Head in the Sand

One of Fractal Pictures produced by mandelbrot...
One of Fractal Pictures produced by mandelbrot equation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Regular readers may realise that there are often a lot of notions (from half-baked to overdone) flitting about inside my head – connected, repeated, re-emerging, like fractals. Last Saturday morning I was at a meeting, like many other such I have attended, where the ‘what goes on between people?’ question was being wisely and interestingly addressed. But, as often before, I come away sort of stimulated, sort of cross, sort of … “something is forever missed and surely I am not the only one who finds it so?” Is there a something in real living, maybe a something which is hiding in plain sight?

It seems to me that it is not much wonder that many people do not like the idea of therapy/talking cure/unconscious inner world etc etc and it is not, or not only, because they are afraid of what they might find, it is maybe that those who practice such approaches to life, love, and self-development often seem to come from either of two points on a spectrum, without seeing that the spectrum itself may be hiding something. In caricature, it is  ‘we help, you helpee’ also known in all sorts of contexts as the medical model, basically a heirarchy of self-development from someone with education skill and experience (though of course they always say to be good they also acknowledge their own need) or, in the social model, the field of action is ‘well we are in this together, can we find out what is going on if we ask each other and explore what is going on’? Now, I do believe, and research has found, both hold respect, wisdom, tolerance and all sorts of other good things [apologies for this simplistic rendering]. But…

Specifically, what I got cross about last Saturday, was yet another paean to attentive interaction between mother and baby. To demonstrate that babies are social, the speaker showed the Still Face Experiment by Dr. Edward Tronick:

On this video, apart from being irritated that another baby is subjected to needless distress (albeit brief, how do we know the baby thought it brief) and the ‘we already know this you don’t have to tell us again’, it doesn’t take us near to what I think is the real matter – the hidden something.

From the classic James and Joyce Robertson film "going to hospital with mother"
Contentment in the 1958 James and Joyce Robertson film “going to hospital with mother”, contrasts with the distress in another film,  “a two year old goes to hospital”

Tronick says thirty years ago we discovered babies to be social, but 40 years ago I happened to live in a house which was the very house in which James and Joyce Robertson lived and they took lots of super-eight films of young children and their distress when separated from their mother parents carers.

Later, in Edinburgh, we have had the well-deserved praises sung of ‘musicality’ in babies by our very own Colwyn Trevarthen. He observed his daughter, and his grandchild, and other babies interacting with their mothers. Hear him talking about it here. To me, one of the most important things he says is : “… the baby’s looking, or curiosity is more important than any parents desire to teach the baby, or anybody’s desire to teach the baby; the baby is not a pupil, it is not just an ignorant human being that needs to be taught knowledge. But to be part of a human community which is sharing knowledge and understanding you don’t have to have a teacher, you just have to have company, good company, and that company can be of any age…”

So why am I still cross? It is because I think that this joyous interactiveness has always been happening, of course it has, throughout the ages whether anyone discovers it, and videos it or not. Think nursery rhymes and lullabys and age-old life before film. More nastily, I say, alcoholics and drug addicts and all sorts, as well as all child-rearing cultures we know of, have had their moments of interactive and musically responsive engagement with babies. The problem is elsewhere, either when there isn’t responsiveness (still face/abuse) or,

when the situation is not one where one-on-one dialogue is what needs to be happening.

The psychoanaytical child psychotherapists rightly have much that is important and valuable to say about the unresponsive or abusive interactions, as many including the Robertsons have shown. The Tronick video above gives a good idea of abuse/distress when the mother – deliberately for experimental requirements – gives the baby the ‘still face’ look. So therapists, all kinds of therapists, are interested and work with the consequences of deliberate or inadvertent ‘still face’ and other misadventures in relationships. Of course we learn from both the musicality of interactiveness, and the unconscious means by which we survive when ‘musicality’ fails.

However, I always feel there is something being missed, something so obvious that maybe it is hiding in plain sight.

Dad and girls, seems a long time ago.

Like Trevarthen, I have grandchildren, so here is an anecdote to illustrate why I get cross when people imply that these wonderful playful interactive communications are the essential stuff of our social being. I hope it shows what it is I want us to work at, neither the ‘oh dear look at what happened’ nor the ‘oh joy, this is what happens’ ways of thinking. Real living necessary events, of which this is just one in millions.

My gorgeous grand-daughters, G1,G2,G3 happen to be born within less than four years, spaced about 20 months apart. I do not have a picture representing the story I am about to tell – I was much too involved with other things at the time to be taking photos.

If I remember right, Dad and Mum were off-island and I was with the girls, and had the car, and was getting ready to go off with my darlings to meet Dad and Mum from the boat.

G3, the oh so beautiful baby, was luckily asleep, and was maneuvered cleverly into her car-seat without waking her.

G1 was dutifully doing her own buckle, by herself, and letting me know that was the way things should be done.

G2 might have said she would do hers too, then failed, might have said the strap was too tight and her neck hurt, G1 may have said she was too little to do it… might have… might have… I do not remember… what I do remember was that G2 made her little body stiff and straight and yelled that she was NOT HAVING A SEAT BELT. And stayed totally stiff and unbending while continuing to SAY NO. And granny didn’t want the baby to wake up, etc.

And G1 became more of a granny than granny and announced something else which inflamed G2 even more and turned “no” into YELL WITH TEARS… Or maybe it was what granny said/did, or maybe none or all of these.

In the space of a blink – is this familiar folks – competently managed situation is total mayhem.

G1 with Schleppy, much the same age as the story but not the same day.

Fast Forward

G1 has been given a nice book and Schleppy, the adored cuddly object who still resides somewhere in the recesses of duvet and pillows.

G3, bless her, has surveyed scene and gone back to sleep, story of her family life unfolding yet again.

G2 has been removed from the car, we are on the deck, she is still stiff but accepting tissues and cuddles. Still refusing to think about seat belt. Says No, Says her neck hurts, Does more crying, Does more recovery, more crying, more recovery… Born with a torticollis – twisted under-developed neck muscles needing painful attention throughout her baby hood – she might have a sore neck? she might have a notion that sore necks aid getting her own way? she might have a seat-belt that should be adjusted to how big she has become? so what…

Granny still has to get her in the car, safely in a seat-belt, and get them all to the boat, more or less on time.

Fast forward again… if I remember right the helpful breakthrough for this instance was nothing to do with seat-belts or necks or buckles or bribes/threats (yes there were some of those too) but with my own heartfelt “I want to get to the boat to get mummy and daddy they have been away all day and we all miss them”. Little body unbent and a small voice informed me that she did not like it when they were away. Which is obvious enough post-trauma to the emotionally literate literati – but remember, she said her neck hurt, tantrum seemed to arise from something between herself and G1, how was a granny to know she was acting out attachment /separation anxieties or whatever, and was she? maybe she just now had enough and got over whatever it was?

So end of anecdote, we all got to the boat, we were all glad to see Mum and Dad.


And, we have all been in similar complex situations, with children, with adults, with people. We are NOT therapists, however much we know about what they do. Life is not often like Tronick or Trevarthen videos, one-on-one. It is multi-tasking, multi-nuanced, stuff that has to be got on with, in the moment, now.  And sometimes in this ‘now’ all of us sometimes offer a ‘still face’ to others, or have a tantrum. We can’t always be present to their needs; G2 could not be present to what I wanted of her. Living in families, in work contexts, villages, cities, anywhere, there is stuff which has to be done which is not play or music. [Poets and mystics can sit on top of mountains thinking wondrous thoughts, but there is somebody down in the village fetching the water and stirring the stew. Or, in real life learning, we do not need to re-invent wheels, we want to pass what we know to others, so finding ways to ‘instil it’ is not just useful, it is a social/parental responsibility. Always playful freedom to learn could result in tyranny and ignorance just as readily as it results in happier outcomes.]

Since then I call this ordinary life living all the stuff we have to do whether or not they seem musical or joyous or whatever the “seat-belt syndrome“. It is not deep unconscious defence or dilemma, nor is it musical dialogue, it is the straightforward: Do it, Get the seat-belt fastened. Where is the work being done which enables us to understand what is happening as life goes forward?

So although I value all the work on deep inner world stuff, and on relationships, good or bad, I want to hear more about the seat-belt syndrome.

What makes ordinary life work? Is there a hidden something we are missing, whatever it is, the Ok lets go factor? This is the stuff of life: we go, and we keep going even when we do not know or understand what it is we are in.


Put together from a variety of stimuli including Sidey’s theme for this week: Hiding Something, which helped me to think of a way to add some regularly occurring thoughts into a sort of sequence. I think it is a great theme, and maybe deserves another post later in the week. Watch this space!


16 thoughts on “Head in the Sand

  1. Wow, there is so much here that speaks to my interest in what really works to move forward with relationships in a way that works for everyone involved…


    1. I am so glad you think so, in some ways it is so complex, in others just straight and simple, do, do what you can, do it for others. Very hard to write about, so I do appreciate your reply, and am off to visit your blog.


    1. My problem with ‘common sense’ is that often it is just habit and nonsense, harmful or not. It can be something which may have belonged in a different or earlier context and is now treated as valid but could be an unexamined prejudice. So I am asking how we manage both – getting on with sense and also with examine it so we are not just reacting? Like people think it is common sense to smack or similarly discipline children through pain? Or, through emotional pain, say using the withdrawal of attention, as in the ‘still face’? There is something stronger which enables us to develop and become better, at least I hope that is what I am talking of, and may be what you mean when you say ‘common sense’.


    1. Oh Sidey, that is such a poignant comment it makes me feel you have seen it close enough. I am helped by Bowlby’s work on separation which suggests that it is not the loss, however much it matters, but the truth and capacity to bear pain which someone else is able to offer. that is, a child who suffers loss can survive with resilience if someone can offer them truth and attention to their distress. Without, they survive, but with other sorts of vulnerable defended attitudes to life, maybe even arrogance and failure to feel much at all. Still, first step is the clear recognition that even the smallest babies do feel.


      1. I havent seen it, but remember a few true stories of single mothers with small children, when they have woken to find mother unresponsive from alcohol or drugs or death. I can’t believe how vivid the memories seem to be, so obviously there was trauma


        1. I think what I am trying to find is what it is that makes for ‘resilience’ which some have in spades and some seem to miss out on. Because, the totally tragic and unbearable does happen.


  2. Fascinating. Especially with children in the ‘lets go, put the seatbelt on’ age band, and one who struggles to ‘read’ faces, to decipher what is going on and what the reaction is.


    1. You will be right in there, knowing what I mean! I think it is so important as there are all those dreadful programmes about “tiger mums” and that sort of stuff becoming popular again, there are ways to think about children and adults being on the same side as it were, rather than on opposite sides vying for ‘control’ whatever that might be. Maybe another post?


      1. What’s to mind? I think there is a ‘protocol’ that no-one understands. I work on the principle that if Ive said it it is out there so what anyone does with it is up to them. Same as pre-internet. If I do not want it out there, or think it is about someone else’s privacy, just keep quiet. I have just been over to see the image – there are hundreds/millions of everyday doing – think is each is unique. Existence is! Keep posting, Elspeth

        > New comment on your post “Head in the Sand” > Author : Hudson Howl (IP: , > E-mail : hudson@beyondplumcreek.com > URL : > Whois : http://whois.arin.net/rest/ip/


  3. Came over from Hudson. That video was so distressing – that poor child and following on from some of the comments, a child finding a parent in an uncommunicative state – and then thinking about those who deliberately withhold love – abuse indeed.

    I like your calling it the seat belt syndrome – I think we all have our moments like this we could identify.

    I found this a very interesting post -thank you and to Hudson for diecting me here. 🙂


    1. My dilemma is that I think that naturally we do switch off our communicative states for all sorts of reasons, pre-occupations, worries, plain old headache. And, we can be recalled, thank goodness. To stay in communicative states takes effort and practice – though like playing the piano, after enough practice it sort of looks effortless even when it isn’t. Does that make sense?


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