Sunday, 21 November 2010

Character

Why Love Matters (Susan Gerhardt, Routledge, 2004) was first published when my daughter was about one year old. I heard about it, but could not bring myself to read it. It sounded like the kind of argument I was already struggling so hard with that it could only cause pain -- it sounded as though it would tell me that my place was in the home with my baby, and that only mothers could provide the kind of affection and attention that their babies need to thrive.

When I finally sat down with it, because of the reading list set by a School of Life course on the family, I could not put it down.

Yes, it does in large part advocate a social organization in which it is possible for caregivers to stay at home with their babies, solely focused on their needs, delights, demands and neuro-cognitive development. And that's fine, because it's pretty much the conclusion I came to during my own early-years development experience. Gerhardt would love to live in a society without conflict, and thinks we fight the wrong battles, without noticing what is under our noses. I agreed with everything she said.

I'm still very glad I didn't read it while my children were under three: I would have been even more crippled and blighted by guilt than I already was.

What amazed me in her account of early development was that psychoanalysis has moved on so very far from when I studied it via various university courses and after. In the late 1980s, there simply was so little research on cognitive and early years development carried out with real babies -- all we had to go on was the ever-fraught reconstruction of infancy from the vantage point of the already-damaged adult looking back. The debates could only ever be about the possibility of falsifying memories; and the validity or treachery of models of the mind based on hypothesis, as Freud's had to be. We were always arguing about the wrong thing. Actual children didn't come into the picture. Psychoanalysis was a theory of mind that had resolutely left childhood behind.

Gradually, however, the grandchildren of psychoanalysis have had their own children, and have also had the wealth, education and leisure, in certain parts of the world, to start to observe how the infant brain develops in real time. Feminism has also enabled scientists to take the experience of the pre-linguistic life, and the dynamic between caregiver and infant, seriously as a stage of development. What happens between 0 and 3 now has an acknowledged content, rather than being something inadmissible that takes place in a relegated zone known as the nursery and the home. As women have acquired status in public life, they have been able to speak about what they observe, and this experience can now be called developmental psychology rather than witchcraft or gossip.

Gerhardt's book begins with a description of brain development which I found astonishing. Freud simply had no tools with which to look into the mind. He had language and dreams, the slips of the tongue that might reveal fissures in rational thought, covering up troubling unconscious urges. He codified these into erotic and thanatic drives, reducing to a binary what we experience as irreconcilably multiple and ever-changing. For Freud the conversation was only ever about sex and death. For contemporary psychoanalysts, talk of sex and death might reveal brain development.

For Gerhardt, the crucial point is cortisol. She argues that stress, and the production of cortisol, is really what inhibits or enables the development of what she terms the 'social brain'. She argues that the orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortices do not develop optimally if too much cortisol is produced for too long in early infancy (I'm paraphrasing horribly, but bear with me).

She is saying that the infant brain is premature, and that it only moves into the final stages of growth after birth, and because of the stimulation of affection from the caregiver. But stress -- the stress of separation, and the stress of a depressed mother -- will flood the infant brain with cortisol, and if this happens too often and for too long, the emotional homeostatic function will set at too high or, paradoxically, too low a point. The upshot will be that the baby will continue to be unable to regulate her own emotions. She will either be too fearful, or too turned off, to develop properly.

For Gerhardt balance is everything. She focuses on how the social brain is geared towards enabling a child to regulate emotion -- emotion which is made up of complex reactions to stimuli, neurochemical and hormonal. The pre-linguistic infant cannot accomplish this regulation alone, and must have an adult caregiver to reassure her, respond to her, and encourage her, if her brain is to be able to dispose of excess hormonal flooding at moments of stress.

I was so grateful to Gerhardt for bringing together neuroscience and psychoanalysis into one place -- for taking both seriously, and for taking seriously the impact of post-natal depression on women and children. But the book still left me sad -- the social vision she is arguing for, where we make decisions based on wellbeing rather than economic imperatives, is so far away. Do we have a generation of happy, well-educated mothers who accomplish their career needs, and then stop to devote themselves to delightful relationships with gorgeous babies in supportive contexts? No, we have lowered joint incomes and housing inflation beyond the wildest imaginations of our parents, forcing men and women to work ridiculous hours, and then justify the stress this causes in the name of 'looking after their families'.

We clunk along missing the whole point of simply being with our children. And then we blame them for the characters they develop.

3 comments:

lulu's missives said...

Brilliant post. So pertinent to what I'm studying at the moment. Thank you for sharing. x

Alka said...

"We clunk along missing the whole point of simply being with our children. And then we blame them for the characters they develop."

"Simply being" is one of the hardest things to do. Our minds aren't programmed to let us 'just be'. We want everything, and when we can't have it all - the well-paying, power-rendering job, the beautiful children and the smiling, happy marriages, we start questioning our choices. And forget that it is all about balance. That a) balance is very difficult to achieve, and, b) sometimes, even when we are able to find the balance, it is not acceptable, because we want it all.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you did not mention Piaget in regards to child development!