Longer observation (8): A Mother's Sensitivity: When a mother becomes pre-occupied with some concern or other, she may not feel able to handle her children at the level required by her own standards. This is especially true if the children are also worried about what is worrying the mother. It's difficult enough for the mother to handle her own feelings.

One tactic mothers use at these moments is to try to get the children involved in activities, anything to absorb them and keep them occupied. From the children's point of view, this can feel insulting.

Let's use a nine year old boy who likes reading as an example. The mother is worried about a lab report she received that indicates she might possibly have leukemia. Her boy heard the mother's telephone conversation with her husband (his father) and knows something bad may be going on, and he is worried. Now his mother is encouraging him to go to his room and read. Normally she is a little concerned that he reads too much. Now she has put this concern aside and is almost pushing him to read. The son feels he is being pushed away from the current central concern of the family, from the emotional core of the family. He feels disrespected and dismissed and discarded and frightened. He is not too young to realize that he is being asked to not feel what he is feeling. He is being asked to stop feeling anxious and worried and to get involved in a book. The mother doesn't want him just to be away from her; she wants him to feel carefree and happy. He is being asked to forget what he feels, to turn away from what he feels. She is trying to divert him, and this son, because of his sensitivity, is hyper-aware of this.

From the point of view of the son, there is a resistance to obey. Reading, his favorite activity, his absorption with which has been an ongoing concern for his mother, is now experienced by the son with guilt. He feels if he allows himself to be pulled into the book, he will be forgetting reality, and, in this case, the reality is the real and understandable worry about the possible grave threat to the health and life of his mother. To read is to turn from and forget the anxiety he feels and that he feels he should feel to stay in touch with reality. It feels the same as if his mother gave him a medicine to get rid of the anxiety. At the same time, because he loves reading, there is a temptation to read. And now we will imagine the son giving into this temptation and opening the book, albeit tentatively, and then, hesitatingly, beginning to read. (He is encouraged in this by the thought of his mother, busy in the other room, trying to escape from her worry.) As we might guess, after a bit, the child has become completely lost in his book. He has forgotten his mother, forgotten his anxiety and worry, and forgotten his guilt about allowing all this to fall away.

And, at the exact moment the son forgets completely about his mother, who should appear at his door but his mother who, by her presence and words, interrupts the reading. Why does this happen? How is this mysterious and ironical coincidence to be explained? From the point of view of the mother, it is true that she had enough trouble with her own anxiety without having to handle the anxiety of her son. It is true that she just couldn't handle it and coaxed him into his room to read with the hope that he would become absorbed and even cheer up. Hopefully, not only would he cheer up and be less of a worry for her, but, it might even be possible that having a happy child around will lift her own spirits.

All this is on one side, but there is another face to the mother. The mother was well aware of her son's anxiety and, though she had trouble dealing with it, she also was quite pleased that he cared enough about her to feel so anxious. She identifies his anxiety with his loving her. When she encouraged him to his room, this was with the knowledge that he was concerned about her, as much as she was concerned with herself. They were together in their concern. She enjoyed, on some level, the thought of him struggling to read and not being able to because of his concern for her. And so she left him, feeling his desire not to read. As she closed the door, she still felt it, and, as she began to straighten up the house and do what she does to ease her anxiety, she felt him in his room. And then, all of a sudden, that feeling was gone (perhaps some subliminal cue had disappeared), and she felt worried about him and went to his room and opened the door and, lo and behold, he was no longer anxious and was completely lost to her and absorbed in his book. And now she was upset that his love for her did not go deeply enough, and this side of her kicked in, in spite of herself. And this is part of why she has been concerned all along about his reading. She felt it broke the bond with her. There was more to it, but this was part of it.

Meanwhile, the son, if he is thoughtful, realizes that something remarkable has happened. He has gone from being completely anxious and miserable to being completely happy and content. Whatever was worrying him before, even though nothing has changed, is completely gone. And he is now beginning to wonder, though the thoughts are barely conscious, "What if I could get out of the pain of life altogether? It must be possible to escape altogether and all of the time." As he gets older, it might even become a conscious goal: to find something so important and so absorbing that nothing else will matter and that this can be an insulation from the pains of life with others. Meanwhile, his mother is worrying that she may have created an insensitive monster.

Whatever we think are the pros of a more or less conscious decision to dissociate, there are a few cons. One thing is that, psychologically, it is probably not possible to turn from ones own feelings completely. They are still there and force themselves to consciousness in some way, perhaps in a physical illness. A second problem is that cutting off all anxiety and sensitivities is the same as cutting off all sense of closeness and intimacy with others. And another problem is that it is only through our fear and anxiety that we know what is important to us. We may be able to escape our anxieties by diverting ourselves into various activities that normally interest us; we may even be able to forget our worries altogether and feel carefree and happy; but then what are we and who are we? It is only when the doctor's phone call comes in that the mother and son and husband and the rest of the family forget all the activities and pause and hold their breaths and wait, with heart in mouth, for the diagnosis; and, it's at that exact moment, that everybody, together, knows what is important to them and how important they all are to each other.

We have pictured a nine year old son. The sensitivities will change in our story if the son is fifteen or eighteen.