By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
Right From The Get-go
The environment in the womb is already shaping the child. We know now that a happy relaxed pregnant lady is more likely to have a healthy baby than one who has been ill and upset through pregnancy. In a highly stressed physical situation, the pressures on him/her shape the fetus psychologically to respond somehow.
One particular example has made this clear to me. If identical in utero twins experience a mother’s preeclampsia (a reduction of blood flow to the placenta, which nourishes the fetus with oxygen and nutrients) the struggle to gain sufficient nourishment may create in one or both fetuses an anxiety attached to survival. Sometimes, one of the twins succeeds regularly in obtaining what’s necessary (is a successful feeder), while another chronically struggles.
What does this have to do with identify? Here it comes. Parent (Caregiver)-Child interaction! The parent figure – before and after birth – transmits multiple clues to the infant about how safe he/she is. Feeding is the chief task in the early days in the world, but feeling safe comes a close second. Baby monkeys are seen to develop strong attachment to a cozy safe surrogate rather than to a surrogate providing only food.
So what? Well, doesn’t it make sense that if I spend months in the womb having trouble getting to food and satisfaction, remaining a little hungry, receiving uneasy signals from host mama directly into my nervous system, then I may act as an anxious newborn? First of all I’ll be more clingy and edgy. I’ll want to be held close, a lot. I need reassurance. Hence, I’ll be treated as a more demanding child. And if I happen to have a more relaxed (successful feeder) identical sister, she’ll have her comfortable ‘nature’ reflected back to her – my caregivers can’t help being more happy around a happier baby.
Right away, Anxious Baby takes on the identity of a fussy, discontented child, and Satisfied Baby is considered to be easygoing, less temperamental. This is just for starters So, through no fault or deliberate action on the part of infant or caregiver, we start off having a big piece of our identity ascribed to us by others.
Other-Ascribed Early Identities
Incidents in a young life continue to shape how we are thought of – ‘who’ other people think we are.
Big scary incidents (nearly drowning? nearly being hit by a car? a fire in the home? getting lost?) can happen. If terror is experienced, a repeat of the same can be induced by encountering a reminder of something accompanying the bad event – loud noises, certain smells. Timidity, nervousness, scaredy-cat behaviours, avoidance of new situations – such behaviours mark us among our family, neighbours, classmates. “She’s a timid little thing”. Click – the identify album is filling up.
More subtle events add on to how we’re regarded. Bravado in facing an irate teacher, being really good at throwing a ball or skipping, holding a snake brought to a Science class: we call it ‘getting a reputation’(good or bad) and that’s another term for the identities ascribed to us as we act out our childhood in the company of others.
When Do We Start Working At Our Identities?
When we’re little, we become known largely by the way our families identify us. She’s shy, he’s tough, he’s very gentle, she’s bossy. Some families emphasize positive behaviours; others seem stuck on keeping egos in check by showering only negative descriptors on their children.
There is a point, however, when the children who remain psychologically healthy begin to select how they want to appear and be known (which may change numbers of times before full adulthood). To be explored next week!!