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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Safe Haven & the Alternative Caregiver

It is terribly hurtful when your 2/1/2-year-old proclaims "I don't want Daddy, I only want Mummy!" This may happen when you dispense a dose of discipline after a particularly bad tantrum, or when you insist on holding his hand to walk him through the car park, or even when you simply want to change him and he wriggles out of your hands. In public or in private, moments such as these could have a significant impact on your sense of self-worth; or you could even start questioning why you even wanted to be a father in the first place. 

"Fine. Have it your way. If you only want Mummy, then stop asking me for things. Go and ask her to help you. Don't ask me to play with you. If you don't want Daddy, then I don't want you."

That could be a possible response. But you know that deep inside you, it is something you will never say. How could you bring yourself to say something like that? It might be something you may feel, but as a father who loves his kids, it will be something you will never tell them. 
The 2yo enters a new stage of independence in his life.
I have been taking a postgraduate course in counselling and one of my modules has been on the study of human development. During the course of my studies I came across the work of Hungarian-born psychiatrist Margaret Mahler and her Separation-Individuation Theory. Mahler depicts seven phases in her theory of object relations, detailing the process from birth to the age of 6. The primary thrust of the theory is that our relationships to the "objects of our affections" determine the person that we become. In this light, human development can be understood from the process of separation-individuation from our primary objects of affection.

In Mahler's theory, children begin differentiating from their primary caregiver (this is the mother in most cases) as early as 4 months. But serious "practicing" only occurs from the age of 10 months, when infants begin to explore the world around them and develop an understanding of their own abilities. Despite such explorations, children inevitably return to their "safe haven" (the mother), where they find a sense of deep security. By the time the child turns 18 months, he or she would begin to develop some "bruises" from the explorations, resulting in a certain degree of ambivalence to the caregiver - this gives rise to mood swings and temper tantrums. The process continues until the age of 4-6 years, where there is an emergence of interpersonal systems and social groupings.

Studying Mahler has helped me understand the behaviour of E, who is now 32 months, and in the stage she has termed as "object constancy/consolidation". This means that E is in the process of struggling with issues such as "Can loving feelings and anger co-exist?" and "Can I be intimate and close and yet still be myself?" During these struggles, it is crucial that E finds security in his Mummy. It is crucial that E continues to find his "safe haven" in his Mummy.
In the arms of his "safe haven".
How then do fathers fit in Mahler's theory? Well, her research points to the importance of the father as an "alternative caretaker" to help the child separate from the mother. This implies that while the father does not serve as the primary "safe haven" for the child, he however assumes an important role in the absence of the mother. In fact Mahler stresses that by the time the child reaches the ages of 4 to 6, it becomes essential for the child to have both parents around. The child then begins to establish an identity separate from both parents. This eventually develops into a healthy interpersonal system which forms the bedrock of strong social relationships in the child's future.

I reflected on my own life and on my own support system during my early childhood years. Looking back, I know I developed somewhat securely due to the presence of my mother as a "safe haven" for me. However, after my parents' separation at the age of 3, I did not have my father as an "alternative caretaker" in my life. Instead, my paternal grandparents filled that vacuum in my life, and they were there for me during most of my childhood years. My world however turned upside down after my paternal grandmother died when I was 12. Looking back, I realise now that her role in my life had increased to become that of a "safe haven". I was therefore devastated when my beloved Mama, my "safe haven", passed away. Thus began six turbulent teenage years when I felt totally insecure and lost. It was only when I found my "safe haven" again at the age of 19, in the personhood of Jesus, that I regained my sense of balance once again.
My "safe haven" when I was young.
Children are such fragile creatures. No doubt there is much in-built in them for them to achieve a measure of greatness. However, for such children to blossom to achieve their fullest potential, it is of essence for them to be surrounded by loving parents - a mother who can be their "safe haven", and a father who serves as the "alternative caretaker".

While I know that my children constantly whine and look for their mother when they are feeling insecure, I take comfort in that when I take them out alone without their mother, both children are extremely obedient. We go for long walks, engage in long conversations, and generally have a fantastic time together. 
Precious father-son moments. 
Parenthood is a journey and we are only at the beginning. I know there will be a day when my sons will turn to me first to ask about the "guy" things of life. I know that I am their primary role model of what a father and husband should be. To me, that's all I need to know; for husband and wife need to work hand-in-hand in order to bring up secure and well-adjusted children. Sue and I - we make the best team for our children!

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