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.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Getting started

So, in November, I have signed up to the 'write a novel in a month' website (http://www.nanowrimo.org/). This means I am aiming to write 50,000 words of my book on motherhood.

I have already written reams and reams of words on motherhood, and done a lot of interview-based research. I get up every day at 6am (ok, sometimes I don't make it, but a lot of the time I get up). But I feel terrified, and unable to progress.

During the day I go to work, write all day, in a very different style, and execute tasks. My checklists have become clean and ordered, they are accomplished checklists.

In the evening, my time with the children has become contained and neat: a bedtime story and we're done. Occasionally, alone in the dark morning, I glimpse a future in which my battery-farmed children will emerge, pale-skinned, into the adult world, devoid of personal interests, utterly narrowminded, unable to cross a road by themselves, and in debt for the rest of their lives because I couldn't earn enough money to send them to university. This is all grist to the motherhood book, but doesn't help me solve the moral problem of what to do when my daaughter gets up at 6.10am, and comes downstairs wanting to spend time with me, at the exact moment that I am trying to steal a march on the day and write.

It's clear to me that my writing problem is twofold:


  1. I am terrified of accomplishing a book, given the struggle of completing one ten years ago. I am terrified to become that selfish again.
  2. I have already written so much that my thinking has both clarified and become muddied by excess. It's easier to give up. I am closer to finishing than to starting, and it's starting that carries all the heady excitement. The reality is that I am in the slog straight, those swimming lanes where you just go up and down, eating away at what has to be done before you hit your goal.
  3. Writing at this point is somewhat mechanical -- or rather the insights that do emerge are completely unpredictable, and available only because one is close to the material. I am terrified of becoming both immersed in my material, but simultaneously more detached from it. I am, again, terrified of finishing.
So actually my twofold problem, that became threefold in the writing of it, is still only singular: I am terrified, not of starting, but of finishing, losing all the thought, seeing it distilled into one kind of thing, a thing that can be judged and found wanting.

What can I learn from all of this?

Hmm.....

  • It's not fair.
  • Life's not fair.
  • I ain't dead yet. Get on with it.
  • I am terrified of finishing writing, big or small.
  • I am inflexible once I have finished something, and find it even harder to go back and undo it.
  • This inflexibility, this desire to kill things, is also part of why I am terrified to finish my book.
  • Openness is both pleasurable and overwhelming: being halfway through a subject is at once glorious, but also bog-like.
  • Criticism is far harder to take when it is externally-imposed, and when its grounds are relative rather than absolute.
  • I just have to get on with it. Writing still has to take place in real time.