Idealizing Your Baby

Good friends of ours recently became grandparents; hearing them talk about the baby — that brand new life, a blank slate where anything and everything seems possible — took me back 20 years or so, to the day when my first child came forth into this world. I was not one of those parents who instantly fell in love with his newborn the second it popped out; but not long after that day, I felt overwhelmed with that love nobody can prepare you for. William was born toward the end of May, and that Christmas, at a holiday party for my institute, I went around with a pocketful of photographs, foisting them upon anyone who made the mistake of asking, “How’s the baby?” I was besotted.

To me, he was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen. Literally. While I had some objective awareness that perhaps this wasn’t true, I nonetheless felt it, as so many parents have done in their turn. I think adoring your baby is a crucial experience for both parent and child, a critical stage that helps the parents cope with the deprivations of child-rearing and plants the seeds from which self-esteem will later develop in the child. I believe it’s crucial for the growing baby to feel that he or she is beautiful to the parents; the experience of being adored determines, in large part, what it feels like to be “you” or “me” in this world — whether we feel self-confident and capable or riddled with self-doubt and shame.

When parents do not adore their babies and don’t find them beautiful (for whatever reason), it instead plants the seeds of shame. One of the ways that people often describe profound shame is a sense that they are somehow “ugly” inside — deformed or unlovable. I believe this lasting sense of inner ugliness takes root in infancy, when the need to be adored is not met. Perhaps the mother and father are overwhelmed by parenthood; maybe they’re the kind of narcissistic people who can’t really see others as separate people with internal needs of their own. Maybe a life tragedy (the death of a close relative) occurred close in time to the birth and the new parents are in mourning. For whatever reason, if the parents don’t idealize their baby, that experience will shape the child’s sense of self for the rest of his or her life.

I’ve been discussing this with one of my long-term clients, Janice, who will soon be ending treatment. Throughout our work together, Janice’s mother has been a problematic figure, one who largely failed in parenting. Most of our sessions dealing with the mother have involved anger or disappointment, and some grieving about the mother that never was. Lately, Janice has come to realize how beautiful she found her mother, in spite of everything. I think this is natural. Babies tend to find their mothers beautiful; and if the mothers don’t reciprocate, it is devastating, unbearably painful. My client’s mother, we both feel sure, did not find her beautiful. This experience lies at the core of Janice’s shame, and the types of narcissistic behavior she relied upon to hide from it.

Nothing can make up for that unmet need. Nothing. I do not believe in the so-called “corrective emotional experience,” although long-term therapy with someone who understands and cares deeply about you can help mitigate the damage. Marriage or a lasting relationship with someone who truly loves you definitely helps. With a lot of work, you might eventually come to feel that your shame is bearable and doesn’t erase all the other good things about you; you might find that shame and authentic self-esteem are compatible. But nothing will ever make you be like other people whose mothers and fathers adored them.

I know this from personal experience. My own mother did not find me beautiful — of this I feel certain. I understand what profound shame feels like; on the other hand, I also feel good about myself, proud of my children, proud of the work I do and of this website that I write. That’s what true shame healing means, the only healing of shame I believe in.

Of course, parents eventually need to stop idealizing their children, just as children at some point need to stop idealizing their parents so that they (the children) can become autonomous. If parents continue to idealize their children as they grow up, the children don’t develop a more realistic sense of who they are; they become a narcissistic extension of the parents’ identity, something they (the parents) can use to prove that they’re winners and not losers. I call it “competitive parenting” and I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. Children of such parents do not feel truly beautiful inside; instead, they feel they must live up to some false version of themselves that will satisfy their parents’ narcissism. More on that subject another day.

In closing, I’d like to share the video clip below. Some of you may be familiar with it already — the “still face” study. While this experiment focuses on interpersonal communication between mother and child — the need for social interaction — to me it also speaks to the damage that can occur when the mother doesn’t idealize her baby. In the first part of the video, this mother clearly adores her baby and the baby feels that she is adored. In the second part, you can see how painful it is to the baby not to receive the adoring smiles. Go through that experience repeatedly and you’re left with the sense of internal “ugliness” that lies at the heart of shame. I find it interesting that Dr. Tronick repeatedly uses the world “ugly” toward the end of the video.

And the dead-face mother — that was my mom.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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11 comments

    Painful, painful subject for me but so glad you posted this, though I haven’t watched the video as think the second half might be too painful for me. I so like your realistic take on shame healing, I always have doubts about therapists (or lovers) who promise to make everything better. Well, I never had the feeling my mother found me beautiful. I can’t imagine her ever coo-ing me. I’ve made lots of excuses for her over the years but it can’t take away the pain I felt as a child. I try every day to tell my nearly-two-year-old that I love him and find him beautiful. He is just learning to talk and now says ‘Booty’ (beauty) when patting his chest proudly, or ‘beeeg boy!’. When he is breastfeeding and I tell him I love him so much, he nods during the feeding, nodding into me. This is the closest I have come to healing my deep shame, because I know that despite my lack of being given love, I can give it, so I’m not wholly broken. I think as a child, especially a young one, your sense of giving and receiving love are very mixed up so I almost experienced my not being loved as a kind of not being able to give it. Now I know I can give it. I have friends in a lovely, warm, caring family and when their mother visited my newborn she spent the whole hour saying over and over, “oh, you’re so beautiful, look at you, so goooorrgeous” and to me “haven’t you done well, you’re the perfect mum, you’re just right for your little boy” in same soft voice. The birth had been traumatic and nurses in hospital told me they’d never seen a baby cry as much as mine and not stop when comforted, maybe I wonder if all my subconscious and conscious stress (I lost a baby during incest) was traumatizing him on top of the birth? Anyway, during this visit from lovely mother, I learnt a lot and after that didn’t feel ashamed of telling my baby I love him, though it did feel strange at first. I certainly idealize him – he’s the brightest, most beautiful, etc etc. Thanks so much for this post. PS hope your lovely dog is doing OK

    I agree — there can be something so healing about parenthood, if you’re able to do what you’re doing: give the love and communicate that sense of beauty to your child. It doesn’t fix your own personal past but it sure helps.

    I am in the middle of disentanglement from the therapist that was using the “the corrective emotional experience” during my time with her. She helped me realize after 56 years that my feelings about my mother were real and the parenting that i received did not meet my needs…the problem right now is that she gave so much or i needed so much or i for the first time experienced what i wanted and now am i greedy child that can’t get enough. we had our last session on Aug 26th, my last contact with her was a email from her on Aug. 27th…i am like a homesick child that has also lost my blanket…can’t stop thinking about her i wake up and go to sleep each night hoping that she might check in with me…check my emails 5-10 daily hoping that she will throw me a bone. i knew that it would be this way for me and i would tell her often, yet she never seemed to address it in a way that made me feel like i could handle the separation…i am trying to not fantasize about her and to be present with my feelings…with the hope that i might be able to move on …it hasn’t happened as you can see… i am almost feeling like i need an other therapist to help get through this separation…it seem to me that i have recreated the same issue with her as with my own mother…that is i will never be able to have a authenic relationship with her because she is unavaliable,just like my own mother . i know this to be true, yet i am unable to stop the feelings of worthlessness that come with this separation…

    It sounds to me as if you weren’t really finished with your treatment. It’s unclear to me why you stopped going.

    I didn’t idealize my babies. Not that I didn’t want to, not that I didn’t try, I just did not. I always saw them as regular babies, cute, but average. I cared for them and took care of them, and 98 % of the time I think I was an OK mother, but 2 % of the time I would blow up because I felt so guilty, and then feel even worse, and for years I was convinced that I was the worst mum ever. Then, when they turned two, three, four, things got easier, I got more interested in them, we could talk, laugh, and I discovered I found them to be the most fascinating people. I love them so, but I still feel so very guilty for not adoring them and for blowing up when they were babies and toddlers. I am so afraid that I caused them everlasting damage. They seem ok, but I’m still terrified.

    A parent who is loving and involved later on came make up for a lot of what might have been missing at first. Those early months will probably have some lasting effects but that doesn’t mean it was an emotional disaster for your kids. From the way you describe them, it sounds like it definitely was not a disaster.

    ” But nothing will ever make you be like other people whose mothers and fathers adored them.”

    I, painfully, agree with this statement. However, when I have tried to describe this to people (including my therapist), no one has ever ‘gotten’ it. They think I am being negative or overly dramatic (and whilst it could have been my delivery I think, certainly in most discussions about it, I have been neutral/factual).

    You have written it here relatively matter of factly. I was wondering if you have ever met resistance with this idea before? If you did, how would you counter it?

    I meet with resistance from my colleagues, mostly. There’s a great deal of idealism in my profession, and everyone wants to believe we can completely “heal” people and make them “normal”. With my clients, when I discuss it — and it’s not something I bring up right away! — they usually feel understood and deeply sad.

    Yet again, Dr. Burgo you provide me with some understanding of me. Roberta Flack’s “killing me softly” plays often in my head as I read your posts. I’ve no idea how my mother was with me as a baby but my memories of her growing up were not warm. No affection at all. I can still remember that perplexing feeling of visiting a friends house as a young girl and her mother hugging her, maybe even smiling at her. I was deeply upset by this and did not understand that mothers behaved this way or that they were kind, nice or happy. This is how I reflect back on what I must have felt because I had no expectations from my mother to be anything other than she was. As I grew older, I think, reflecting on what you have said about shame, I saw me as not good enough and I sought refuge and identity in my studies because this was where I found value. My mother died in my twenties, I thought she knew she might be dying because she did a few strange things like sending me a birthday card that she had signed( she never did that usually my father wrote it) saying I had grown up into a nice lady. That was as good as I could ever expect to get from her. As a teenager and young adult our relationship was very strained and before she died I told her I loved her and that I was sorry for all I done that upset her. She was gracious. She responded she loved me back I think it was the first time I had heard it. She was a very troubled and bitter woman and I do believe she did the best she knew how. The good news is that I am nothing like my mother with all my daughters. I have loved and adored them every moment I have had the gift of life to share with them. Including those difficult parenting times. They are my blessings and my pathway to understanding and forgiving my mother for not being the mother I needed. I think you are right about having other relationships that help fill in the gaps. My husband who I have known for over twenty years has shown me unconditional love. Have you ever read Dr Dorothy Rowe? Her views often chime with your own. Cheers

    I thought this was interesting. My father has nine years of University education but chose a simple life of making dive bags (bags that you use to hold diving equipment both in and out of water) to raise a family. As a teenager, I often get quite frustrated when he tries to speak to me on an academic level. This frustration stems from the fact that we live on a farm where he is capable of making four times his current salary. He has quite an expressive face is I know without a doubt that I’m his favorite child in the matter of narcissism. My only sibling wishes to go off to college and have a career in film editing while I hope to enter a career in either astrophysics or psychiatry.

    As an infant, he was there for all the good parts, but as I grew up and started to understand his avoidance with problems, tantrums, or school, I started seeing him as a coward. As I endured the low income of my family and the conditions that we lived in, the more angry I became for him not giving support when bad things happen.

    My mother is highly emotional, but doesn’t express emotion very well in her face. She can speak with proper inflections that indicate emotion, but there isn’t much in her face. I find it annoying and very frustrating when I need to “read” her.

    I feel that I can trust my father to make good things happen when there’s no problems about. I feel that I can trust my mother to help solve problems, but that help costs one emotional assertiveness.

    I hope what I’ve written can help bring a bit of perception and validation to this post.

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