Mary Cassatt – The Child’s Bath
Last week, I listened to a podcast from The Hidden Brain. Shankar Vendantam discussed the power of touch by discussing Harry Harlowe’s experiments with primates. Apparently, he played a key role in debunking the idea that mothers shouldn’t hold/touch their children too much. In some of his first experiments, he and his students created two “robotic” moms for the baby primates: a cloth mom that was warm and cuddly and soft and a wire mom that provided food. He thought the babies would prefer the wire mom since it gave them food, but instead they clung to cloth mom. They would wriggle around as far as possible to get food, but never wanted to let go of cloth mom. At this point, we’ve seen plenty of other experiments that also back up the power of touch—how children need touch in order to thrive and grow. Once Harlowe discovered how important touch was, he started experimenting with what happens when touch is skewed. Most people know him for these inhumane experiments where he isolated and denied young primates of the basics they needed to thrive. In one of his experiments, a little spike would come out and poke the babies when they would get near cloth mom. He thought they would stop seeking the cloth mom, but instead they abandoned all other social activities, seeking to find a way to make the spike retract. In other words, they couldn’t move forward socially until they had “fixed” the connection with their first, primary relationship.
This podcast affirmed what I’ve known for a while: when children do not receive touch or receive inappropriate touch, they often get stuck in an endless cycle of trying to fix the problem. If we did not receive positive touch, we might become people-pleasers, trying desperately to get somebody to notice us—to choose us. If we received inappropriate touch, we might either avoid touch all together or become hyper-sexual, seeking out inappropriate touch in an obsessive, insatiable manner. Most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum—pushing away people when it feels unsafe and sexualizing touch as a form of re-enactment. I can see how our intuition to fix those early problems with touch is healthy; we learn how to adjust to our caregivers’ desires so we, too, can have our desires met. If our mother is angry when we stomp and scream as a 3-year old, we notice it and adjust our behavior so we can get what we really want: comfort. Yet, this instinct becomes skewed and dysfunctional when the loved one’s desires are inappropriate or there is no way possible to connect with that person. I suspect this especially holds true if the child is sexually abused. Most cases of abuse occur with someone the child knows: a parent, a sibling, uncles, aunts, pastors, or close family friends—primary relationships in a young child’s life. In other words, our natural instinct to resolve the problem (so we can again feel safe and protected by touch and warmth) keeps playing over and over like a broken record because we can’t fix it.
I’ve known for many years that I was seeking to somehow fix my primary relationships (well, not so much fixing the first connection as trying to find a replacement that would fill the hole). I’ve tried ignoring that desire, controlling and manipulating others to get that longing met, and even trying to change myself to become what I thought others wanted me to be so I could be accepted. I’ve built many unhealthy relationships out of the unconscious belief that if I could just find a strong woman who could metaphorically adopt me, that I’d feel safe, that I’d find peace, that I’d finally be able to let go of my anger because this hole that made me feel like I was starving to death would be filled. I’ve avoided relationships with older men because I despised the idea of a fatherly figure. Being fatherless was empty, but safe. Whether I was seeking out a replacement or rejecting the idea of parental figures, I was stuck in the trap of trying to fix something that cannot be fixed. I cannot return to the past and get what I needed as a child. My dear friends and husband who support me and accept me unconditionally can never fit that exact shape of my first primary relationships (after all, you can’t put a square peg in a round hole—cliche, I know, but still true). I think I’ve even tried to fix those primary connections by trying to be a perfect mother: by trying to give my children everything I wished I had received. Even this, though filled with good intentions, can become a problem. If I am giving out of my need, out of my emptiness, my children will not feel unconditional love; they will feel guilt, they will feel pressure, and they will feel like the way to stay in touch with me is by being what I need them to be. Additionally, my emptiness will at some point become resentment. I feel angry when they don’t understand the level of my sacrifice.
So if I can’t fix it, what should I do? One of my biggest steps has been to let go. This includes becoming self-aware enough that I notice when I’m giving because I want something inside of me to be filled. It includes politely rejecting ideas that somehow a Higher Being or counselor or older person could step into those shoes. I think we do a great disservice to hurting people when we present healing as a means of getting what we did not receive. The world is full of love and beauty and acceptance, but it won’t look or feel like that first primary relationship. Healing comes from grieving what we’ve lost and learning how to see what we DO have in the present.