Children’s Minds in the Line of Fire Blog

By Patricia Singer

 In the year 2020 SARS CoV-2 invaded us and threatened our lives. Although two years have passed since its onset, it is still difficult to talk about it in the past tense, although we can see a different horizon.

In the initial moments of the pandemic, overflow and mental confusion took hold of us along with anguish in the face of the unknown and massive death counts that went viral through social networks.

Isolations, the use of masks and disinfection systems became protective measures. The boundaries between obsessive rituals and care measures were blurred and combined. Economic, political and social systems were overwhelmed, and families were shaken. 

Globally, 6 million people are estimated to have died from the virus and its complications.

Some age groups were hit in their most basic needs, such as adolescents, as well as older adults who were segregated and cut off from their vital affections.

In this sense, I would like to stop and think about the babies and parents who were born during the pandemic. 

The baby in its defenseless state needs its maternal environment to in order to become a psychic subject. It is vital for the newborn that there be another emotionally available to care for and protect him or her from the drives and external impulses that initially present themselves in a chaotic manner. 

The newborn needs sensitive emotional attention to mitigate a sense of helplessness, and to gradually form the narcissistic foundation to feel alive and become a subject.

A child who can say ‘I am...’ has gone through a lengthy process, his ‘being me’ results from arduous psychic work that accounts for a broad, complex and dynamic connection between the child and his parents, where “aspects of neurophysiological maturation, desires, experiences, events, fantasies gestated in the interrelation between the child and his environment” [1]

The birth and arrival of a child in his or her family environment always provokes a psychic upheaval. Winnicott was one of the pioneers in underlining the “primary maternal concern”, a state of heightened sensitivity, (almost like a disease which allows her to adapt to the baby's needs) so necessary in the baby's early days. 

Nowadays we find different types of families: nuclear family, single parent, same sex couples, and blended families, with different parenting styles, perhaps leading us to broaden the concept to "primary parental concern".

In times of pandemic, it is worth asking ourselves how these processes of both parentality and early psychic structuring are affected. 

The isolation and social distance imposed by the pandemic has limited the support networks so important for those who carry out the task of giving life to a baby. The absence of help and support has weakened parental psychic fertility, resulting in parents overwhelmed and distressed by domestic work, work and/or the loss of a source of employment. 

Family organization was affected, work and schools invaded homes.  The father-mother who went out to work allows a cut and separation in the daily routine, an exercise of presence-absence, which was affected by a hyper parental-labor presence This hyper presence was not always accompanied by the "emotional playful malleability" necessary for the mother-baby encounter. 

What new ghosts are now added to the baby's crib? [2]

The panic of the disease, the anguish generated by the crisis, and the multiple duels, either due to the death of a loved one or due to losses experienced (work, weakened social ties, etc.), became part of the environment socio-maternal of the pandemic.

The baby who was born in these times found himself with worried, fearful faces, sometimes partially covered by masks, unusual in our culture, with obsessive rites, and smells impregnated with alcohol and disinfectants. The baby as "a good meteorologist is exposed to different emotional storms, must fight with its own impulses and its own anxieties and depends absolutely on the vicissitudes of the one who takes it as an object of care"[3]. 

The infant, abounds in his non-verbal, gestural, mimetic, bodily, babbling language. The baby speaks with its gaze, with its body tonicity, with its gestures, with its movements, or in its worrying version, it calls us with its absence. An active, sensitive partner is needed to welcome and decode its spontaneous gestures.

During the pandemic, homes were saturated with screens, which became essential vehicles to support multiple tasks. Some mothers told us that they simultaneously worked and breastfed their babies, while other parents said that the baby was "entertained" by the computer lights and this allowed them to work. 

The excessive use of electronic devices by toddlers has been a concern, especially when they function as "electronic pacifiers", becoming another type of virus that threatens the "subjectivizing ludic circuit" necessary to become a subject. The adult attached to the screens also loses necessary sensitivity, withdrawn in his function of mirror and translator of the gestures the baby expresses. 

The baby needs the other, either the mother or father, to share their thoughts with the baby and interpret the baby’s actions, his gestures, his facial expressions, and his crying. Parental interpretation is necessary, even if it represents a violence to the child, as Piera Aulagnier says, it is a structuring violence.

During the pandemic, the connection to and the support from the external world was limited.  Families were stuck inside the homes. For some children it was a great opportunity to have both parents together at home, for others it was a source of great disorganization.

The reopening of the early education centers  welcomes families and children born in pandemics, coined as "quarantenials" or "pandemic babies". These children are eager to go out, enthusiastic about the encounter with peers, as an unprecedented experience. Previous trials of separation with their referents were very limited, as well as the transition between domestic and shared space. Object losses that at the same time constitute pushes towards individual development, such as weaning, sphincter control, have been disrupted and delayed.

In a cautious manner we are observing children between two and five years of age with great difficulty in waiting, in regulating their impulses, in socializing with other children, with little possibility of managing in regulated spaces. Teachers report observing demanding, omnipotent children, with difficulties in accepting small frustrations, expectations and renunciations of daily life.

Under the gaze provided by the psychoanalytic clinic, children with a fragile narcissistic configuration display little symbolic play, impoverished verbal narrative, separation anxiety, and developing mechanisms of defense from the autistic spectrum.

The pandemic and its resulting social and psychological upheaval will leave countless questions about the quality of these infants’ intersubjective encounters, the intruder ghosts and the enigmatic messages that circulate in the bond between parent and baby, and how these messages will be inscribed in the developing child.
Lic Patricia Singer
Psychoanalyst, Psychoanalytic Association of Uruguay
Diploma in Perinatal Clinic and Early Attachment Disorders, Udelar-Ulbra-Aix en Provence
Co-coordinator of the APU Children's Laboratory. 
COCAP Member to Latin America

[1] Gil, Daniel. (1995). The self and primary identification. In: The wounded self, writings about the self and narcissism. Ed. Trilce, Montevideo, Uruguay
[2] Fraiberg, Selma, Adelson, Edna and Shapiro, Vivian. 1975. “Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships.” Journal of American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 14(3): 387-42
[3] Guerra, Victor: “Alegato por el desamor de la cuidadora” Unpublished work presented at the VIII Baby Week, Canela Brasil, 2008

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