On reflection it felt a bit like coming home. I was at the National Children’s Bureau for the launch of Bearing the Unbearable, a DVD and training package for those working with children and young people with complex needs. Memories came flooding back of my very first visit to NCB to see Mia Kellmer-Pringle. Then there were thoughts of my conversations with different members of staff once I had left Edinburgh, having completed my research in residential child care and come back home to London. Added to this, there were several good old friends, including Richard Rollinson, Jonathan Stanley and Peter Wilson present.
Most of all, I was back in a setting where there were shared or common understandings of what it is to be human, in relationships, to suffer separation and loss, and to seek to create safe space and a therapeutic milieu. Whatever may be dominating the discourses in social work, child care, mental health and education in the UK at present, this seemed a long way from it, and much nearer the real thing!
I commend the DVD and package warmly, and in the next few issues of Children Webmag I propose to explore some the themes that emerged during the day, starting in each article with a particular phrase. So it is that we begin what may be a series, with the words:
“being held in a healthy mind”.
Richard Rollinson quoted a young person who put it like this, “I would prefer to be on someone’s mind, if not in it, or out of my own mind”. This encapsulates nicely how high the stakes are: if not in or on someone’s mind, then out of my own!
“Being held” is a wonderfully apt metaphor in this phrase. We could talk of being remembered, noted, noticed, and even kept in mind, but they do not evoke the same associations and feelings. When trying to summarise my philosophy of human development in the book The Growth of Love, the very first section of the chapter on the first main theme is entitled, “Being Held”. It harks back to a primal longing where we are safe in our mother’s arms, or secure in her womb.
“In mind” is of course about more than mind, as distinct from heart and soul. It is seeking to convey that a child is being held by a person even when they are physically separate. This is an aspect of being held, irrespective of distance and time. The vital point is that when the child is out of sight, she is not out of mind, and what is more she somehow comes to intuit and trust the fact.
“Healthy” is a necessary adjective, because the harsh fact is that not all who hold children in their minds, have healthy minds or good intentions or motives. We will not go down this route, but we note carefully that the phrase is inadequate without this proviso.
Everything we know about attachment and bonding, and separation and loss, revolves at some stage around this critical process and reality. Either a child is being held in a healthy mind, or he is not. Parents who hold the child in mind only when they are in the child’s presence, or prompted by the child, or who do so only when there are less important things on their minds, will in one way or another convey this to the child. And the child will feel anxiety that risks setting in train a series of unhealthy defence mechanisms.
The parent on the other hand who holds the child in her (healthy) mind will almost certainly have bonded with the child, and will be trusted with increasing degrees of the child’s affections and feelings (whether positive or negative).
As the event was proceeding at NCB it occurred to me that we had probably experienced and witnessed every variation on the particular theme: children who had been as it were “dropped” rather than being held; children who had been uncomfortably “squeezed”; children who had been abused (mentally or physically) and needed to freeze to cope with the pain; children who had been “forgotten”; children who were spasmodically held in mind; children who were told that they were in mind but who knew that they were not; children who were regularly held in unhealthy minds and so on. Thankfully we have also been blessed by knowing positive “holding in the mind”.
One of the threads to what we are and do at Mill Grove is to hold children in our minds unconditionally throughout our lives. It is a joy to hear again and again from children who lived here and with whom we may have lost contact for a decade or more, as they discover directly or through their siblings or children that they are very much still in our minds. Since 1899 there have been just three leaders of the community here, and each of the first two lived here to the end of his life carrying with him countless children in his mind: their names, their life-stories, their feelings and their relationships.
I think of an email I received while teaching recently in Malaysia: did we have any records on Jean Waites (the name has been changed)? I replied asking if Jean was still alive because we had lost touch with her. Yes, her daughter replied. I passed on my greetings and told the daughter how special Jean had been for me, and of the occasion when we came to visit Jean and her husband in the Midlands to see her new home and baby! Back came the reply: my mother told me that she used to push you along the floor in your nappies as a way of polishing it! We will be meeting up again soon. The point is made that we have held each other in our minds despite separation.
Another person who lived at Mill Grove (I will call him Roger Knight to avoid using his real name) spent much time explaining to me why he and others were so upset by the death of my father. I wondered if he could help me understand. He swiftly convinced me that once you have been “dropped” and/or “forgotten” rather than held in the mind, you find it hard to believe that anyone else will hold you safely in their minds. My father held Roger in his mind, but Roger still needed the reassurance of his physical presence: to be reminded of the fact, rather than able to internalise it as a basis for living and exploration from a secure base.
Finally I recalled (in a flash) a phone-call from the USA. It was in the early hours our time, and from someone who had lived at Mill Grove when I was a boy. “You won’t leave me, will you?” she asked with intensity. “What do you mean?” was my rather sleepy reply. “You won’t die”, she said without hesitation. “I wasn’t thinking of it just now”, I ventured, trying to see if we could inject any lightness into the conversation. No way! “Just before your father died I had a dream in which he died. I have had a dream about you and I am frightened”, was her anguished response. I was waking up pretty fast by now! “Because your parents have died, I need to know that you are there and won’t leave me.”
I told her that the fact was that she was part of me: my memory, my life-story, and that there was no way she would ever be out of my mind or heart until I died. That brought her back to the point she was making: she feared that I might die. Thankfully I am still here a couple of years later to recount the conversation. But as someone who had been “dropped” by both her parents, she was desperately seeking reassurance that she was in my mind. I gave her all the reassurance that I could.
What attention do we give in British social work, child care and social policy to this long-term “holding in the mind”, I wonder? Everything that comes to mind seems to be about short-term interventions and pieces of work including behaviour modification of various sorts: but what of the long-term relationship that begins with being physically present or together, and continues in the mind over the miles and time?
As I pondered this, I was reminded of the resonance between this whole concept, and what seems to be at or near the heart of the world religions. A flood of quotations and symbols from the Judaeo-Christian scriptures came to mind: “graven on the palm of His hand”; “though mother and father forsake you, I will never leave you”; “I go to prepare a place for you”, and so on. That was why I felt so much at home: I could be fully professional, and wholly Christian at one and the same time! And that is why I was delighted to accede to the request of the troubled lady from the USA, and send her a copy of the Bible that we use for family prayers at Mill Grove. When I am on the earth no longer, I believe that she will still be held firmly and lovingly in the (healthy) heart and mind of God whose nature and actions are described in its many books and pages.