The Baby Observation is a key part of psychotherapeutic training. It is exactly what it says it is. Once a week you go and observe a newborn baby for an hour. That’s it. You sit, neutrally (in an ideal world) and you watch. The idea is that you learn about early development and begin to adopt the psychoanalytic stance—watching and listening “without memory or desire,” as Wilfred Bion, one of the major post-Freudian psychoanalysts, put it.
This “negative capability,” the therapist’s attempt at a kind of absorbent neutrality, is fraught with difficulty. Female trainees quite often get pregnant in the months during which they’re doing baby observations. Male trainees find it particularly difficult to find a mother willing to let them into her house once a week. Some trainees witness situations that compel them to step in; others are invited to babysit.
In my baby observation group years ago, part of my lengthy training, there was a heavenly Brazilian girl. In the dreary 1960s building where our course was held, under bleak English skies and surrounded by therapists doing their best to look as bland and neutral as possible (and succeeding beyond the most stringent expectations), she blazed like the South American sun. The mother of the baby she was observing hated her. “Perhaps,” the supervisor ventured (grey skirt, brown blouse, sensible shoes), “you might need to tone down your appearance.”
There was outrage. Huffily I pointed out that she could hardly be expected to become less attractive. I was secretly (though not that secretly) slightly put out that I hadn’t been asked to tone down the foxiness too. Anyway, the exhausted and overweight mother cut short the lithe Brazilian goddess’s observation of her baby.
This was years ago, and I now understand why I am taking off my glittery jewellery, making sure my cleavage (such as it is) is covered, not wearing anything obviously provocative or comment-worthy, and listening to the patient from inside my pleasant, but not flamboyant, silk scarf without social-style reaction. This is difficult. If someone is describing an abusive relationship to me, I struggle not to say: “For God’s sake! He’s a douche! Leave!” But any friend could provide that service. My aim is to try to understand the unconscious communication in what the patient is saying, and what reaction she expects from me, what my role is in her mind. This might give me clues to her experiences in early life; the kind of mother she had; the way she sees the world; why indeed, she selected douche man in the first place.
When any one of us goes into a room to talk to someone we approach them in a certain way. If we have a violent father, an older man might seem dangerous. If we have a critical mother, we might expect a glower from an older woman. The words we choose, the way we say them, the expectations we have of the other person (hostility, kindness, incomprehension, sexual attraction) are what tell the therapist what is really going on in there.
If a male therapist had his shirt unbuttoned to display a tanned chest, wore reflector shades on top of his head and raised his eyebrows with a smile every time we spoke, our behaviour would be a reaction to him and the therapy would immediately be compromised (like the day many years ago, still as vivid as if it had been this morning, that my analyst wore a bright pink jumper). If, however, we giggle and flirt with a reasonably neutral male therapist, that says something about us, not about him.
I ran into the Brazilian girl, now a woman, in an institutional corridor the other day. She was barely recognisable in a dark skirt, demure cardigan and flat shoes. It’s amazing what taking off the lip gloss can do to tone down aggression, in both parties.