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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Symbiosis: More Fun with Metaphors

There was annoyance expressed by a reader last week when I was perceived as saying that something was “just a metaphor”. I didn’t say that, and I plan to not say it again today. In the study of mental health and other aspects of psychology, metaphors are extraordinarily important because they can guide our thinking into useful-- or useless—channels. A useful metaphor is one in which the psychological event can accurately be “mapped” onto the better-understood event we’re comparing it to, so a lot of things about the psychological event are like aspects of the comparison event. A useless or even harmful metaphor is one where the reality of the psychological event is very different from the reality of the comparison event.

Why am I bringing this up? I’m interested in the metaphor of symbiosis, so much bandied about in discussions of adoption. I believe this is a useless, even a harmful, metaphor. It was used by the psychoanalytically-oriented infant-toddler expert Margaret Mahler, and later by Daniel Stern as well as by others. They used the term symbiosis to describe a period of early life, beginning not at birth but at a few months of age, and going on until about the time that attachment behavior begins. For these authors, the word “symbiosis” was chosen to express the deep intimacy, physical and emotional, that often prevails between mothers and babies at this time in the baby’s life.

The word symbiosis, literally “a living together”, deceives us by looking as if it might be a good word to describe the best mother-infant relationships between about 2 and perhaps 6 or 7 months. But it’s not a word that was invented for this purpose. It describes another, more easily understood phenomenon, and because of this introduces a metaphorical usage into the discussion. Symbionts, or animals that live in symbiosis, are not uncommon in the natural world. They belong to different species but live near each other and behave in ways that are mutually beneficial. For example, pilot fish and sharks benefit each other and contribute to each other’s survival, as the fish eat the parasites that can infest the shark’s skin.

Real symbiosis does not provide a good metaphor for any stage of the mother-child relationship, because mothers and babies are not mutually beneficial to each other’s survival, either before or after birth. Mothers take care of babies; babies do not take care of mothers. On the contrary, aspects of motherhood are so potentially damaging to the mother that we have to look to evolutionary advantages for the species before we see any survival-related reason for having children. (I’m not talking about love, fun, or cultural pressures here, just plain survival of the kind that symbiosis aids.) Aside from a few possibilities like reduction in breast cancer caused by breastfeeding, we see virtually all the benefits of the relationship going to the baby, while the mother serves as an auxiliary immune system as well as an auxiliary ego.

What would be a more suitable metaphor, drawn from the natural world, to guide our thinking about young babies and their mothers? If we’re going to choose a comparison to animals living together, a better choice than symbiosis would be parasitism. A parasite, like a tapeworm living in a human gut, takes what it needs from the host, but usually does only slight damage, as it benefits from the host’s continuing life. Unborn babies function like parasites to a considerable extent, sometimes endangering or even killing their host[ess]. During the first year, or even longer, the long slow maturation of human beings makes them require constant care which they are completely incapable of reciprocating and keeps them in a parasitic relationship to adults.

Well, this is really an ugly metaphor, isn’t it? Babies as tapeworms is a pretty disgusting idea. But they’re not pilot fish either, and look at the problems we get into with the symbiosis metaphor. That way of thinking leads us to believe that the early mother-baby relationship is mutual, a two-way street in which the feelings and needs of one partner reflect the feelings and needs of the other one. We can make a lot of mistakes with that metaphor. One is to assume that anguish of a mother separated from her baby is necessarily mirrored by the anguish of a young baby separated from the mother, though observation of babies of a few months tells us this assumption is false. Another is to confuse the mother’s and child’s feelings as attachment develops and to think of “bonding-and-attachment” as if they meant the same thing. The parasite metaphor actually works much better as a description of the early mother-child relationship because it protects us from making mistakes about mutuality.

Of course, one of the difficulties of choosing a good metaphor for mother-baby relationships is that, like other aspects of development, those relationships don’t follow the same rules throughout life. Babies function in different ways at different points in their development, and within the second year will become less parasitic and more capable of reciprocating care and affection in a faintly adult-like way. Mothers, too, operate differently at different times in their own and their babies’ lives. As time passes, new metaphors need to be chosen to help us understand social and emotional development. It’s possible that symbiosis could be a good metaphor for some kinds of adult relationships, but I doubt that it ever works well for relationships between parents and their children of any age.


  1. Before I ever read about Symbiotic Psychosis (in 1998) I always understood that symbiosis was to do with plants and insects.

    And I always thought that co-dependence describes some adult-adult relationships. There was a third thing: the subsance or the behaviour pattern.

    This was interesting:

    "On the contrary, aspects of motherhood are so potentially damaging to the mother that we have to look to evolutionary advantages for the species before we see any survival-related reason for having children. (I’m not talking about love, fun, or cultural pressures here, just plain survival of the kind that symbiosis aids.)"

    What aspects might those be, and why?

  2. Aspects that are potentially damaging to the mother:

    Eclampsia during pregnancy, possibly followed by death.

    Death or injury during childbirth-- think of the unrepaired fistulas that have such an awful effect on the lives of some African women.

    Post-partum mood disorders, with their potential for suicide.

    And back in our environment of early adaptation, there were other dangers, like having a human or animal predator attracted by a crying baby in conditions where an adult alone could have hidden, or a fleeing mother being slowed by recent childbirth or by carrying her infant or toddler.

    Those are the kinds of things I meant.

  3. There's also decisions to be made on treating the mother's health at the expense of the baby. I just today heard about a woman who'd developed breast cancer while pregnant and had to choose between chemo etc. for herself or to do nothing so the baby was unaffected. She chose to do nothing and was dead within two days of the baby's birth.

    I suppose some would judge this mother for abandoning her baby, that she should have chosen to save herself so that the baby would not have had to suffer through life with a primal wound.

  4. Yes.

    The fistulas.

    My family and I have donated for some two years to the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, and we often read the stories of the operation.

    Post-natal depression is becoming much better understood (and post-partum depression too).

    And then there's gestational diabetes.