Child Rearing: Boundaries and Love
The creation of our primal play
Posted Nov 23, 2015
In keeping with the knowledge that all psychiatric conditions are the expression of our plays of consciousness, and not medical diseases, I will give an example as to how the original plays get written. [See – “There is a new Paradigm for Psychiatry – It is the Play of Consciousness”, not molecular brain diseases.”] At a certain point during breastfeeding, it is natural for the baby to bite the breast. This becomes one among many important vehicles for mother and baby to negotiate their boundaries—between self and other.
All of child rearing revolves around boundaries and love. The central character who influences the qualities of the original play is the mother. The provision of good enough maternal love is the most important presence in a baby’s life. It is the most important sustenance in a baby’s life, the original source of nurture. If a baby is reared by someone other than mother, then that person becomes the central figure. This is not to say that later issues that come from a father aren’t major and may override the original play. And certainly trauma all throughout life rewrites the play in potentially devastating ways. Motherhood is of the highest value.
I will take an excerpt from my book, The Psychotherapy of Character, the Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain, to address the biting of the breast. We will follow how ‘Eddie’s’ evolving play would be written as his limbic system digested the actualities of his mother’s nurture. With maternal love, the play is limbically infused with Oxytocin. With unresponsiveness and abuse, darker plays get written, which are limbically infused with serotonin, adrenaline, and cortisol. All experience is mapped as the child constructs his play. As an example of how this takes place, I will tell three fictitious versions of the story of Eddie breastfeeding, each resulting in the writing of a very different play. And finally, we have the true story of Eddie.
The First Version
“One day when Eddie was four months old, a glistening white tooth crowned at his gum line. Mother discovered him with two fingers in his mouth, crying inconsolably. When Eddie cut his first tooth, it hurt. He didn’t understand this dysphoric experience of unrelenting pain. It was new, disruptive, and untoward. As it broke the boundaries of comfort, Eddie’s well-being was not maintained. Life was not seamless anymore. It was painful. Teething was a built-in morphogenic disruption.
Mother was upset by his distress, and gave him a few teething rings to chew on. A frozen bagel seemed to work the best. She dabbed her fingers with whiskey and rubbed his inflamed gums. She held him tight. His distress was soothed. His intactness was restored and maintained.
Eddie morphed a mouthful of teeth. They would be used in the service of self-sufficiency—the chewing of solid food. Teeth also carry their legacy as a biting weapon. Chewing and biting are part of the natural chain of growth and maturation. With his new teeth, Eddie would explore their dimensions.
One day when Eddie was breast feeding, he came up with a good idea. With a devilish gleam in his eye, he bit down… hard. Mother screamed in pain. She pulled him off with a loud, “No!” Eddie cried pathetically, as if he was the one who had been bitten. Soon enough, the crying stopped and he was ready to continue his meal. Mother put him back on her breast. He fed for a while, and then he did it again. First the gleam, then the chomp… then the pain… Mother’s rebuke… and more pathetic crying.
With his powerful jaw and mouthful of teeth, it was built in that Eddie would bite. All breast-feeding babies do. His biting impulse was followed by his intention, and then he did it. Obviously, the bite violated the boundary of his mother’s sensitive tissues. It hurt—a lot. Her sensitive breast tissue is a built-in differentiating boundary.
The bite sent Mother through the roof. She pulled away. Her “No!” was an effective rebuke. It drew a line between his bite and her breast. By this reproach Mother said “No” to her boundary being violated. In fact, she actually said a “Yes” in the service of honoring her boundary. This was not an abstract object lesson. She was not setting a limit to artificially control baby-Eddie for his own good. His biting hurt and could not be ignored. As an effective reproach it required considerable aggression on Mother’s part. It successfully overpowered the aggression of his bite, and broke him out of his biting state of mind. By virtue of her sufficient reproach, she insisted on respect for her boundary.
What actually transpired in Mother? The pain of the bite was not fun. It violated her tender membranes. When bitten, it is human nature to want to bite back … plus a little extra. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is built into all of us. Mother’s retaliatory impulse didn’t maker her a bad person. The retaliation wish is, by definition, a sadistic impulse—the intent to inflict hurt. It is the natural response to an attack and was put into her by being bitten. Obviously, to attack back would not be a good idea. In order for Mother to rebuke effectively, she had to accept the flash of her wish to retaliate without acting on it. She was then free to exercise the considerable aggression of her “No!”
Mother’s rebuke was assertive aggression, not sadistic aggression. Nonetheless it was uncomfortable for her to sit with the high degree of aggression necessary to direct a rebuke toward her baby in the first place. In addition, the rebuke aggression is easily confused with the activated impulse of sadistic retaliation aggression, and gets blurred with it. The intensity of the aggression of both is high. Then, after she delivered the rebuke, she was forced to witness Eddie’s pathetic crying, as if she had beaten him. Fortunately, she didn’t feel guilt, or at least, not too much guilt. At its best, she was, to some degree, conflicted by her rebuke.
Mother was then free to genuinely engage Eddie in a loving way again. Without an effective rebuke, this wouldn’t have been possible. Mother’s reproach allowed her to bring Eddie back close, physically and emotionally, in a real way.
Reproach, etymologically, means “to bring back close.” It said “No” to the bite, not to baby-Eddie. It restored her genuine availability for relatedness through love and tenderness. This encompasses the central dynamic of child raising—boundaries and love. Breast-feeding was such a important vehicle for these negotiations between Eddie and his mother. (As a footnote, I want to be clear that I am not saying that a bottle-fed baby cannot be well raised. Loving responsiveness can certainly be established between mother and child with bottle feeding.
As mother established and maintained her boundary, Eddie learned the dimensions of his biting impulse. It got established in proper proportion, place, and function. The bite served as a vehicle by which mother and Eddie negotiated their boundaries, and differentiated good aggression from sadistic aggression. This fostered and allowed Eddie to harness and modulate his good aggression. Aggression is not a dirty word. Eddie’s wherewithal to take on his future life challenges will come from the freedom to exercise his good aggression.
Through good-enough mothering, Eddie eventually respected Mother’s boundary and stopped biting her. By re-establishing their boundaries, they were able to retain relatedness through love. Throughout, Eddie mapped his experience—the bites, the rebuke, and the restoration of being back close—into his cortex through his limbic system. Mother’s good-enough provision of boundaries and love fostered Eddie’s well-being. As a result a boundary-respecting and loving inner play was written, a story of a good-enough self and a loving mother. [See – “What is Love? An Ode to Motherhood on Mother’s Day”]
The Second Version
Let’s say Mother has sadism in her character. Eddie gets that gleam in his eye and bites. Mother retaliates with a slap in the face. This little jerk bit her, and he got what’s coming to him. She’ll teach him not to bite! He bites again; this time a smack; the next time a good shake will do the trick; then another slap. Mother was unconflicted and untroubled by her behavior. Eddie was bad and he deserved to be taught a lesson he wouldn’t forget. And she was just the one to do it.
In fact, Mother’s slaps actually inflamed a retaliatory impulse inside Eddie to attack back. He briefly suppressed his inflamed rage out of fear, but then exploded with a biting rage. He bit again. Mother escalated her punishment. She slapped him again. This generated a sadistic discharge and sadistic contact with Mother. After a few rounds, Eddie got intimidated and suppressed his stoked-up rage. He learned his lesson and stopped biting. He submitted and acted “good” on the surface. All was mapped.
The scenario that was written into Eddie’s developing inner story was sadomasochism. Eddie’s “self” persona was written as bad, and the persona of “other” was written as mad. Relatedness was on the basis of rage attack. To retain relatedness, and discharge his built up sadistic aggression, sadomasochism was the substitute avenue of engagement. It was mapped as such by his limbic system. There was no mappings of having been brought back close, in loving.
Mother has a masochistic character. She feels guilty about all aggression, both sadistic and assertive. In her world, all aggression is believed to be sadistic. In order for her to be a good and loving person, she must control and deny any aggression. She believes that a rebuke would be cruel. With a gleam in his eye, Eddie bites. But Mother is conflicted about her retaliatory impulse. It is not acceptable for her to feel any aggression toward baby-Eddie. Unfortunately, this interferes with the provision of an effective and responsive rebuke. Consequently, his bite will have no consequences. She establishes that it is okay for Eddie to hurt her. The absence of a rebuke actually communicates, “Bite away, no problem!” She’ll just take it.
As a result, Baby-Eddie will not honor a maternal boundary that hasn’t been honored by his mother. The absence of a rebuke actually fosters more biting. As a result Mother takes it and takes it. Eventually, she can’t take it any longer. She explodes and lashes out. Then she feels guilty about her explosion and vows never to do that again. Consequently, she won’t rebuke at the next bite. Once again, this will foster the delivery of more bites. The pattern will be repeated. Eddie bites. Mother feels increasingly guilty about her own sadistic impulses, and takes the abuse all the more.
Of equal importance is that in order to suppress her anger, Mother withdraws. It’s not possible to ignore being hurt. Due to her withdrawal, she ceases to be genuinely emotionally available. Even though she may behave correctly and appropriately on the surface, it is false, albeit well-meaning behavior. Emotional withdrawal is at least as problematic as sadistic retaliation. It means that Mother cannot and does not genuinely bring Eddie back close. This is to be distinguished from her guilty, good, “should” behavior. As a result, Eddie was subject to periods of emotional withdrawal, alternating with unpredictable sadistic retaliations, while everything looks good on the surface. Meanwhile, on his side, Eddie counters the absence of connectedness by getting substitute and compensatory relatedness through biting. He will seek her attention via sadism, not though loving relatedness. In addition, biting became an avenue of punishing Mother for her withdrawal.
Fairly soon, Mother stopped breast-feeding because baby-Eddie is “a biter.” Her punishment is to sever the loving connection of the breast-feeding itself. And because his impulse to bite had been fostered, Eddie is in agreement that he is a biter, that he is bad. This is congruent with what his mother believes and carries about him.
These sadistic currents were mapped by Eddie’s limbic system into his cortex thereby writing a sadomasochistic play, similar to the one written in relation to the sadistic mother but from the opposite direction. Eddie is bad, mother is mad with a smiling face, and substitute engagement is sadistic.
We have seen three ways that Eddie’s internal story could have been written. In each case his limbic system digested his mother’s actual provision into his foundational play. Under the best of circumstances, mothering cannot be perfect. The presence of a protective, warm, timely, soothing, holding, maternal provision will always be, to some degree, unreliable and unresponsive. All children have to deal with adversity. And there is plenty of it built into life. There can never be an idyllic paradise. There are always life circumstances in the family that will affect mothering to one degree or another—death, sickness, divorce, unavailability due to preoccupation with others, work, the arrival of new children, demands of older children, psychiatric conditions, alcohol or drug abuse, miscarriages, war, etc.
However, baby-Eddie was a not super-fragile thing who was easily damaged by simple untoward experience. As with all babies, Eddie was very resilient. It actually takes a lot to damage a baby. The regular processes of growth and change in life always create disruption. And the resultant distress is manageable by good-enough mothering. With good enough loving, Eddie and Mother got through it together. Mothering just needs to be good enough. Eddie certainly did not need extra adversity. It is not true that “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” The impact of nurture on the writing of Eddie’s internal play flowed from the character of his mother in concert with life’s exigencies.
These three stories of breast-feeding and biting are prototypical of how the play gets written through the limbic filtering of Eddie’s maternal experience—to show how it all works.
Let us now get back to Eddie’s real story as it informed the writing of his actual play. When Eddie teethed, his insistent crying was irritating to his mother. She did the right things with the wrong spirit. She gave him baby aspirin and applied bourbon to his inflamed gums. When this didn’t work, it led to a slap or a shake to quiet him down. Otherwise, he was left to his own devices. He was never held by a soft warm body nor comforted with tenderness.
We know that Eddie was bottle-fed. The doctor instructed his mother that bottle feeding was superior and more sanitary. And she could control for the correct dosage of milk. His feeding was administered with brusque hands, harsh hands, cold hands. Besides, holding and tenderness were not her strong suit. Mother found body contact disgusting and dirty. All was limbically mapped.
With his new teeth, Eddie tried out his bite on the plastic nipple. Plastic has no pain nerves, and he could bite as hard and long and often as he wanted. Since Eddie didn’t hurt his mother’s sensitive tissues, he did not bump into a “No!” He didn’t have to modulate his aggression. Consequently, there was no limit to his biting. (On the good side, it did spare him from Mother’s potential sadistic retaliations.) This was limbically mapped.
Because he was the recipient of his mother’s cruelty on an ongoing basis anyway, Eddie was already filled with a suppressed retaliation rage looking for an outlet. Consequently, biting the plastic became an avenue of discharge for that rage. Unmodulated biting fostered and exacerbated biting. Not only that, biting into an inanimate object was not satisfying. The purpose of biting is to have an impact, to inflict pain. With no satisfaction of impact, an intensification of frustrated biting ensued. This meant that Eddie’s anger discharge went nowhere and felt impotent. It was limbically mapped.
The absence of reciprocal interaction between Eddie and his mother had important repercussions. Biting became an avenue of impotent, sadistic rage that had no limit. There was no responsive modulation of aggression through which Eddie and his mother would be brought back close, never mind that closeness was decidedly lacking in the first place. All was mapped.
As Eddie grew older, each new thing replayed and extended what came before. To his mother, his diapers were the source of dirtiness and disgust. He was dirty and disgusting, and he inflicted it on her. The cut of his jaw and the shape of his body were ugly. She despised the sight of him. When he didn’t speak in full sentences by age one, he was stupid and embarrassing to her. She knew of other babies who were already verbal. He was the ongoing object of ridicule and shame. It was mapped as such.
The central horror of Mother’s nurture was the absence of maternal love. From the beginning, she did not respond to his Authentic Being at all. He was an “it.” There was no genuine feeling from her and no feeling for him. Eddie’s very need for her love and care was an unwanted and an “unwant-able” intrusion that drained her. Mother did not touch or hold Eddie with tenderness and warmth. This absence created a deprivation. Eddie adapted to his unrequited need for love with tears of rage, alternating with withdrawal into apathy. But his solutions to a cold and unresponsive world could not effectively protect him. His ongoing well-being remained in distress. All was mapped.
Mother’s actual contact with Eddie was rough, hard, and cold, both physically and emotionally. His experience of relatedness was as the recipient of pain and attack. His need for love did not disappear. In the absence of a loving and respectful something, however, Eddie attached to the substitute form of relatedness—abuse. Later, he would develop a taste for it.
Mother operated from the top-down processing of her character drama from her own cortical theater. For her, Baby Eddie was the projection screen of her internal play. He was the “bad” persona whom she judged as deserving of her attacks. She was not at odds with her own cruelty. She was “good”, and he got what he deserved. The projected images of Mother’s consciousness became consonant with Eddie’s consolidating internal story.
The abuse and neglect by Eddie’s mother stands in stark contrast to the care of a good-enough mother. Responsiveness and tenderness of feeling would have provided a safe harbor for Eddie’s Authentic Being to be at the center of his thriving and his developing self. She would have related from her Authentic Being to his. Likewise, with sufficient maternal love, the developing image of “other” would be deeply infused with loving and would carry that resonance. The capacity for love and authenticity, all throughout life, derives from a play forged by maternal love. As we know, this was not to be Eddie’s fate.”
Robert A. Berezin, MD, is the author of Psychotherapy of Character, the Play of Consciousness in the Theater of the Brain.