The week before I returned to work, I sat in my backyard with my baby and looked up at our willow tree. The willow in the backyard is quite old, and its trunk swerves loopily, strutted by a heavy wooden beam. We were sitting quietly, looking at the jasmine and the birds, and it felt like I was introducing the baby to the outside world. Of course, he’d been outside lots over the last nine months, but there recently had been a change in his understanding of the world. He looked where I pointed. He seemed to understand things. Later that day, he’d pick up a spoon and used it to daub yogurt from a bowl into his mouth. He used the handle of the spoon to do this, but still, he suddenly understood how to navigate the world.
We sat and looked up at the willow tree. Some sparrows darted from the pineapple guava tree to the willow and back again. I saw one hummingbird, then another. The hummingbirds are one of the best things about living in California. Even now, years after I moved here, I’m delighted every time I see one. These were black-chinned hummingbirds, not as flashy as the brighter green Anna’s hummingbirds I often saw, and they bounced from branch to branch in the guava, talking to one another. Eventually, I realized they were irritated with us. We were sitting on the bench under the willow tree, and the baby was making gentle little moans: “Ayyyyy, Ayyyyyy.” The tiny voice meant he was happy, watchful, and a little tired. We looked up, and eventually I saw one of the nooks just above my head resolve into a small brown cup with a bird sitting on it, unmistakable hummingbird beak poking out like an indignant prong. We had a nest! I watched the male bounce from branch to branch around the still female, trying to point out their manic buzz to the baby, but he couldn’t see them, they were too small and they moved too fast. Instead, he tried to eat the willow branch that bowed down to caress the tops of our heads. That same week, I noticed a tiny bird skeleton curled in a planter on our front stoop. It was strange, I didn’t recall seeing a fledgling there, though it was obvious the bird had tried to leave its nest and failed.
The next week I returned to work. As I made my way across campus, I walked under oak trees, and saw dozens of caterpillars swinging from the lower branches. Most of them were dark brown with beige stripes on their sides, but every now and then a brilliant green inchworm would swoop into view. I didn’t want one falling on my head, but I felt charmed by them, waving about like squat, long spiders. I imagined them like Charlotte’s babies in Charlotte’s Web, looping themselves on their silks to escape their nest.
But this is wrong. Spring cankerworms fling themselves from their trees when they sense danger, in the form of a bird or something that might be a bird, dangling on their silks until the threat clears and they can crawl back up the threads to their leafy homes and dinners. What is the difference between flinging yourself from your nest and flinging yourself away from danger?
Around this time, my son had just begun a particularly difficult behavior. When he was upset by something not going as he’d like, he would fling himself back heavily, arching his back and stretching his arms above his head with an irritated moan. This was new. Earlier, he’d only complained when his true needs weren’t met—when he was tired, or hungry. But now, he catapulted himself back and muttered when we didn’t get out of the door fast enough, when I took his zucchini away, when I pulled him back from the glass of water I had put, absentmindedly, on the floor near his toys. He was experiencing his wants as needs, and each time they weren’t fulfilled, he felt a small, violent fury. He was becoming independent. He had preferences, and plans. The problem with this was that he weighed a lot, and he was quite strong, so each time he flung himself back, I felt nervous that I’d drop him, or that he’d wriggle from my grasp and end up on the floor. Sometimes I feel like my entire experience of motherhood has been about worrying I’d drop the baby. First, because he was so small a person I was certain even the gentlest hold would bruise him. Now, because his wants and needs were no longer the same. He wanted to be free of my grasp; my grasp was the only thing keeping him safe.
While I was pregnant, I read a lot by the midcentury British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Winnicott, a British pediatrician who retrained as a psychoanalyst, is known particularly for his examinations of how play relates to development and in his concept of the “good enough” mother. The “good enough” mother, or the “ordinary devoted mother,” is the aim of a Winnicottian maternity instead of perfection, and the central feature of the good enough mother is that she holds her baby, comforting him when he needs it, comforting him when he inevitably—as he must—falls. The “not good enough mother,” on the other hand, rarely holds the baby securely, and this uncomfortable or disorderly hold is the source, in Winnicott’s view, of early psychic dislocation. Here is Winnicott on holding, or, more clearly, on dropping—he’s describing what would happen to a baby’s psyche if his mother kept dropping him slightly, observing his Moro Response, the electric jerk that flexes newborns’ limbs when their heads are dropped backwards even slightly:
Of course, one Moro Response does not upset an infant’s psychology, but if you were to consider than an infant happened to be born to a mother who just had a thing about the Moro Response and every twenty minutes or so she would just take her infant up and drop the infant’s head to see what would happen, this infant would not have a good enough mother. So it is exactly what a mother would not do to her infant. While a mother may have no words to describe her feelings for her baby, when she lifts him up, she gathers him together.
Even as I read about mothering, I couldn’t yet picture myself as a mother, “gathering” a baby together. Now, almost a year later, I still can’t picture myself as a mother, though I have ostensibly been one for eleven and a half months, and I have done a lot of gathering. I had never really held a newborn before I had my son; I had not changed diapers since my babysitting years; I didn’t understand just how much gathering together a very new baby needs, or how much that gathering together can drain one of abstract identities like “woman” and “mother,” leaving behind only a shapeless, vague body that acts and reacts to the stimuli of the baby’s needs. I was ready to feel less like myself. I wasn’t ready to feel less like a person and more like a carrier, a feeding machine, or a rocking chair. But for Winnicott, holding is necessary:
. . . [W]ith good enough mothering, there need be only the very beginnings of an idea of the self, or should I say, none at all. The bad holding (or the environmental failure that elicited the Moro response) forces on the infant a premature awareness for which the infant is ill-equipped. If the baby could talk, he or she would say: “Here I was, enjoying a continuity of being. I had no thought as to the appropriate diagram for my self, but it could have been a circle.” (Interrupting the baby here, it seems to me that people who make the balloons sold in the park on Easter Monday, for instance—it’s the same in England—forget what children like is a simple sphere that doesn’t obey the laws of gravity. They don’t want ears and noses, and writing on it, and all sorts of things like that.) “A diagram of my self could have been a circle.” (This is the baby talking.) “Suddenly two terrible things happened; the continuity of my going on being, which is all I have at present of personal integration, was interrupted, and it was interrupted by my having to be in two parts, a body and a head. The new diagram that I was suddenly forced to make of myself was one of two unconnected circles instead of the one circle that I didn’t even have to know about before this awful thing happened.” The baby is trying to describe a personality split and also premature awareness produced by the dropping of the head.”
“Here I was, enjoying a continuity of being.” The big sphere of my baby’s head was very much like a circle, and when he felt like he was falling, his little arms and legs jerked upwards, like their propulsion could push him back to his starting point. Because I was not a not-good-enough mother, this didn’t happen very often, but I winced every time it did, nevertheless. The difficulty of maternal gathering is that it is always going to fail. To grow—to become a person—the baby must get past his earliest, balloon-like self. He must separate himself into a head and a body, then a head, a body, and arms. The project is not solely separating the baby from his mother; it is separating the baby from himself. Building a version of self that can acknowledge its hands and feet. Its mind, within, and its skin, without.
In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson quotes one of Winnicott’s famous dictums on maternal holding: “Babies do not remember being held well—what they remember is the traumatic experience of not being held well enough.” Reflecting on how this idea relates to her relationship with her infant son, Nelson remarks, “Some might read in this a recipe for the classic ungratefulness of children—after everything I’ve done for you, and so on. To me, at the moment anyway, it is a tremendous relief, an incitement to give Iggy no memory, save the sense, likely unconscious, of having once been gathered together, made to feel real.” In Nelson’s formulation, mothering as gathering together is what makes the child feel real, feel in touch with others. But this is wrong. The project of motherhood isn’t only about holding, or that’s not the part of mothering that is memorable—that is formative. In order to do the work of psychic construction, holding must come after an experience of letting go. Mothering is not only gathering together; it is also letting go, dropping one’s grasp—accidentally, ideally, but dropping it nevertheless. To feel real, a baby must be dropped, even if just a little. We have to fear to grow. The self, were it to float through life an undivided balloon, would never grow, would never become anything other than a round, placid sphere, bobbing through space. What mothering gives the child is a memory of not being gathered together, of not being held.
What are we when we become mothers? We may not ever be fully ourselves again, but that’s because our selves have blurred into looser but more schematic ways of being—ways of being that are communitarian, multiple, and endlessly dissolvable. Part of the challenge of mothering is distinguishing your baby from other babies, but not too much. As soon as you start to think “My baby is learning to walk so early!” or “My baby is such an adventurous eater!” or “Why won’t my baby clap his hands?” you slip back into self’s uncomfortable costume, concerned not with gathering your baby up, but in identifying your baby’s skills, deciding upon your baby’s personality, thinking about the limits and conditions of personhood even before your baby is a person, when your baby is still a circle or two, holding on to wholeness as a sense of being. It’s not just that the project of personal distinction makes for an anxious, overprotective parent, it also ignores the way childbearing and rearing is a social act, one that ideally collects us together with others rather than separating us out, insisting on our difference. Becoming a mother is the most momentous thing that has ever happened to me; but it’s also something that is utterly mundane; it is also the most social and collaborative thing I have ever done.
What is the difference between leaving one’s nest on purpose—in trying to fly but failing—and flinging oneself out of one’s home because you sense danger? As I walked across campus, the caterpillars dangling from the oak trees sometimes fell from their silk. One dropped onto my shoulder. And sometimes they made their way to the ground and crawled around, their soft bodies covered with startling spines, spines that looked sharp but, of course, were so fine they were like single hairs, barely there at all. The caterpillars all looked aimless, blindly wandering along a curb, or stupidly trying to mount a woman’s boot at a bus stop. But, as I had discovered, their aims were clear, and laudable. They were trying to get home, to return to their work, to get back to the busy job of eating themselves into moth-hood. The bird’s skeleton was different: he had leapt from his nest imagining (perhaps) that the world was about to expand, (perhaps) mindlessly doing what his body told him to do. And it had not worked, his delicate, still-perfect skull and beak a curious testament to this rude failure. Is the bird the Winnicottian circle, or is the caterpillar? What is a whole thing? What is a life stage? It seems like either way, the circle is fooling itself: the desire for wholeness, for that balloon-like self, is a false hope. We are never whole things. We’re always just parts, loosely connected by something we might call a self, wobbling along, at risk of coming apart at our joints.
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