You can hear something over and over again, but until you hear it at the right time, in the right context, in the right frame of mind and with the right understanding, it makes no impact. You can hear words and you may comprehend their meaning, but it may still not be clear what the words are meant to change, and how . In ‘Deprivation and Delinquency’, Donald Winnicott wrote about an occasion with a client, which he called a ‘mistake which nearly ended everything’. He made an interpretation for which, he says, ‘I had plenty of evidence, and indeed I was right, but the interpretation was given ten years too soon’. He added, ‘In the long treatment which followed, the patient re-organised herself…eventually she became ready for this interpretation….’.
My therapist often made the point that she was different to my mother, and she made it in numerous ways. She made it by actually being different; by responding in ways I didn’t expect and then drawing my attention to the fact that I’d been anticipating the reaction my mother would have had. She was understanding when I expected judgment; caring when I expected criticism; comforting when I expected shaming. She made the point quite explicitly by saying that therapy offered me – she offered me – a different experience of mothering. I heard the words, and thought I understood them. But just as it took me a long time to realise that the work of therapy is meant to change the way I feel about myself, and not just to give me a deeper understanding of why I feel that way; so it took me a long time to realise how her words about mothering were meant to change our relationship and ultimately, to change me. To change me into someone who can trust and be vulnerable; someone who can feel secure even during absence; someone who can feel confident of being cared for.
And so it was only after I re-organised myself, after I became aware of the different parts of myself and how they manifested in therapy, that I became ready both to be a ‘new mother’ to my inner parts (as described in ‘A new experience of mother, Part 1’), and to really take on board what it means to have a ‘new mother’ in my therapist. Only after that internal re-organisation could I accept the idea of my therapist as ‘new mother’, and allow it to have an impact on me, and to change me.*
And it happened in the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of ways. The concept really took hold of me not during an emotional revelation or a painful retelling of the past, but as the result of a very ordinary conversation about my health. I had been having a few doctors’ appointments and blood tests for reasons which were unlikely to be connected to anything serious, though I was nevertheless anxious and sometimes let my fears run away with me. I would sometimes open a session by updating my therapist to let her know I would be having an appointment the next day, or had just had one. I told her when my results came back clear, or slightly elevated (though not worryingly so).
And one day it struck me, after we had been talking about the idea of a new experience of mothering, that it now felt ‘natural’ for me to tell her about my health and my appointments –something I could never do with my own mother. My mother is incredibly anxious and any hint of ill health or unhappiness on my part, sends her into a spiral of worry and unhappiness of her own which she is unable to tolerate and therefore unloads onto me in an unconscious attempt to gain reassurance and to feel better. In addition, she has always been very intrusive, and would feel entitled to know more and to be kept updated; and as for mental health difficulties, as a teenager she simply told me I had no reason to be depressed. For all those reasons, I would never dream of sharing details of my life with her, and particularly details of my health; it is a simple matter of self-protection and survival. Her reactions would be overwhelming and it is hard enough to cope with my own.
There were countless occasions when my therapist reacted with acceptance and understanding when my mother would have been appalled, anxious and invalidating. The occasion when I showed my therapist some recent cuts from self-harming, is a memorable and precious example. But it took my therapist’s calm and comforting response to my fairly ‘routine’ health checks, and my desire to share these details with her, for the concept of ‘new mother’ to really click and for me to really see her that way. Perhaps it needed a ‘less charged’ environment to let the point sink in; or perhaps it’s just another example of my therapist being right. She often talks about appreciating the ordinary, and finding meaning in ‘the small’ things and the day to day. The fact that I was comfortably discussing the business of my day to day appointments was an obvious, tangible and forceful sign that I accepted just how different she was to my own mother. And so it was, that a concept that had been around for a while, became a living, breathing thing, making a real difference and having an impact on my thinking, feeling, and behaviour.
Since then, there have been some wonderful examples and reminders of that new mothering which have reinforced this game-changing (in more ways than one) realisation that has settled within me. At the end of ‘A new experience of mother, Part 2’, I described an occasion where, in the words of my therapist, I had ‘both the past mother and the new mother potentially in play at the same time and it is touch and go which one is stronger’. I managed to reach out for new mother rather than ‘act out’ based on my ‘old mother’ expectations that she would be disappointed in me (for not managing to make it through the weekend without emailing her). My therapist responded in a beautifully affirming and validating way, reassuring me that new mother was alive, and was not disappointed.
A few days later, we were talking about the upcoming therapy break and I uttered a Freudian slip. My therapist had said that breaks were important because without them, I would have a very tired therapist. My unconscious thinking, as betrayed by my Freudian slip, is described in my post ‘Freud was right about some things’. My conscious thought process, however, was completely focused on her use of the word ‘therapist’. When we had finished laughing (and inwardly groaning in my case) over my ‘slip’, I tried to explain what was really preoccupying me and upsetting me. I said ‘You used the word therapist……’. My voice trailed off but she immediately understood, and added ‘….rather than ‘mother’. But I’m both’.
Never one to accept my therapist’s words and interpretations without at least a tiny bit of resistance – and the tendency to focus on what I don’t have rather than on what I do – I tried to protest that that was all very well, but she wasn’t really my mother. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her words, and by the next session I saw things in a very different light. I felt guilty because I saw my response as rejecting; rejecting of a comforting and rather momentous truth. I really hoped it hadn’t come across as a rejection of her. What had struck me in the space between the two sessions, was the very obvious truth that being a mother (or a daughter) is about much more than biology. There are lots of different types of mothers: biological mothers, foster mothers, adoptive mothers, therapy mothers – and more. The definition is in the quality of the relationship – and the one that I share with my therapist can much more truthfully be called a mother-daughter relationship, than the empty one I have with my own mother.
Her statement that she is both therapist and mother is one that I have thought about almost daily since then. It has sustained me, it has comforted me, it has helped me feel secure and has enabled me to be vulnerable. It reminds me of who she really is, and of who I can be, with her – and that creates a new experience of being together**, for both of us.
*The similarities and the connection of the relationship between my ‘inner parts’ and me, and the relationship between me and my therapist, will be described in ‘A new experience of mother, Part 4’ and ‘A new experience of mother, Part 5’.
**And, indeed, of being apart, particularly during this summer therapy break….