The Spontaneous Mother – Creating a Novel Experience


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We’ve all experienced that awful feeling of fear, surprise, or incomprehension when our kids do something unusual, unimaginable, or outright distressing. We want to be the “perfect mother” with the “perfect response” but that’s impossible. However, compassionate mothers work very hard to understand their children’s upsets and to cope with them the initial moment of tension.

As a mother, I longed to be as “perfect” as I could be. But I learned that being spontaneous often worked better than over-trying to be the best. I found if I could trust my personal temperament I might unexpectedly salvage a tense situation. Sometimes it’s a spontaneous action or idea that a mother finds herself in the midst of that reconnects her with her distraught child. Here are two examples.

I’ve been a psychoanalyst for three decades and have encountered a myriad of parent and child struggles that I’ve taken a great deal of time in understanding and resolving. Years ago, I was faced with a particularly intense mother-daughter relationship filled with animosity. The little girl was nine-years-old. Outside the home, she was congenial and well-liked. But at home, this mother-daughter duo seemed to push each others buttons endlessly resulting in excessive screaming on both their parts over sometimes very small disputes. Arguments over which boots to wear, putting a napkin on one’s lap, how to print certain letters, and saying thank-you promptly were just a few of the endless arguments that turned into pandemonium. Getting to the root of their acrimony would take time, but their fast, bitter overreactions needed to be tempered quickly for that to occur.

One afternoon my spontaneous maternal self fortunately took over in my work. The young girl I’ll call Laura was regaling me rather calmly about how she felt her mother wanted her to be “perfect.” Laura and I often drew when we talked because it seemed to help her to speak openly while she was busy creating with her hands. When Laura told me how she felt criticized by her mother that afternoon, she described how her mood shifted rapidly from “zero to one hundred.” She found herself throwing things wildly and screaming at her mother which rapidly escalated to her mother’s torrent of angry words in return.

Laura was remarkably quite composed, however, as she was telling me all this. She suggested a game where we close our eyes and draw each other. After we looked at each others pictures, she was struck by how I was able to create a pretty good likeness of her with my eyes closed. I explained that I didn’t draw immediately, but with my eyes closed, I suddenly saw an image of a dark face bordered by light hair surrounding her face and I just drew what I saw in my mind. I explained this was called an after-image. She actually had fair skin and dark hair that was reversed in the image in my mind.

I then spontaneously had Laura stare at a large red, soft, block for nearly a minute and then close her eyes and tell me what she saw. To her surprise, she saw a red line. She was enchanted. I then had her stare at a large green block, eyes closed again, and she discovered she saw red. I explained that these after-images occurred because red and green were complementary colors. We were having fun and felt very connected to each other.

I pointed out that this amazing discovery only happened because she permitted herself to “delay” before responding. She had to “wait” and see what would happen. I pointed out further that this ability to delay and wait was what I wanted her to do when her mother criticized her. If she could think of the red and green blocks when her mother spoke harshly out of turn, she might be able to delay her response. Instead of throwing things and screaming, if she waited a bit, she could use words to tell her mother her feelings were hurt. I said this would be hard at first, but to try to remember what happened with the blocks.

Laura fully understood what I was getting at in a way that I don’t think I could have accomplished if I had just tried to explain how to slow down her reactions. It was entirely spontaneous on my part to use my knowledge about art to help her. The next time we met, she had remembered our plan, and had shared with her mother how criticized she often felt which made her feel like she was a “bad” child. It would take time for her mother to learn to listen to these heartfelt words, but the process had begun.

Here’s another example that a mother shared with me. Her seven-year-old boy gets off the school bus with a scowl on his face. His mother is surprised because he likes school and usually runs to greet her. When she asks what’s wrong, he just throws his back pack on the floor and huddles in a corner. The mother spontaneously says gaily, “I bet you can’t catch me!” Todd jumps up in surprise and chases his mother all around the house until they fall into a heap laughing. His mother had refocused the tense moment spontaneously, so that it lifted Todd’s mood and allowed him to later tell her that no one came to sit with him on the bus as usual and he felt left out and disliked.

The reason the chasing game worked so successfully was not only because it shifted Todd’s focus but because it was also a game he and his mother played as a toddler over and over again. It was an old loving way they used to connect that was revived. This reconnection shifted Todd’s mood into one where he felt like confiding in his trusted mother.

In both instances, the spontaneous reactions to Laura and Todd refocused the tension of the distressed moment into one where something novel took place. Novelty leads to learning. From infancy, humans are drawn to novel experiences. Spontaneous reactions often lead to such novel experiences that shift moods and realign thinking patterns.

The whole idea is that a mother can’t be prepared to be spontaneous; it comes from some compassionate talent at mothering from deep within oneself. It takes an attitude of trusting in a side of one’s mothering self that comes from love, compassion, and an inner connection with one’s child. This is all about PARENTAL INTELLIGENCE!