Mother-Daughter Workshops: An Interactive Encounter

INFANT DEVELOPMENT

Female infants from birth are more sensitive to sounds, particularly the mother’s voice. As babies, females orient more to tone then males, and are more startled by loud noises. Infant girls have increased skin sensitivity, are more attentive to social contexts such as faces, speech patterns, and voice tones, and are capable of speaking earlier than boys. Females tend to see stimuli in context rather than independent of context, which is consistent with women’s greater involvement in relationships (Restack, 1979). Henley, (1985) and Silverman (1987) support these findings, adding that female infants are generally calmer, and spend a greater percentage of their time making eye contact, gazing and vocalizing. Female babies also show greater responsiveness to auditory signals, sensitivity to tactile experiences (Korner, 1974), and earlier face discrimination (Caron et al., 1982). Boys, on the other hand, show an earlier superiority in visual acuity and are more curious in exploring the environment (Henley, 1985).

Female neonates with their more stable state system, increased awareness of the outside world, and greater involvement in gazing and vocalizing, show an increased potential for connectedness to the caregiver (which is usually the mother). The males’ greater irritability, lessened responsiveness to soothing, and preferences for motor responses, lead to increased experience of separation (Notman & Nadelson, 1990). Thus, there is the potential for earlier social exchanges between a mother and a daughter than with a son. In addition, newborns elicit responses from their caretakers, and the interplay between mother and child is strongly affected by the temperament, responsiveness, and mutuality by both parents and infants (Stern, 1985). This illustrates how nature and nurture are intertwined. For example, research shows that infant boys are allowed more mobility than girls, and girls are considered smaller and cuddlier than boys. Gender specific toys are given to infants as early as six months. In addition, a female infant models herself after mother in a caring relationship. She identifies with mother biologically and emotionally, as well as with the representation of mother. A male infant has the special task of renouncing the security of the pleasurable closeness with mother to form an identification with father, to develop a masculine identity. For him to mature, he needs to separate in order to be autonomous. The infant girl, can maintain her closeness with mother while becoming attached to the father. She doesn’t need to renounce mother for her to identify as a girl. For her, maturity can be defined in relation to empathy and caring for others (Stoller, 1968).

The rationale for presenting this material is to demonstrate that innate aspects of the female infant to which mothers respond are ubiquitous in the mother-daughter relationship. Our hope is that this information may relieve some of the guilt and concern that mothers and daughters feel about “enmeshment.” We usually get nods of recognition, as well as contradictory responses which some mothers experiencing their sons as calmer and more responsive. We are always careful to clarify that these are research findings, and that individuals are unique.

EARLY DEVELOPMENT

Freud (1931) speaks of the intensity of the pre-oedipal attachment of the little girl to her mother. Mahler (1975) speaks of the “adhesive” or “sticky” relationship. Lichtenstein (1961) refers to the mother’s feelings about a girl that resonate with her own experience as a woman, and notes that these feelings are instrumental in the girl’s identity formation. A core gender identity begins to develop at eighteen months and is completed by three years of age; this is influenced by biological, psychological and cultural factors. (Stoller, 1968)

Using Mahler’s (1975) general propositions about early separation-individuation, we proceed to highlight the ebb and flow of the mother-daughter relationship in the early years. We describe the practicing-phase, from about ten to eighteen months when individuation is in the forefront, the rapprochement phase, when the toddler is able to move away from mother but still needs her presence, and autonomy, which is achieved through separation on the way to object constancy. We emphasize that the ability to identify, feel empathetic, and be intimate requires self-definition and ego strength.

The girls’ early and close identification with the mother however, can create problems with separation-individuation, especially in cases of intense, prolonged and gratifying closeness. For example, one particular daughter, and only child, whose mother was hidden during the Holocaust and who devoted all her energy toward her daughter’s professional and social development, angrily cut herself off from her mother and her husband in order to claim her “space.” Her struggle with individuation did not resolve until she was able to come to terms with her mother’s strengths and weaknesses, and trust her perceptions even when they differed from her mother’s. Eventually her rage subsided, as she was increasingly able to confront her mother, and she subsequently began a healthier relationship with another man.

In general, it is easier for a mother to feel hurt, angry, and guilty because of a little girl’s desire to separate. A mother’s investment in closeness is reinforced by cultural expectations – a “mama’s girl” is more acceptable than a “mama’s boy.” Eventually, the little girl at age three to five “discovers” her father as an exciting object who helps her to separate somewhat from her mother.