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ONE DAY, WHEN I was seventeen, I went for a walk along the brown hill, lined with eucalyptus trees, beyond our house. Some months earlier, I'd found out that my mother was pregnant, and I was taking it hard. Underneath a layer of acute mortification at having a pregnant mother when I was a senior in high school, there were deeper, Oedipal swirls. Caught in my own dark emotions, I had not grasped the most obvious fact: that soon a baby would enter my lifea baby whom, the chances were good, I would love.
But on this particular day, walking along the brown hill, I heard a rustle of wind among the eucalyptus trees. I looked up into the shimmering leaves and suddenly grasped, for the first time, the reality of the single beingone leaf among the manywho would soon enter my life. "That was the moment I met you," I have said to my sister, more than once, ever since she was old enough to understand. It was as though in the rustle of leaves, I had caught the sound of her.
In East Africa, so I've heard, there is a tribe of people who actually make a practice of listening for the sound of their children before they are born. When a woman feels that she is ready to bear a child with her mate, she goes out to sit alone under a tree. She waits there, listeningthrough the sound of the wind in the leaves, of the birds, insects, and small animals in the branchesuntil she believes that she has heard the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Returning to her hut in thevillage, she teaches the song to her mate and when they make love, they sing the song, inviting the baby to enter their lives. Throughout her pregnancy, the mother sings this song to the child in her belly. When the child is born, the midwives welcome him with this song. As the child grows, he will hear this song again and again, at key moments of danger, initiation, celebration. The song will be a part of his wedding ceremony, as will the song of his bride. When he lies dying, his family will gather around him and sing the song one last time.
Closer to home, and in a much simpler manner, this attitude is present on the part of those parents who, rather than deciding beforehand, wait to see who their child is before giving it a name. When their daughter was born, my friends Bob and Sarah waited almost two weeksenduring the uncertainty, the advice and consternation of relatives, as well as the ever more imminent possibility that an unfortunate nickname would arise and stickbefore they alighted upon "Amanda."
This period of "waiting to see" really did involve a period of listening, not unlike the East African mother who sits under the tree waiting to hear the song of her child. Names arose in Bob and Sarah's minds; they murmured them aloud to themselves and to each other, and it was as though they were sounding the name against the reality of who their babyvigorous, blond, blue-eyed, with a piercing cryhad turned out to be. Before the birth, they had decided on the name "Danielle" for a girl. It was a name Sarah had always loved, but when their baby was born, they realized, in Sarah's words, that "The name was too soft for this powerful being."
It was as though in seeking a name, they were bringing two things into attunementthe sound of a name, with its history and connotations, and the who of this particular child. And, in fact, this process of sounding and listening until what begins as distance, disparity, even discord, is brought into alignment and harmonythis is the very essence of what is meant by attunement. One of the first ways that a mother attunes to her baby is by learning to interpret the sound of its crying. In order to match her responses to its needs, she has to differentiate the cry of hunger from the cry of pain or fatigue. Not all mothers learn to do this, but most dosooner or later, through trial and error.
Trial and error: the attitude of attunement is the very opposite of a dogmatic attitude. For the latter begins in certainty, with beliefs that it imposes like a grid on what it encounters. Children are by nature bad and willful is an example, par excellence, of the dogmatic attitude that prevailed for some hundreds of years in much of Europe and the New World in the name of Christian parenting. Even into the early twentieth century, children were regularly flogged by their parents and schoolteachers without tangible evidence of their having done anything wrong, but simply out of a presumption of guilt. Needless to say, such presumption is a world away from the pliant, wondering quality of attunement. Such presumptions represent a form of fundamentalist thinking, in relation to which attunement is much closer to the via negativa, the not this, not that of the mystical approach, which itself has often been described as a form of listening. Unlike the fundamentalist, who starts off professing a set of preordained beliefs and who wills others to do the same, the mystic listens to "the still, small voice" that leads himno, not this way, not thatto the state of divine union.
Do such comparisons seem highfalutin, far removed from the realm of parent and child?
Just look at a mother trying to comfort her fussing baby. She lifts him up against her shoulder, but he catches his breath and begins to cry again. She takes him down from her shoulder and holds him against her chest, rocking him. The cries get even louder. Finally, she stretches him belly-down on her knees and begins to stroke his back. The crying grows gradually quieter....
With each change in position, the mother waits for a few moments, watching, listening, to see if she's getting it right. When orchestral musicians tune their instruments, they begin with a single note: the A at 445 vibrations per second, sounded by the flute. Between parent and child, there is no such single, preordained point of departure, but rather, an ever-changing series of stateshunger, repose, restlessness, excitement, delightthrough which the two continually adjust to one another. Yet the processif vastly more fluid and variable than its musical counterpartis not willy-nilly.
It is guided by many thingsby a mother's protective urge, by her own visceral response to her child's discomfort, and also by the pleasure of mutuality. Doesn't our greatest pleasure, both as parent and child, tend to come from those moments when we feel ourselves to be in syncanother musical wordwith one another? Among my own happiest memories from childhood are those hours that I spent leaning against my father, dictating a story as he typed it on his typewriter; or leaning with my mother over one of my father's shirt boxes, cutting out figures for a cardboard circus. Among my most satisfying memories as a parent are those moments when my daughter and I seem to vibrate on the same frequency. We lie on my bed sorting through our jewelry boxes together; we lose ourselves in making a sandcastle; we find ourselves laughing at the same slip of the tongue; or are suddenly seized, driving through evening light, by the same mood of melancholy that makes us begin to remember the people we miss, the places we've left behind. And certainly the hell of parenthood is made of those moments of utter discord: a small boy bangs his metal spoon on the radiator as his mother lies nearby with a headache; a jet-lagged father, who wants nothing so much as to stay deep under the eiderdown, wakes at the crack of dawn to the shouts of his daughter, her mouth pressed to his ear, "Eggs, make me eggs!"
Just as water takes on the shape of its container or a liquid takes on the temperature of the room around it, one might characterize a healthy parent-child relationship as one in which both parties have an inclination to adjust to one another. And here inclination seems the right word, as in they incline toward each other, they lean into one another, as my mother and I leaned over our cardboard circus, as I leaned against my father, my words turning into the movements of his fingers on the typewriter keys....
The primal pleasure between parent and child of being in sync plants the seeds of a lifelong pleasure, one that lies at the heart of all forms of love. Through hours of close observation, psychologists have learned that the degree to which people match one anotherin posture, gesture, inflectionis an index of how much they like each other. This is true not only of romantic partners, but of friends, teachers and students, even of new acquaintances. When we are well-disposed toward another person, we have a tendency, for the most part unconscious, to bring ourselves physically into alignment with him, through our posture, our gestures, the rhythm and volume of our speech.
Yet attunement, this bringing into alignment of two separate beings, is not the same as fusion, the merging of two identities. A mother who is attuning to her baby as he makes the first sounds and rhythms of human speech does not just parrot his sounds and facial expressions back to him. From the beginning, attunement has the quality not of call and echo, but of call and response. A mother who attunes herself to her baby's communication does not simply repeat his sounds and imitate his expressions; rather, she responds to him in a way that signals, "I see what sort of mood you're in right now, and Iin my own wayam letting you know that I see, I understand, and I participate."
This is the beauty of attunement: it permits us to embody the mystery of being one not two, two not one. It is an experience that we seek our whole lives long. As Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, has written: "Making love is perhaps the closest approximation in adult life to this intimate attunement between infant and mother." And for the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, it is the primal experience of attunement, defined as a process of "mutual recognition," that underlies the adult capacity for erotic love. In The Bonds of Love, she writes:
The positive experience of attunement allows the individual to maintain a more permeable boundary and enter more readily into states in which there is a momentary suspension of felt boundaries between inside and outside. The capacity to enter into states in which distinctness and union are reconciled underlies the most intense experience of adult erotic life. In erotic union we can experience that form of mutual recognition in which both partners lose themselves in each other without loss of self ... Thus early experiences of mutual recognition already prefigure the dynamics of erotic life.
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It is because attunement contains the reality of both separateness and mutuality that it is the key to understanding the eros of parenthood. The rewards of this love, in its healthy state, may be understood as a function of proper attunement. And its dark side may be seen as a failure of this attunement, in the form of a parent who remains too separate, unable to resonate empathically, or a parent who floods the boundaries of the child's selfthrough violence, sexual abuse, excessive neediness, or what has been called "emotional incest."
It's not God I want, it's someone in skin!
A real child called out those words, a child in skin. And what they mean is: You, my mother, in this very body, with your particular smell, the color of your eyes, the sound of your voice, the texture of your hair, you are the supreme value in my universe, the source and sustainer of my being. A mother, attuning to the passionate intensity of this request, consents to be that someone to her child, that god in skin. She does so knowing that the very destiny of such a god is that as her child grows, she will have to shed one role after another in relation to him, just as a snake sheds its skins. She will have to shed her child's various perceptions of her, including some that are most flattering, most gratifying, to herfor this is the essence of a healthy mother's attunement to her child: she takes her cue from him, she keeps his needs uppermost. Yet sometimes, in order to attune to his deepest needs, shelike the mother bird who pushes her chick from the warm nest of sticks and moss so that it may spread its wingsmay need to frustrate his more immediate desires.
For though an infant may be perfectly content with a mother who is completely immersed in him, a growing child needs a parent who, while remaining empathically aligned, exists as a separate self, a self with its own needs, desires, gifts, griefs. Recently a friend told me about a young mother she knows who, though she is recovering from a serious back injury, will not let go of her intensely self-sacrificing style of mothering. Even when other caring adults are in the house and she is nearly immobilized with pain fatigue, she cannot bear to leave her three young children long enough to take a nap in her bedroom. My friend described her lying collapsed on the sofa as her youngest boy ran a toy metal truck over her face. When her husband tried to rescue her, she protested, "Oh, let him behe's just playing!" This is an example of a mother's self-abnegation, her disappearance into her childnot what I am calling attunement, which is the bringing into alignment of two separate beings.
In the earliest phase of parenthood, the infant needs the parent to harmonize as closely as possible with him: to meet hunger with food, loneliness with presence, boredom with playfulness in a way that minimizes frustration. While the latter represents the orthodox definition of attunement, I am using the term in a much broader way as a process of mutual adjustment that continues throughout the growing years of a child. Thus I am asking it to encompass also those later stages during which the responsive parent must team to frustrate the child's desires in an appropriate way, in order to confront both the reality of the external world ("No, that's hot!" "No, that will break!") and the subjectivity of othersincluding the parent herself. ("No, I can't play right now!" "No, I need to be alone!")
When attunement is defined in this broad and flexible way, it can become the prime navigational tool through the eros of parenthood. As such, it does not provide the comfort of ready-made certainty or of absolute safety. It cannot guarantee that we won't sometimes lose our bearings. But if we remember to pause and take a reading at regular intervals, the chances are good that we will not stray too far from the one sure note: the sound of our children's needs. These needs change over timeso that what we're listening for becomes a great deal more complex than the difference between a cry of hunger, pain, or fatigue, yet the basic process remains the same. Listening and responding, we chart our course. Attunement is not magic, like a wand. It does not even have the static reliability of a key. But it is the compass in Goldilocks' hand, and with its quivering needle, it guides usnot this way, not that.
By Neal Drinnan
ST. MARTIN'S PRESS
Copyright © 2000 Neal Drinnan. All rights reserved.