There is no such thing as a baby — if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone.
—Donald W. Winnicott, 1947
Not to be overly mommist, but it is probably not a stretch to imagine that for most of us that someone is most likely the baby’s — our own — mother. For Mother’s Day, Glen, one of the members of our primary irrelationship “patient zero couple,” offered to set the record straight on details from his personal saga.
It begins with his mother’s memory from long ago. She recalls a little sparrow, balancing sweetly on the windowsill outside the hospital, at exactly 7:58am, the moment Glen was born. She describes it as a harbinger of a love she never could have imagined. Only eighteen, she was newly married, and as much in love with her newborn infant as she was with Glen’s father, another eighteen year old, who would marry her briefly, and then disappear.
Is it possible that we’ve done so much troubleshooting on the subject of compulsivecaregiving and the joint creation of psychological defenses against the anxieties of empathy, intimacy and emotional investment that is, irrelationship that we’ve failed to joyously voice our own position regarding the human tendency toward growth, health, well-being and, of course, “real” relationship? Central to our notions of recovery is our contention that health and well-being are relational, they don’t happen in isolation. Health is a two-way mutual state of being in relationship with the world, represented by others, starting with mom (or key caregiver) in the baby-someone situation.
We founded our search for what would eventually become the irrelationship theory upon the bedrock hypothesis that human beings are natural-born caretakers (Searles, 1975). Before then, Bowlby (1969/1982), the founder of attachment theory, observed that human beings have an in-born motivational system to be care-seekers. We all want to heal the wounds of those who we internalized as sources of comfort and security throughout life, and we also need those people in order to fulfill our basic survival requirements, including the need for intimacy and connection. And we all agree that the most primary caretaker-caretaken foundational relationship is that between infant and mother—or the “mothering one.” Maybe we want someone to heal our own wounds, or help us heal our own wounds, together? Our wounds are relational, and the healing process must be, as well. It is, therefore, the “mother-someone” who sets the cornerstone for how it is that we will experience ourselves in relationships going forward.
Now back to Glen. His irrelationship with his first wife, Vicky, was a nightmare. It involved a lot of inappropriate and compulsive caretaking on Glen’s part as Vicky played audienceto his comprehensive performer role, and it loudly echoed a piece of his original role with his mother. The back-story to Glen’s irrelationship with his mom is useful in understandingmore of the dynamics at play. She herself was the product of an upper class, fifties style upbringing where the running theme was “children are to be seen and not heard.” The only contribution she could make to her own parent’s “care” was her absence. She played audience to her parent’s needs for her to actively disappear and so they sent her off to boarding schools where she felt lonely and cut off.
Now, conceiving at eighteen with the “boy from the other side of the tracks” did, for once, get her parent’s attention. Initially it was an embarrassment, but then, to her surprise, her mother began to idealize Glen. She felt that this was some kind of twisted punishment for her own youthful indiscretion. Now his grandmother went overboard and lavished Glen with everything that she was unwilling to give her own daughter. Glen’s mom admits that the second thought she had after he was born, the one after how much she loved him, was that she now had something that would allow her to “be in control.” Glen had become a piece on a monopoly board game that different parties moved around to satisfy their own needs.
Glen’s young father almost immediately went off to Vietnam, leaving his wife on her own. At that time the grandparents maintained a cool distance. So Glen initially won the “Oedipal Struggle,” getting his mother all for himself, inadvertently defeating his father. Although painful, his mother described this time with her “love child” as “blissful.” At last she felt like she was the center of attention and that her son was truly there to take care of her. She was no longer alone. And so, Glen took on this huge undertaking.
When Glen was five, his parents went through a bitter divorce. His mother tumbled into the fallback position of her parent’s infantilizing care, and she found religion to counter her mounting depression. While a new sense of spirituality was helpful for her, Glen’s sole purpose in life became the care of his her broken heart. This was the dynamic that set the stage for what we now refer to as “irrelationship” and became a kind of blueprint for his first difficult marriage as well. More shake up happened when Glen turned twelve. The man who would become his stepfather stepped in to take over the care of his mom and all hell broke loose. Glen was confused about his role. Soon his mother and he would feel at odds, and later become estranged, for many years to come.
Make no mistake, the straightjacket of irrelationship is a terribly lonely and isolated state but its recognition and recovery is an extremely and attainably optimistic proposition. In many ways, it is a doorway to a remedy for what seems to ail us here at the opening stage of the 21st Century. So many people experience an all-too-easy acceptance of states of relationship where we barely touch the ones we are ostensibly most near, where we have learned to protect ourselves from love’s anxieties by turning our most intimate relationships inside-out to hide from just that intimacy. Yes it seems the “opiate of the (contemporary) masses” is the delusion that we are not interdependent, that we do not need each other.
The good news is that Glen’s mom planted seeds of love in him—from conception forward — that were even deeper than the ones that initially bloomed as irrelationship. These were seeds of what we refer to as “real relationship,” ones that never let him forget, deep down, that he was loved and loveable — capable of both giving and receiving — and encouraging him to not give up until intimacy was a part of his everyday life. These seeds allowed him to work through the stranglehold of irrelationship in his marriage to his first wife and continued to flourish in Glen’s ‘real’ relationship with Mai, his second wife, with his own children, and — yes — at last, with his own mother.
The capacity to be alone is the child’s ability to internalize a sense of the mother’s compassionate, comforting and loving presence (Winnicott, 1958) — and it develops into the psychological capacity to regulate anxiety, self-soothe, and experience authenticity, as self-as-is that is central to intimacy. Without knowing it, this was always there for Glen.
It was Glen himself who, in a time of working through great pain and conflict at the end of his first marriage, referred to himself as a “human antidepressant.” It was a colorful jab at his mother’s turning of the tables, and essentially transforming him into the quintessential compulsive caretaker. Again, he certainly inhabited that role with his first wife. But years later he also can see that his mother’s love, care and attention formed the cornerstone of his own loving “self-someone”. He had become someone who could balance compassionate empathy for himself and others; someone who could give and receive love.
As there are “good enough mothers” (Winnicott, 1971), there are also evidently good enough “mother-someones” (and self-someones) who do not give up when things go terribly awry but are able to use the ruptures and derailments as opportunities to work together to right the wrongs, great opportunities (with the right attitude and mindset) for “interactive repair.” Glen and his mother would find that it is not not screwing up that began and sustains their healing process, but a willingness to work together to repair it when it goes off the rails.
Happy Mother’s Day — Happy Mother-Someone’s Day!
Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Searles, H. (1975). The patient as therapist to his analyst. In P. Giovacchini (Ed.) Tactics and techniques in psychoanalytic therapy: Countertransference (pp. 95-151). New York: Jason Aronson.
Winnicott, D. W. (1947). Hate in the countertransference. In D.W. Winnicott (Ed.) Through pediatrics to psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
Winnicott, D. W. (1958). Collected papers: Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock Publications.