If we are lucky as babies (and most of us are – our parents might not have been perfect but were probably “good enough”) we will experience a period of “primary maternal preoccupation“.
This concept was identified by Donald Winnicott (other theories are available – see Wilfred Bion’s “maternal reverie”) and essentially refers to the mother’s state of mind for a few weeks before and after the birth of a child. In very basic terms this means the mother becomes obsessed by the baby, thinking almost entirely of his or her needs, wondering what the child is thinking, what different noises and expressions mean and generally trying to work out what is going on for the child.
As the child grows, the need for quite this level of attention decreases but the child still needs to be “held in mind” by his or her parents in a similar way if they are going to thrive emotionally (and in fact physically).
Children who do not experience this will develop an array of strategies to almost “force” parents to think about them. Some might be obvious – and pretty conscious on the part of the child – such as a temper tantrum or less obvious (and perhaps less conscious) such as a child who is always falling over or having “accidents”.
Unsurprisingly, most children in care have not experienced a period of maternal preoccupation or been held in mind enough. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, the parents were never “good enough”.
In a way, as an organisation we try our best to replicate this missing phase of maternal preoccupation and to hold the children in mind at all times. We have structures to make sure we do – handover meetings, community meetings, care plan meetings, clinical meetings, LAC reviews, supervision and of course constant informal discussions. And this is on top of all the time we spend with the children themselves – doing activities, talking to them, thinking with them, general day-to-day care and so on.
But it will never fully replicate what has been missed and, because they have missed it, the children never really trust that we are thinking of them or holding them in mind at all. They think – and act as if – when we are not absolutely with them and alongside them, that we will forget them. So they have a variety of methods for making sure we do not – most of which are of the “acting-out” variety.
An amusing, and really clear, example happened to me the other day: I was watching TV with Sarah, she was hugged up close to me on the sofa and out of exhaustion I closed my eyes for maybe 30 seconds. I was woken by Sarah smacking me in the face with a cushion and shouting “hello, hello!” When I told her this was not OK, she said: “what do you expect me to do?”
Roly has been doing something a little more nuanced and long-term. He wanted an MP3 player he had seen on Ebay. I ordered it for him on the condition that he saved his pocket money and paid me for it before I gave it to him. This is benign enough, and of course he really did want it, but it also insured that I would be thinking about him when not with him (and, importantly for the children, when not at work). Thinking about him when I was ordering it, when I was checking my post, once it had arrived and I could see it sitting on the table and so on.
However, this alone was not enough for Roly – in the week it took to come he was asking constant questions about it – are you sure you ordered it? has it arrived yet? did you order the blue one? and so on and so forth. It did not matter to him that he had already asked these questions many times.
It was driving me slightly mad to be honest so I was relieved when he had saved up the money and I could give him the bloody thing. But how naïve I was. Now he is constantly seeking me out to talk about music I can put on it – do I have this song? or that album? can I download it? what other music do I have? It is relentless.
Because, sadly, they don’t really believe they are being held in mind unless they are grating on you…