. Stern’s 1985 book, “The Interpersonal World Of The Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology”attempts to give readers just that. The theories presented in the book disputed the widely accepted theories of Freud regarding child developmental stages, and sparked a great deal of controversy.

Shortly after its publication, a 1986 article in the New York Times announced that the journal of Contemporary Psychoanalysis would devote an entire issue to comments about the book. Psychologist Louise Kaplan called his hypotheses unverified and unsupported by research, while psychologist Stanley Spiegel declared that it would be the most influential book on psychoanalytic theory of the decade.

Relevant Contributions of Infant and Child Psychoanalyst Daniel Stern

Among the controversial contributions of infant and child psychoanalyst Daniel Stern to the field of child psychology is the term “proto-narrative envelope”, which he believed contains organized experience in the structure of a non-verbal narrative consisting of perceptions. According to psychologist Felix Guattari, Stern’s work demonstrates that child development is not a matter of Freudian stages, but of what he calls levels of subjectivation. Subjectivation is a term used to describe the process of individuation, or the creation of a separate subject, or self.

Stern’s research provided evidence that infants are born with the capacity for mental organization and the ability to link sensory experiences. When new-born infants were asked questions, their answers were physical responses, such as turning their heads and looking. They were also able to generalize and recognize differences. It was this ability that caused Stern to question the idea of fixed developmental stages and to theorize that trauma can affect anyone similarly at any stage of life.

Research Studies of Infant and Child Psychoanalyst Daniel J. Stern

Stern’s research consisted in part of filming the interactions between mothers and their children and analyzing the films extensively. In one study, he videotaped three-hour sessions of the interactions between a mother and her infant twin sons until they were 15 months old. While analyzing the films, he detected a difference in how the mother maintained eye contact with one of the twins compared to the other. With one twin, when the baby averted it’s face, she immediately re-established eye contact, which often resulted in the baby crying. With the other, she allowed the baby to choose to re-establish eye contact. By age 15 months, Dr. Stern noted that the twin with whom the mother had forced eye contact seemed more fearful and dependent, averting his face when he wanted to break eye contact, while the other continued smiling while looking upward to do so.

Stern’s studies, observations and research led him to conclude that small daily exchanges between parent and child can shape the child’s relationship patterns in later life. He believed the same to be true for fathers as well as any adult spending prolonged periods of time with an infant.

Recommendations Resulting from Infant and Child Psychoanalyst Studies

Stern’s theory posits that rather than phases of development, life consists of a long continuum of small, yet important, interactions. He recommends that mothers “match” their children’s physical and emotional communications in order to provide them with a sense of being understood and connected. For example, when an infant squeals in delight, the mother might echo that sentiment by matching its pitch in her response.

This sense of feeling understood and validated helps promote individuation and autonomy. According to Stern, autonomy begins with small acts, such as a baby averting its eyes of face to express displeasure, which infants are capable of at about 4 months. Another important step in autonomy is gaining the ability to walk away at about 12 months, and to say no at about 14 months.

In response to critics who felt that his findings placed additional pressure on parents, Stern offered reassurance that while the psychological imprints of these early interactions are important, they are not irrevocable.

“Relationships throughout life – with friends or relatives, for example – or in psychotherapy continually reshape your working model of relationships. An imbalance at one point can be corrected later; there is no crucial period early in life – it’s an on-going, life-long process.”

Since parents, no matter how great their love, how good their intentions or how much expert advice from an infant and child psychoanalyst they follow, will always be imperfect human beings, this is welcome news indeed.

 infant and child psychoanalyst

March 28,2016  |