Child Development: The First Mirror
“In individual emotional development the precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face.” – D. W. Winnicott, Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development
When we look into someone’s eyes, we can feel loved, or hated, dismissed or understood.
Even as an adult it’s often a powerful experience and brings us into contact with the lingering resonance and echo of infancy and with that a sense of our struggle to be recognized by our first mirror — our mother.
We all have buried inside us a felt memory of the experience of being mirrored in our mother’s eyes.
For first-time mothers, breastfeeding and interacting with their infant can bring back that sense of continuity, symbiosis and connection — in a good way.
But it can also bring feelings that are frightening and incoherent, like falling into an alternate existence — or into nothing at all.
In his article inspired by Lacan’s essay on The Mirror Stage, psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott examines our early experiences of being mirrored.
“What does the baby see when he or she looks at the mother’s face? I am suggesting that, ordinarily, what the baby sees is himself or herself, In other words the mother is looking at the baby and what she looks like is related to what she sees there. All this is too easily taken for granted. I am asking that this which is naturally done well by mothers who are caring for their babies shall not be taken for granted. I can make my point by going straight over to the case of the baby whose mother reflects her own mood or, worse still, the rigidity of her own defenses. In such a case what does the baby see?
Of course nothing can be said about the single occasions on which a mother could not respond. Many babies, however, do have to have a long experience of not getting back what they are giving. They look and they do not see themselves. There are consequences. [… ]the baby gets settled in to the idea that when he or she looks, what is seen is the mother’s face. The mother’s face is not then a mirror. So perception takes the place of apperception, perception takes the place of that which might have been the beginning of a significant exchange with the world, a two-way process in which self-enrichment alternates with the discovery of meaning in the world of seen things.” [My emphases]
Although, of course this is quite dense, what I think Winnicott means is that mothers who are distracted by their own thoughts or are emotionally unavailable (through stress, anxiety, fear, or unresolved trauma) will not respond to the baby in a way that is useful for the infant’s developing sense of self. This lack of response takes away the opportunity for the baby to see his or herself reflected and responded to in the mother’s face. They also lose the opportunity for exchange and to understand the social environment as a place of exchange where their developing self is part of a potential for relationship.