The Start and Development of Anxiety in the Mother-Child Relationship

Post contributed by Marieta Dippenaar

The start and development of anxiety in the mother-child relationship

The very first anxiety-provoking moment in our lives is the moment when we are born. It is also the very moment that we must pass our first test. The APGAR, a quick test performed on a baby at 1 and 5 minutes after birth tells the health care provider how they tolerated the birth process and how they are doing outside of the womb. In some ways, the test is relevant throughout life, but we want to concentrate here on respiration – breathing.

If you are alive, you must breathe. A baby takes their first own deep breath and exhales with a cry. To get full marks on your first test in life, you need to cry a good loud, lively, powerful cry. So, from the first moment, a good cry is essential for you to be classified as a healthy baby.

Yet astonishingly, soon everyone will try to teach that baby to Stop that Cry! In other words, they start making you “sick” by teaching you to ignore your own feelings – your inborn need to cry to survive.

Newborn, little-you is terrified, where is the other part of you – the part that you had known forever? Suddenly you’re in some other place. This is your first experience of anxiety, but you are comforted the minute you are at your mother’s breast. You were terrified of ‘what now?’, terrified of being invisible, forgotten, terrified of ending up dead. Because your Mother is central, the only ‘thing’ outside of yourself that can keep you alive. Life is not what it was, and you do not know how you will be able to live. At this stage, you believe that you and Mother are one unit and to be connected to her is your only comfort.

So, you see, your anxiety, your terror right here in the first moment and forevermore, is always related to your Mother* and your fear of the future. “Is she here? Will she stay? If she’s not, I will surely disappear or die.” *(We use the word ‘Other’ where the Mother is not there, for any significant Other who can take care of the baby, now and later. It can be daddy, nanny, granny, partner later on, or whoever cares.)

Let’s get back to that first cry: It was once described by Prof. Oberholzer, a philosophy lecturer, as the baby’s announcement of, “I am here! Where are you?” It is an urgent and powerful statement of, “I am helpless, I need you desperately, my life depends on you.” This is the beginning of a life-long battle to be heard, seen, touched, understood, and comforted. In other words, to be related to by the (M)other.

The extent to which your mother will be able to do this is crucial in terms of your development of a sense of self; of how trusting, secure and eventually independent you can and will be. If she is not able now, or at any time during your childhood, to meet your needs, and or to relate to you, you will grow up to be at least anxious, or worse.

At this point, the anxiety is literally the fear of being wiped out, destroyed, or dead. It’s worth repeating: You see your mother and yourself as one. If she is not there, you are not there. It is true too; a baby will die if their mom is not there.

Then, if all is well, life carries on and hopefully, you are lucky enough to be born to a mother who relates full time to her little one and you can thrive. As you thrive, you slowly start recognising the fact that you are indeed a separate being from your mother. That first smile is one of the first signals that you now recognise mom as separate from yourself. At this point, new anxiety is added – you are still scared of being wiped out but now you add the fear of losing that lovely mom of yours. If you struggle to believe this concept, watch the Still Face Experiment on YouTube.

The solution and comfort remain that mother (or any other) will engage with you and do their very best to meet your needs. Remember, Anxiety is always about the M(other) and the future.

Later when you can do all sorts of things, by yourself and for yourself and you insist on doing so, there will be clashes with mom and what she wants. Whether it is using the potty correctly, not making a mess etc. At school, do you get good marks, are the teachers satisfied? And so it goes on, more or less, forevermore. The fear or anxiety now is of losing your mother or other’s love. Will mom and dad, the teachers, still love me and want me if I am dumb or lazy or ugly or naughty all those unspeakably awful words that grown-ups use to force their will onto kids? To teach them to BEHAVE and not BE. To ACHIEVE and not BE.

This is the point you must return to the starting point and cry very loudly, powerfully and in a lively, alive sort of way. You must, in fact, never stop. If the mother can allow you to express your fears and needs, you do not have to get overly anxious. If mom however trains you to BEHAVE and ACHIEVE and to STOP THAT CRY, you will have anxiety as a life companion instead of a M(other).

If we can help young people, kids, older people, and old people everyone to shout loudly “I am here, where are you?” we are getting somewhere in the attempt to comfort anxious people.

Simply put, anxiety is always about not being heard or seen, and the fear of what will happen if no one helps you. You need to scream, but in more mature ways, by using your words and telling people what you need and what you are scared of. Do not stop! Keep talking! Keep asking! Keep telling parents, teachers, friends and everyone what you need.

Kierkegaard, a famous philosopher, once said that “anxiety is a call of the self to the self.”  In other words, anxiety is a helpful, uncomfortable signal, hard to ignore, that you are too busy trying to please the (M)other instead of yourself. Anxiety is a powerful reminder that you must learn to cry for help loudly and in a very lively way. To say what you want, what you need and what you feel. A good mother will help you do this. She will listen, engage, and survive. If she can’t, ask some Other.

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