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Pre-School 2: Finding New Mirrors

One of the side effects of having Group Therapy is that in can make you a bit disinhibited when it comes to sharing your feelings in public. It's the emotional equivalent to a fortnight sunbathing topless on the Med: suddenly, you just don't care who you bare all in front of any more.  In Group Therapy, you share your deepest darkest thoughts, brace yourself for the diagnosis of 'utter nutter', and instead find a whole circle of folk nodding kindly and muttering 'that's just how it is for me' to their folded hands. You start to realise how normal it is to be a neurotic emotional wreck, and to feel not just comfortable, but positively evangelical about sharing your hopeless fragility with others for the good of all mankind. Often, being really honest about our feelings in public can provide a real release for others, giving them permission to share their own frailty more comfortably, but sometimes, it just makes people think you're nuts. For example, when I wrote about my daughter's first foray into the world of Pre-School in the post Pre-School: Demons and Ghosts, I received a real outpouring of emotion from other mothers who could relate to what I had to say and were grateful to me for voicing my - and their - difficult feelings of loss, sadness and doubt. But at the same time my cathartic words made some people feel a bit concerned: was I sure I was alright? and more importantly, was the three-year-old alright, was this little girl who had never been apart from her mummy ready for such a big step forwards?

We needn't have worried. Picking her up from her last session before half term, it was clear that she had not just 'settled in', but was now feeling comfortable enough to expose the full extent of her totally loveable lunacy to her teachers and peers. 'She's quite a character', the staff inform me, 'She never stops making up jokes', they add, 'We wanted to write you a list of her favourite activities, but actually, she just likes everything'. I know this, of course. I know her. She's like a sort of nutty professor, tripping gaily along the line between bonkers and genius and infecting everyone around her with her utter enthusiasm for absolutely everything she comes across. Today as I collect her she pulls me excitedly down the classroom to show me something she has discovered, a 'child friendly' mirror is slightly bent at the top end, and if you stand in just the right spot in front of it, to use her words, 'It makes your head go all wibbly'.  She hoots with laughter as she sees herself in this new and funny way, and the staff are laughing too, we are all laughing, because it's impossible not to.

Psychotherapist Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) would have liked this moment. Winnicott understood so well the importance of the early attachment between mother and infant, and wrote about the role of the mother as 'first mirror' to her child. Initially, a baby has no sense of separateness from her mother, and therefore when she looks into her mother's face, what she finds there is understood by her as a kind of 'reflection'. If we are managing to be what Winnicott so reassuringly refers to as a 'Good Enough Mother', then we are able to reflect back to our baby feelings of approval, love and delight which she then integrates as feelings about her own self. A Good Enough Mother does this naturally and without thinking, mirroring her babies facial expressions and echoing her sounds in ways that say, 'I see you, I hear you, I understand you'. The baby feels, at a deep, pre-verbal level, 'I am seen, I am heard, I am understood'. This becomes a vital building block for the babies sense of self, greatly affecting her future sense of her own value and her emotional stability.

But as the baby grows, she begins to understand herself as a separate person in her own right. The 'mother-mirror' is still vitally important, reflecting back approval and unconditional love. But the baby starts to meet new mirrors. These mirrors might say, 'You are beautiful / interesting / hilarious', but they might equally well say, 'You are annoying / boring / not funny'. Part of the experience of becoming an individual involves experiencing our different reflections in the many mirrors we encounter, and through this coming to know more about who we are, and to learn, change and adapt ourselves accordingly. Being 'just with mummy', is a bit like 'one to one' therapy - there is a peacefulness and a security, knowing that the therapist is holding you safely and will reflect back only empathy and kindness. Out there at Pre-School, out there in the world, it's a bit more like group therapy, where the reflections back are many and varied, and this can sometimes feel both risky and enlightening.

From a secure attachment, a strong sense of self develops, and we become ready to jump towards independence rather than be pushed. The early 'good-enough-mother-mirror' makes us strong enough to take our chances with the Hall of Mirrors that is the 'group'. At Pre-School, I see my daughter beginning to find new reflections in new mirrors; sometimes joyful and funny, and sometimes more challenging, and I think it's a positive experience for her. It's pretty disappointing really, because we are attachment parents who do things like co-sleeping, extended nursing, and babywearing, and it wouldn't have taken much of a leap for us to go down the home-schooling route. Things may change of course, but for now, it looks like we are going to be rather irritatingly conventional on this one. I keep reminding her that if she doesn't like it, she can call me and I'll come and get her, but unfortunately, the phone never rings.

Not that there's much they can teach her of course. Last Sunday, out for a family walk, I was buried in thoughts about the petition to Amazon and thinking about what a jerk I had been to tell the world there was going to be an article about it in the Sunday Times before I actually had a copy in my hand. The article hadn't made the final edition, and I was reeling not just from disappointment but from the fear that I had made myself look rather stupid. Whilst I was busy musing and fuming to myself, my partner was trying to help the three-year-old over a stile. 'No! Don't help me!', I heard her telling him, 'I want to do it all by my own self, falling'.  'Learning is Falling'. Let me repeat that. Learning is Falling. Not falling is learning. That would mean something different. Think about it. Learning is Falling. It takes some people a lifetime of meditation to reach that kind of enlightenment. I'm convinced, she's amazing, brilliant, gifted, brighter than bright. But then I would think that. I'm her mother. To me, she will always be the fairest of them all.


  1. Great post and knowing your daughter I have to agree that she is definitely one of the fairest in the land xx

    First off just want to say that I am NOT trying to start a HE/school debate (and I know this is slightly off topic)... lol

    I have had the education conversation with MANY people (mainly because we are HE at the mo) and quite a few AP parents say they wanted to HE or they liked the idea of it but their child CHOSE otherwise so they are being 'conventional'.

    I am not saying this is where you are, but I know people who would have loved to HE and were financially/emotionally able to yet they didn't because they thought that because their child enjoyed a few mornings a week of pre-school or got excited at seeing the school play ground full of children playing, meant they HAD to send their child to school.

    My eldest is 4 and obviously has opinions that count but she doesn't know enough of the world and certainly not enough about schooling to make the decision for herself...

    I know that there is a good chance that she would love pre-school, I also know she is very happy with HE!

    I just wish parents (me included) could have the confidence and courage to follow the paths that they feel to be right for them without the burden of guilt of not sending them to school or on the flip side of not HEing them...

    Yes to baby led feeding/weaning/attachment but there comes a time where we need to take them by the hand and lead them down the path that we feel is right for them - whichever path that may be.

    Sorry for the essay and get well soon xxxx

  2. Interesting post, especially what you said about group therapy. Writing can be like that too - it can allow people to say, hey that's how I feel; that connects with me.

    Sunday Times - frustrating, but they may still publish.

  3. Thank you Jenn...I it possible to parent without somehow imposing our own agendas? I doubt it ;-)
    And thanks Mark, I like the idea of writing as group therapy, reminds me of that quote from Shadowlands, attributed to CS Lewis, 'We read to know we're not alone'...perhaps these days he would have said, We blog to know we're not alone! xxx

  4. Hey there
    V interesting thought provoking stuff. Agree with Mark about writing/therapy.
    I keep getting email bounces but am interested in doing a guest post if I have time and v happy for Small Comforts to be posted in either case.
    L x (thatwoman)

  5. Its not so much our own agendas more knowing when the time is to follow our children and when the time is to lead... I have know people in the AP community who, in my opinion, follow their children to a level that they treat them as peers and hardly ever actually 'parent' them, I also know others who dictate every move their child makes with no room for allowing them to express themselves - I guess each of us has to get that balance right for ourselves and our family.

    I personally think you need an agenda to follow... its just that agenda needs to be a positive one that involves your child having room to breath and direction when appropriate... :)

  6. wise words jenn, well put xxx


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