Infant observation: seeing, sharing

By Leila Bargawi

The infant observation I undertook in preparation for my child psychotherapy training was with a first time mother and her son John. For one hour a week for two years I would cycle to her home, initially in her mother-in-law’s house, then in the young family’s own flat. I watched the seasons change, first cycling through the cold winter air after John was born in February, then seeing the first blossom and the days getting longer and warmer before the leaves fell in preparation for another winter.

I grew and changed in that time as well, navigating the difficulties of finding a position as an observer, something that was a new skill for me. With time, both John’s young mother and I became increasingly comfortable in each other’s presence and could relax into the quiet, weekly time together.

I learnt so much in those two years about the process of observation, child development, the intensity of states of mind of an infant and how these are negotiated within the relationship of a mother and baby. I suppose it is rather obvious, but it really is an experience that stays with you, and since finishing the observation six years ago I have thought back to it at different stages and through different lenses as my life changes.

Initially, as a student, my interest was in the development of the baby’s mind and personality and the negotiation of transitions within a relationship. More recently, as a new mother myself, I have again been reflecting back on those two years and, with hindsight, I am initially touched by the fundamentals of welcoming a stranger into one’s home at such a raw and emotional time. For example, the musing John’s mother did about whether John might be dreaming in his first few days when he suddenly smiled or grimaced in his sleep; the concerns she expressed aloud about his cries and what he might need. She did not know what to do, but was willing and able to do the ‘not knowing’ in my presence, not expecting herself to have an immediate solution, or for me to know what to do.

Having experienced some of these struggles myself, I can see now that just being a mother in front of a stranger can be very difficult and painful, and I can appreciate more what I took for granted then. I have learnt how much self-doubt and questioning you do as a mother, how the demands of a baby can make you feel inadequate, frustrated and ineffective, and I have experienced the powerful feelings you receive as a mother. The generosity of letting someone share that with you I find now more than ever very moving.

There was something unique in the space we shared for that hour every week when the daily grind seemed distant and our focus was on John and his impact on his mother. Of course there were also moments of ordinary everyday activity, but it is the pause of these activities when there is time and space to really look, feel, think and wonder that strikes me, looking back. In most of my observations mother, baby and I settled into a quiet time together, watching, thinking, feeling.

As a first-time mother I now realise how much there is always to do. It seems difficult to recreate that time to muse, to feel, or to just be together. It is as if you need that third to make it happen, someone looking in with you. I wonder whether a by-product of the process of observation was the creation of this space, an idea that I had never considered before I had insight into the constant demands of being a new mother.

I take part in the things my local area has on offer: baby groups, children’s centre activities, even a new parents group. All of these activities are structured with set activities, again a lot of ‘doing’. Of course with my daughter I have also really enjoyed and at times have needed the structure and activity, but I have also missed the just being together and the thinking that comes with a situation like an observation, a third looking in from the outside alongside me, that seems absent amongst the many things to do.

Of course there were moments during that observation that were uncomfortable. First there were times of observing the intimacy of the mother/baby couple in love, as an outsider. But there were also very painful times: I remember John and his mother fraughtly negotiating their separation, first when she stopped breast feeding and then when she returned to work.

Despite having witnessed strong and raw emotions as an observer, becoming a mother has made me aware that what I saw, felt and shared was only a tiny glimpse of what you are exposed to as a mother. There was one occasion when I arrived and was asked to return on another day. It was when John, nine months, had just started at full time nursery and was being weaned. I had seen him in various moments of distress, but as I spoke to the father on the intercom I could hear him totally dissolved in the background. It is only now that I have an idea of the pain he and his mother must have been going through in those weeks.

I can also now see that the strength of emotions, both the intimate love and the pain, happen mainly between the mother/father and baby couple when no one is looking, and I suspect that the main struggle at the time of John’s weaning must have happened when I was not there. I have experienced moments of sheer terror when up in the night with my ill daughter as she struggles to find a way to let go and go to sleep: not able to comfort her for hours was frightening. We also have our games that seem to only take place when we are together, another presence always seem to interrupt them – even describing them here seems too intimate, too private.

It is these new experiences of motherhood that make me see the observation in a slightly different light. I am aware now that many distressing and intimate moments must have been kept from me, understandably so. They are to be negotiated within a couple: mother, father and baby making their own unique relationship with each other, quietly in private. I feel more aware now of how much I did not see or experience in my observation, but that does not take away from what I was invited into and what we did all share in that unique space, and my appreciation of the courage of John’s mother to allow a stranger into her emotional world at that time

Leila Bargawi is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist in Doctoral training.

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