In my last blog, I described a way of thinking about your baby’s two extreme states of mind; either everything is perfect and exactly how they want it to be, or something is wrong and, to your baby, it feels like the end of the world. I introduced you to the Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) way of mapping out relationship patterns, like this:
You can read more about CAT here: ACAT website. In this next blog, I will explore how it feels to be a parent looking after a baby who is in these two states. When the baby is up at the top of the diagram, he is feeling pretty good and has everything just right. Babies cannot express how they feel about their parent, but we can imagine what they would say when they are in that perfect place. They would probably say that their parent is amazing, a bit of a mind reader, able to work out exactly what they need and provide it, a “perfect parent”. When we are in this place with our baby, we feel pretty good too. It can be tempting to feel a bit smug when our baby is happy and smiling, and the parent next to us seems to have a screaming monster. However, at some point it will be our turn to experience an unhappy baby. In the other place, at the bottom of the diagram, things for the baby are really bad, unbearable, and the parent is not “getting it right”. In this state, the baby may feel abandoned, as if the parent does not care and is neglecting and rejecting them. If they could speak they would say that their parent is no good at all. Being a parent in that place can be awful, you can start to feel that you are not cut out for this child rearing job. You may even have moments when you wish you had never taken it on.
So through these early months and years, you and your baby are developing a variety of relationship roles together. This is a bit like learning to dance with each other. Sometimes you will be dancing in perfect harmony, both up at the top of the diagram, loving every minute, while at other times, you will be down at the bottom, both upset and overwhelmed. At these times, it is really important that you have some kind of adult support of your own, to help you cope and to give you a rest when you need it. If that is not available to you, then even creating for yourself a short break by watching TV together, or getting out into the fresh air for a walk can help you to get yourself out of that very negative place.
This process of being in tune with your baby means that often they will be leading in the dance, with you following and reflecting back how they feel. At other times, as you try and create a routine and put some structure back into your life, setting some limits and boundaries for them, you will be directing the steps.
It is not surprising, given how awful it is to be down at the bottom of the diagram, that we can get the mistaken idea that being a good parent means keeping our child happy all the time, that we must never let them down or disappoint them. That we must always be up at the top of the diagram together in perfect harmony. At first, with a tiny baby, we do tend to give a lot of care, we hover over them (at least I did with my first one), checking if they are OK and trying to work out what they need as quickly as possible. At this stage, we cannot expect them to wait too long, or do anything for themselves, but even so we will not always get it right and the baby will sometimes have to wait. We will also be providing comfort, even if we can’t sort out the problem. So the baby may get a hug even if they cannot be fed yet. However, gradually over time, we need to teach our child a new dance, which is in between the perfect place and the unbearable place. If you don’t start to teach them about the “good enough, middle place”, then you are making things really difficult for your future self and for your child. You are teaching them that they must always have exactly what they want and never be disappointed. Well the world is not like that and they will struggle when they get to nursery, or when they meet other children who also want their own way. We need to help fill in the gap, to teach our children that there is a middle place. A place where things can be good enough, OK, acceptable, even if they are not exactly how we want them to be. Where people may be doing their best and trying to help us, even if it feels as if they don’t quite understand what we want. A state of mind in which it is possible to wait for something without having a tantrum. If we could ask the baby what sort of parent they have when they are in the middle place, they might say “good enough, OK, not bad”.
It can be really difficult to provide this middle ground as a parent if it does not come naturally, if we ourselves are a bit “all or nothing” in the way we respond to things. If I am a perfectionist, or need to feel in control all the time, I will be striving to be a “supermum” always getting it right with my child being totally happy and well behaved all the time. I might struggle to accept the middle way, where I am simply a “good enough” parent, rather than a “supermum”. Similarly, if I struggle with my self esteem, often feeling as if I am not good enough, then the bottom place may feel particularly unbearable. It can feel as if it just confirms what I know to be true, that I am a bad parent. This will make it hard for me to set limits or say “no” to my child.
We need to make sure that we are building up these new middle ground roles to be bigger than the extremes. If we don’t do that, then we can soon find ourselves with a much older, bigger child who only knows two ways of dancing. This child will expect things to be “perfect – exactly as I want it to be” or they will react as if things are “unbearable”. At this stage, their tantrums will be really scary and they will have learnt how to punish you when things are not how they want them to be. It will get harder and harder to stay in the middle place on the diagram.
In CAT we encourage people to develop an “observing eye” to notice where you are with your child and which relationship dances you are doing. You can see below the roles paired up in each circle with the parent role on top and the feelings that the child experiences in the bottom. You could add the roles that you get into with your child on to this standard CAT map below, or start to create your own personalised map. Once you recognise any problem patterns, it may be possible to get yourself back into the middle place.