John Bowlby, under the influence of Charles Darwin, described the essential role of attachment relationships in survival. He spoke of a child's need for what he called a secure base, from which to explore the world and grow into a separate person. He similarly recognized the need for a mother to have a secure base of her own in order to provide this for her child. In a 1980 lecture entitled "Caring for Children," reprinted in his book A Secure Base, he said:
I have referred to the ordinary sensitive mother who is attuned to her child's actions and signals, who responds to them more or less appropriately, and who is able to monitor the effects her behavior has on her child and to modify it accordingly...This is where a parent, especially the mother who usually bears the brunt of parenting during the early months or years, needs all the help she can get-not in looking after her baby, which is her job, but in all the household chores...In addition to practical help, a congenial female companion is likely to provide the new mother with emotional support or, in my terminology, to provide for her the kind of secure base we all need in conditions of stress and without which it is difficult to relax.In some cultures an extended family can fill this role. A supportive grandmother can be very important. If a new mother holds in her mind a warm loving relationship with her own mother, even the grandmother is not nearby or even if she is deceased, this relationship can provide the secure base she needs when she becomes a mother.
But these three mothers did not have this secure base from which to parent their young child( and they certainly didn't have help with household chores!!)
Sometimes when I sit on the floor with these mother-baby pairs, and listen to the mothers' story while the child explores the room, I feel that I am in a way in the role of good grandmother. I give a mother time and space to relax and be heard with the hope that this will fortify her in her efforts to be a secure base for her child.
One mother came in with her toddler, collapsed on the couch and proclaimed,"He's having a terrible day." Her son was very fussy and easily exploded in frustration. But as she and I spoke, he seemed to relax. He climbed off her lap and explored the different toys in the room. At a few instances we could see that he might lose it, such as when his mother told him not to draw on the table with markers, but she was able to redirect him without precipitating a tantrum. When towards the end of our 50 minute visit I commented at how well he had done, she agreed that he was much more calm than he had been the rest of the day.
I am certainly not alone with this idea. The field of infant mental health grew out of the work of Selma Fraiberg who, in her groundbreaking 1974 paper, Ghosts in the Nursery, describes what was termed the ‘Infant Mental Health Program”. A staff of experienced psychologists and social workers went into the homes of mothers who had been abused. By forming a close connection in a supportive and understanding way while these mothers were interacting with their children in their own home, they were able to significantly improve the parenting capacities of these traumatized mothers. The most important part of this intervention turned out to be the relationship between the therapist and the mother. But it was different from therapy with the mother. The aim of the intervention was to help the mother to connect with her child in a meaningful way. Daniel Stern, Tessa Baradon and Alicia Lieberman, among many others, have continued and elaborated upon this tradition.
The difference between my practice, however, and that of infant mental health practitioners, is that parents come to a pediatrician expecting "advice" about what to do. The slew of parenting books and articles with such titles as "How to Get Your Child to Listen" or "Seven Essential Steps for Effective Discipline," support this way of thinking. The father of one of these babies became very frustrated when after two visits I had failed to "make the baby sleep at night."
Our culture's endorsement the use of psychoactive medication for very young children similarly promotes the idea of the "quick fix." The parents of one of these babies were so convinced that his irritable nighttime behavior was actually a seizure that I referred them to a neurologist. After an EEG determined that there was, in the neurologist's words, "nothing wrong," he recommended a tricyclic anti-depressant.
My sense is that our culture is moving away from a simplistic, "quick fix" view of mental health, which has been promoted by the combined influences of the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance industry. I hope that the wealth of knowledge about human development, and the critical role of early relationships in promotion of mental health, emanating from the discipline of infant mental health, will continue to penetrate throughout our healthcare system.