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Earning My Maternal Instincts

It was my third day of being a mother, and our first night home from the hospital. My husband, son and I were up at 2:00 a.m., all desperate to decode why he (the baby, not my husband) was crying so loudly and incessantly.
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It was my third day of being a mother, and our first night home from the hospital. My husband, son and I were up at 2:00 a.m., all desperate to decode why he (the baby, not my husband) was crying so loudly and incessantly.


Friends had gifted us a DVD promising to decode babies' different cries, so we popped it in our laptop with high hopes. We learned that "eh" meant he had gas and "neh" meant he was hungry. My nipples were already blistered and cracked, so I was somewhat invested in hearing the 'eh'. We were up for what seemed like hours trying to get the gas out. I eventually capitulated, applied my awkward nipple-shield, nursed him, and he conked out. We never revisited the "eh" vs. 'neh' debate.

Someone in Australia knew what my son needed, but I sure didn't. Until then, I had been on a high, feeling my maternal instincts were right on all during the first 48-hour 'womb sleep' period. But when he 'woke up' from this hypersomnia and began crying as newborns do, I lost my magic touch.

I felt a deep, sickening panic. My instincts had failed.

It turns out I wasn't privileged with good maternal instincts. My instinct was to freak out. If I was ever going to have them, I would have to earn my instincts.

Luckily, there is a process by which we can learn the particular instincts we need to parent our particular children. This process involves a special kind of mindfulness called mentalization. Mentalization literally means to make mental. I think of it as keeping the mind in mind. When we are mentalizing we are paying attention to what inner states are driving our own or someone else's behavior.

Since babies are born with no capacity for language, it is daunting to try to decode what all the crying means. Luckily, nature has given us a reflex that allows us a way in, called marked mirroring. This mirroring happens when you mimic your baby's facial expression in an exaggerated way. As you do this, your face sends a message to your mind about what it might have to feel in order to make this expression. Then you can make a more educated guess about what is going on inside your child's mind. And, when the baby sees the expression reflected so clearly in your face, he or she feels understood.

But, in order to be attuned enough to mirror your child accurately, you need to be paying attention to our own mind. Maybe you are really preoccupied with your own feelings, and make the mistake of assigning those same feelings to your child. Or maybe you may be really emotionally worked up, which makes it hard to think at all. To build your instincts, you need to grant yourself the same kind of mindful awareness that you want to use with your child.

Here's how the scene above could have been different had I used mindfulness and mentalization rather than a baby language DVD:

(Mimicking his furrowed brow and clenched eyes) You are really crying (reflect his behavior). I don't know what's bothering you, but I know you're really upset (reflect my mental state, his mental state). I'm torn because my nipples really hurt and I'm afraid of what it will feel like to feed you (my mental state). You seem frustrated and overwhelmed (his mental state). I'm so sorry I'm not fixing that (my mental state). I don't know if you're hungry, but I am going to feed you. But my pain is really bad so I am going to need to call for some help tomorrow (My mental state, my behavior).

Had I known about mentalization then, I would have been kinder to myself, calmer in the moment, and might have been able to hear his needs more clearly.

Today, over five years later, I'm much better at keeping my own mind in mind, which makes it possible for me to keep his mind in mind. I didn't come into this with good instincts, but I have them now. Somehow earning them makes them feel more real. And had I been gifted with natural instincts, I might never have known how to teach others how to earn theirs.