Forget books on parenting, I get the best mummying advice in the world from my patients.
Because almost all of them are healing wounds from their mothers.
I had my first child before I worked on myself and before I trained in this line of work. I suffered from post natal depression, felt like my world had imploded – I remember driving home from the hospital – terrified of going home with this little baby, and wanting to scream out of the window at people walking in the street “how can you be getting on with your lives like nothing has happened, can’t you see the world has changed???!”
Such a difficult time. My husband at the time was working and hardly ever home, my family lived miles away, and I felt so ashamed of the fact that I found this new baby stuff so hard, I simply felt I couldn’t reach out to any friends. I felt isolated, alone, and very, very, low.
What I have learned in the eight and a half years since I had my first child, is that in order for children to thrive, and to grow into fully functioning emotionally whole adults, they need a pretty optimum level of mummying.
How do I know this for sure? Because when I do trauma work with my patients, we are healing deep wounds – the deepest are generally around mum – and a part of that healing involves a restructuring of what actually happened at the time (the not so good thing), into what we would have liked to have happened in the first place.
And this restructuring is not orchestrated by me, the therapist, no, it comes direct from the patient. During an EMDR session, once we have released the feelings associated with the trauma, very often the patient organically recreates the scene as it should have happened. But if not, then I might say to a patient “and what does the three year old (four, five, six, seven year old etc.) you need now in this moment”. And they tell me. “I need a hug”. “I need a mummy who I can feel safe with”. “I need this situation explained to me, I”m confused”. “I need someone who understands the real me and I need to see them looking at me lovingly”, or, “I need parents who understand the importance of love”.
The brain is elastic (thank you neuroplascticity research). And our brains – just like our bodies – constantly strive for homeostasis. In the same way that our body temperature strives to stay at 98.6F and a cut on our arm will heal if we leave it alone, our brains and our synaptic networks are constantly trying to get back to their baseline too. When we have trauma, there is a stuckness there which prevents homeostasis. Once we have released the stuckness and set the stuck feelings free, the brain is able to get back to homeostasis – and it knows exactly what it needs in order to get there.
What I have come to realise, because it comes from my patients every single time, is that our brain baseline, the homeostasis that our brains strive for, is one of pure love. It is pure love that we need as children, enough of the time, in order that we don’t suffer emotional trauma. This is the optimum level of mummying that I refer to; it is one of pure, unconditional love.
What could this look like in a practical sense? Let’s make it it super simple and think of 4 Ss.
Seen. Soothed. Safe. Secure.
Forget our offspring for a moment, let’s first see if we received those 4 Ss when we were young:
Seen – were we seen for who we are as individuals rather than just a “sibling” or an “offspring” or a “family member”, where Mum took time to really connect with us on an individual level, despite her differences? Soothed – as it suggests, we’re we physically and emotionally held while we calmed down when we were distressed? Safe – did we feel emotionally and physically safe? If we were regularly Soothed, and if we were Seen and connected with enough, for exactly who we are as individuals, then we most probably felt emotionally Safe. Physically safe refers to not being smacked or beaten, or witnessing other household members being smacked or beaten. Secure – secure home, home life, sense of security.
Of course attachment trauma can occur from both mum and dad (and other significant adults from our childhood), but from my practice I can tell you hand on heart that the majority of the trauma that children suffer comes from Mum – and it is certainly the deepest and most painful.
Do we want to do the same to our children? Course we don’t.
So how can we prevent the cycle from being repeated?
If we didn’t receive these 4Ss enough ourselves in our own childhoods, then we need to either be able to give them to ourselves, or we need to have someone give them to us. We need to feel them too. We need to feel Safe, Seen, Soothed and Secure enough of the time, in order that our cup is full enough that we can give the same to our children. Some of us will have received enough of those Ss in our childhood to be ok, but the majority of us will have been lacking – as would have our mothers before us.
So often as mothers we feel isolated and alone, trying to cope and struggle on our own, with some level of sleep-deprivation and some form of juggling act also going on.
It’s pretty hard to deliver those 4Ss optimally to our children under the stressful circumstances that many of us now live, unless we have a very high level of self-awareness – and even then it’s not easy.
I am lucky. Every day, as my patients are mending their broken hearts all those years later, I learn yet another way in which I can mummy my children from a place of pure, unconditional love. I am not in any way near perfect – and lord knows, having a “perfect” mummy would generate its own set of traumas. My patients are my greatest teachers.
It takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to look after a mum. And for us mums to receive those 4 Ss. Yes if we go into serious trauma therapy we can heal all of our wounds and consequently feel those 4Ss from within ourselves, but in the meantime let’s help each other.