by Elisabeth Schreiber, Ph.D.
Do you remember the children’s book by P.D. Eastman about a baby bird whose mother is away when he hatches from his egg? The hatchling drops out of the nest and wanders about on his own, asking different animals and machines he encounters, “are you my mother?” Finally he sees a steam shovel. “Oh no! You are not my mother. You are a scary Snort!” The baby bird is frightened and confused: where does he belong? But the steam shovel lifts him back up to the safety of his nest, where his mother greets, feeds, and holds him.
Perhaps one of the reasons this book is beloved by many children and adults is that it puts into words the importance of the parent-child relationship while also depicting the sense of fragility and displacement that goes along with the developmental process that psychologist Margaret Mahler called separation and individuation. Mahler (1963, 1975) believed that newborns are unaware that they and their mothers are distinct from one another. For Mahler, such awareness begins between five and nine months of age, with a phase she termed “hatching.” This is the beginning of having a sense of self. Separation does not entail giving up close relationships --it is a matter of realizing that we do not have to be emotionally or psychologically fused with others. This permits a person to round out his her own ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
More recently, infant researchers have shown that infants are actually aware of both themselves and others in surprising and significant ways (e.g., Lyons-Ruth, K. (1991). In light of this research even Fred Pine, coauthor of some of Mahler’s original publications, has modified his opinion. Pine no longer believes that newborns are fully psychologically merged with their caretakers. Instead, he says, infants experience moments of relative merger, for instance during feeding and while falling asleep (Pine, 1992). Based upon those moments of relative subjective merger a fantasy of merger develops. For Pine, this fantasy is revisited again and again throughout life.
Separation-individuation, too, is not only the developmental domain of infants. Adolescence is a time when people typically assert themselves in new and important ways in a second main period of separation-individuation (Blos, 1979). And Calvin Colarusso (2000) writes about separation-individuation as a challenge people face repeatedly throughout the entire lifecycle. Transitions such as relocation, marriage, retirement, and bereavement are only a few of the many situations one may face that that require recalibrations in identity to allow for increased awareness that we are both separate from and deeply connected to others. Separation-individuation can bring exciting and empowering realizations, contributing to feelings of capability, creativity, and renewal. But it can also be painful and disorienting, as one has to let go of expectations and assume daunting responsibilities. It is not surprising, then, that gestures toward separation/individuation are often marked by ambivalence. During times of heightened separation-individuation demands, people may oscillate between proud displays of independence or competence and requests for comfort or efforts to return to the safety of the “nest.” Ultimately, the aim is to feel autonomous while also being communion with others.
For a variety of reasons, the goal of being both separate from and deeply engaged with others may be particularly hard to reach. In some families, for instance, independent thought or feeling is seen as a betrayal of the parents, and an enmeshment with the family unit may be implicitly demanded. Children who grow up in such families are in quite a bind: in order to grow into self-confident adults they must learn, express, and respect their own thoughts and feelings. But if doing so is to be disloyal to the caretakers they love and need so dearly, that may feel forbidden from exploring their own internal worlds. In order to protect the relationships they need children sometimes feel compelled to sacrifice things that are essential to their own personal growth. They may develop into people who lack confidence in their own basic capabilities, have great difficulty making decisions, rely on others excessively, or are unable to bear the intimacy of romantic relationships. They may be beset by fears of abandonment, and sometimes turn to extreme behaviors such as self-harm, disordered eating, or addiction.
This is sometimes when the support and help of a trained clinician is sought. In therapy some of the questions that frequently come up explicitly or through symbol are: who am I and how do I relate to and differ from those who raise(d) me? Who really is my mother? How am I like my mother? How am I different? These questions may be accompanied by feelings of terrible guilt, as people may wonder whether they are simply “blaming” others and avoiding responsibility. But ironically, it may be that only by asking these questions can one truly take responsibility for oneself and one’s behaviors. The first task, then, may be to learn to feel alright about questioning assumptions with which one was raised. Families must develop the strength to permit and even nurture children’s efforts to carve out unique reactions and points of view. And individuals must learn to bear these questions as they face life’s many changes. It takes courage, but the rewards are great: one can find a unique voice, feel more free and proud, and be able to endure and make use of a broader range of emotions. When this happens, too, the door to a deep kind of love and relatedness may be opened where once it was closed.
Blos, P. (1979). The adolescent passage. New York: International Universities Press.
Colarusso, C.A. (2000). Separation-Individuation Phenomena in Adulthood. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48: 1467-1489
Lyons-Ruth, K. (1991). Rapprochement or Approchement: Mahler's Theory Reconsidered From the Vantage Point of Recent Research on Early Attachment Relationships. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 8:1–23.
M.S. (1963). Thoughts about Development and Individuation. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 18: 307-324.
Mahler, M., Pine, F. & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: Basic Books.
Pine, F. (1992). Some Refinements of the Separation-Individuation Concept in Light of Research On Infants. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 47: 103-116.