There is no more important bond in one’s life in shaping future relationships than that of a baby’s relationship to his or her mother. But as mothers will often say, “Nobody gave me the manual.” This is why I’d like to introduce you to the work of Dr. Beatrice Beebe.
Have you ever attended a lecture that had you totally engaged and on-the-edge-of your-seat? One in which you and the rest of the audience were so involved with the speaker, and each other, that you barely noticed that six hours have flown by?
Dr. Beatrice Beebe is just such a presenter. She is a psychoanalyst, and has been a well-known infant researcher for four decades. As I was absorbing what she has to say, I was at the same time wondering how I can share this wisdom with those of my readers who are not in the field of psychology, but are profoundly interested in the depth and complexity of human relationships.
As many of you know, I have often written about trauma, and how early childhood trauma influences our adult lives. Nowhere, in my opinion, is this more poignantly demonstrated than in Dr. Beebe’s lectures. Through the use of splitscreen images that show the second-by-second interaction between first-time mothers and their four-month-old infants, we are brought into their emotional world in a visceral way.
We can observe closely the faces, verbal rhythms and body language of both mother and baby, and see clearly that babies are capable of social interaction from birth. Further, we sense the exquisite attunement that some mothers exhibit, and how the pair exults in mutual enjoyment of learning about each other. We see them matching each other’s movements, sounds, and facial expressions. When things are going well, mother and baby are engaged in a beautiful dance of mutual enjoyment. At this point in the presentation, those of us in the audience are murmuring, “Ah-h-h.”
But then, we are shown another mother and baby. As we go through the second-by-second images, a different, excruciating dynamic emerges. We sense the baby’s slight distress. We see the mother ignoring it. Instead of reading the baby’s signals (which are obvious in the freeze-frames), the mother tries to get her baby to smile.
Why? The mother, in her insecurity, needs for the baby to smile. Perhaps this will make her feel like a good mother. She begins an elaborate series of moves, none of which are attuned to her child. She continues to smile, but without knowing it, is almost snarling. She tweaks the baby’s nose, she moves her head very close to her child. The baby tries to move away, feels the material of his clothing in an attempt to self-soothe, moves his head to the side, and eventually arches his back. However, the mother is oblivious to his distress. Unlike with the images of the first mother, this time we in the audience can barely sit still in our chairs, so intense is our identification with this infant that we feel his discomfort.
And so begins a lifetime for this child of feeling unseen, unheard and unknown. He will develop what is known as “disorganized attachment,” exhibiting simultaneous approach/avoidance behavior. He is in conflict. He needs his mother, but is afraid of her.
Dr. Beebe is quick to remind the audience that compassion for the mother is very important as well. She most likely has a history of unresolved loss, trauma, and abuse, and is following the intergenerational patterns of behavior she has learned in her family. It’s all she knows.
After this presentation, Dr. Beebe gives the audience a task. We are to pair up with a person sitting beside us, and exchange roles back and forth of being “mother” and “baby.” I’m sitting next to a friend of mine. The “babies” are instructed to put on the most distressed and pained look that they possibly can. My friend transformed right in front of my eyes, and the sadness on her face astounded me. Then we “mothers” were instructed to smile. I couldn’t even do it.
When I became the “baby,” I put on my saddest face, and my “mother” was instructed to look away. It was a very painful experience for me. Back and forth, we took turns with insensitive and inappropriate responses.
Dr. Beebe is fascinating to watch. She reminds me of an enchanting butterfly. She has an ethereal quality, and seems to float around the room, using graceful hand gestures, and deeply emotional facial expressions. If this sounds overly dramatic, it is not. By doing this, she is encouraging the therapists in the audience to pay much more attention to our body language, facial expressions, vocal rhythms and eye contact with our patients. She models behavioral authenticity, which is sometimes almost outside of conscious recognition.
At the end of the lecture, I came away with a greater understanding of the sometimes amazingly subtle clues about the connection between mother and child, which are often difficult to pick up in daily life.
I must explain that I’m greatly simplifying Dr. Beebe’s very complex research, which studies infants at four months, one year, and for some, into their twenties. Although her lectures are geared toward psychoanalysts, psychologists and psychotherapists to aid them in their clinical work with adult patients, I believe that her insights would greatly benefit everyone.
However, the problem is that no money is going toward grants for this kind of behavioral research, and though it addresses something that’s basic to the human condition, it is no longer in vogue. Instead, neuroscience is in. The current research into brain activity, while valuable, has overshadowed the importance of the work of researchers like Dr. Beebe, whose up close and personal work with mothers and infants can intervene and help change the lives of both for the better.
Nevertheless, Dr. Beebe’s work is greatly appreciated by many psychoanalytic institutes and schools of psychology. The Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles, of which I am a member, enjoys a deep sense of connection with Dr. Beebe, who in turn considers ICP to be her “home away from home.”
If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Beebe’s work, she has just published a new book, The Origins of Attachment: Infant Research and Adult Treatment in collaboration with Dr. Frank M. Lachmann (Routledge, 1014). She is in the process of developing a documentary for mothers, as well as a picture book of drawings that illustrate her work. Because of confidentiality issues, Dr. Beebe cannot show her clinical interviews to the general public.
Another project that Dr. Beebe directs in New York City, where she practices, is an ongoing prevention project for mothers who were pregnant and widowed on 9/11. The project’s therapists have published a book, edited by Beebe, B.Cohen, P.Sossin, K.M.& Markese. (Eds.) (2012), that documents their work: Mothers, infants and young children of September 11, 2001: A primary prevention project. (Routledge). More information about Dr. Beebe’s work can be found at http://nyspi.org/CommunicationSciences/index.html.
As I walked away from that exciting day-long lecture, I thought how wonderful it would be if every first-time mother had access to material that illustrates the importance of how she attunes to her child, and how the child is attuned to her. This would go a long way toward minimizing potential trauma that would have long-lasting effects on the child’s adult life.
In other words, Dr. Beebe’s work, emphasizing the crucial importance of each mother’s on-going attachment to her unique child, is much more helpful than any “manual” that mothers wish they could have.