Chapter 2: An adaptive sharpening of sensibility
written by Lucia Mieli
So, to recap [if you’ve missed ‘Chapter 1: Being only part of our self – The “bad little-girl” inside us that did nothing wrong” read here], we have now learnt that we all have our internal map of what emotions and intentions, of what thoughts and feelings we can harbour and which other, on the contrary, we must stay away from, else we experience varying degrees of guilt, shame or even terror (the latter masked by dissociation). This lesson, learnt over infinite interactions over our first years of life, is so primordial that it lays the foundations of our sense of self, shaping our identity throughout our lives and, often, all our subsequent attachment relationships, where we subconsciously tend to comply with the same “rules” in order to be loved, whether our current partner actually asks for it or not.
For many women (and many men too), it is all good and well, even though entailing formidable pain at times, until they become parents. Why?
Well, first of all, as we have seen, because there is nothing like parenting that requires us – ideally – to be able to cope with feeling the entire range of human emotions. From good to bad. From heavenly to devilish. From bliss to helplessness, from love to hate. Why?
Firstly, because as we have seen the baby’s emotional potential is still “raw”, uncontained, and our job as attachment figures is to feel and regulate his or her emotions, giving them back in a “digestible” form for the infant, a process called dyadic regulation. As we’ve explained in the first chapter, these cycles of expression-and-response will in fact provide the foundation of how that child, as he grows to his adult self, will be autonomously able to respond to his and others’ emotions. So, you can see how important a role receiving this provision has for our species. Without a sound foundation of emotional regulation, in fact, a human being simply cannot function adaptively, and in our evolutionary past would have died prematurely. Imagine, for instance, someone could not regulate a basic emotion such as fear: every time something fearful came around (a tiger, let’s say), the person would be instantly overwhelmed and wouldn’t be able to run or call for help! And, even though we may not die if we cannot regulate our feelings today, certainly we are still doomed to a very unsatisfactory life, proving uncapable of getting our needs met.
The second reason why parenting tries our repertoire of emotions and feelings, often challenging us to expand it, is that, in order to facilitate mothers in being able to provide sound dyadic regulation to their child, nature comes to our aid and triggers a transformation in a woman’s emotional repertoire and responsivity, already starting during pregnancy.
Guided by hormonal change, a mother-to-be begins in fact to experience the world more and more ‘like a child’. Despite the fact that women are often made fun of, or even shamed, because of this increase in their sensibility (we are when have our period, and motherhood makes us even more responsive than that!), this mechanism is instead adaptive, evolutionary helpful. Fundamental. Not a whim or weakness, but a form of wisdom.
This child-like responsivity is in fact triggered in the mother to help her anticipate and attune to what the baby feels, inspiring her on when to intervene with containment (unwind a too excited child, or soothe a scared one for instance) and when with an amplification of the child’s response (“that is AMAZING honey, let’s do it again!”); furthermore, since we are not plants and we can not only adapt to the environment, but also change it or move, the sharpening in sensibility also informs the mother as to when it is necessary to shape the environment to the baby’s needs (perhaps shouting at the kid revving up his motorbike for half an hour to f**k off [please]!), or when she needs to take the baby and find a more protected (or more exciting, depending on what is needed for optimal stimulation) space for them. It’s like having an internal radar providing an instinctual feeling of how to maintain the baby’s activation within healthy boundaries.
But, some of you may wonder: “all of this is well and good, but what’s the adaptive function of experiencing this before the baby is even around, namely from the point of conception?”
Well, the reason is that, despite the fact that not many people – professionals included – know (and it is a shame they don’t), a pregnant woman doesn’t just go back to feeling like an anonymous, quintessential child. No, as her brain returns to the responsivity it had when she was little, she re-experiences the world from her own childhood. All her emotions as she felt them as a child resurface with sharp intensity. And alongside them, all the internalised responses performed many years back by her actual parents and coalesced into her “parent-within” (translated into self-blame or self-approval), or absence thereof (the dark void of dissociation), resurface too with a new, sharper intensity.
Even if a woman has had the fortune of a good-enough provision of dyadic regulation when she was little, as we’ve already said every parent has his or her biases; so, from nature’s point of view, it’s always better to increase the probability of righting any possible “emotional blind spot” the woman may have before she herself becomes a provider for her baby.
In other words, there’s always room for improvement, so to speak.
From the evolutionary standpoint, therefore, if anything has gone wrong during a woman’s childhood – and I’m not talking necessarily about severe neglect, abuse, loss, trauma, but simply if some bitsof her childhood self have been thwarted and her emotional needs not met (which applies to everyone to a greater or lesser degree) – in pregnancy the “unmet bits” will resurface too, often shrouded with anxiety, self-blame and shame towards how one feels. But, despite what the internalised responses from the past suggest to the woman – telling her that what she feels is wrong, infantile, selfish, mad, bad, abnormal and would appear so to anyone if she voiced it – from the point of view of most people looking at her today, what she feels is, instead, perfectly reasonable. Often partners and friends in fact can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Of course you feel tired (look how big you are), of course you can’t concentrate (you’re a bucket full of hormones), obviously you feel fear and frustration towards the baby coming as well as joy and anticipation, etc…
Thereby, the mother-to-be can be surprised to learn that what she feels as so “wrong”, so unspeakable, is, nothing scary or dangerous to anyone else around her in the present day. What she doesn’t know – if she hasn’t been adequately informed about the emotional counterpart of pregnancy, and very few are – is that it was just back then, that it was so scary to feel that particular way (tired, thick, fearful, frustrated, to keep with the above examples, for instance): because that woman’s parents consistently withdrew from her when she did. And that turning away was that scary, only because she was just a child back then, a child in desperate need to keep her parents relating to her. What she comes to experience today as so threating is therefore nothing dangerous, but just, metaphorically, the re-emergence of a split-off “little girl within” still in need of an attachment figure to accept her as she is. Somebody whom she can trust to make her feel secure, by meeting and containing her emotions, and whom she can trust to allow her to feel competent, powerful, by conveying back his or her trust in her and her capacities. If a woman is met during pregnancy with this new-found provision, saturating and validating the basic needs for attachment and individuation, she can then internalise it, reworking the internal judge and associated autonomic responses, so that emotions may be legitimised and a new sense of self-competence and trust in both one’s power and the emotional availability of the other may arise in the mother-to-be.