Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why Mothers Miss their Grown Children (and why this mother dislikes the movie "American Reunion")

I was incredibly touched by a beautifully-written New York Times article about how humans are affected by love. Not sex, which was the theme of a disgusting film I saw last night, "American Reunion," but the kind of visceral, integral connection forged originally by a mother's first bond with her baby, which research now shows determines all future relationships.

The foundation created in the earliest moments is then only subsequently shaped, clarified, and revised.  Those critical emergent, wordless interchanges define for each infant love, trust and the nature and character of the physical and emotional world.

"Every great love affair begins with a scream," writes Diane Ackerman. "An infant is steeped in bright, buzzing, bristling sensations, raw emotions and the curious feelings they unleash, weird objects, a flux of faces, shadowy images and dreams--but most of all a powerfully magnetic primary caregiver whose wizardry astounds."

The magnet propels both souls together in an inseparable joining that compels moms to throw themselves as shields before any threat to their children. It allows them to hear their baby's whimper from far away and identify their own infant's cry within two days of birth from among scores of babies' wails.

"Brain scans show synchrony between the brains of mother and child," Ackerman explains, "but what they can't show is the internal bond that belongs to neither alone, a fusion in which the self feels so permeable it doesn't matter whose body is whose."

"Yes!" I'm thinking, recalling the intensity the arrival my first daughter brought me, the astonishing, complete bonding that unexpectedly transformed my normally in-control being. It fueled my compulsion to leap to soothe her every whine, and to stare at her perfect sleeping face interminably.

"Wordlessly, relying on the heart's semaphores, the mother says all an infant needs to hear, communicating through eyes, face and voice," the article continues. "Thanks to advances in neuro-imaging, we now have evidence that a baby's first attachments imprint its brain. The patterns of a lifetime's behaviors, thoughts, self-regard and choice of sweethearts all begin in this crucible."

The newspaper story then describes the bountiful, beneficial effects of love, as one matures and transfers primary conjunction to a spouse, whose mere touch can reassure, calm and even protect from disease.

But wait, what happens to the mother, the second half, or perhaps the foremost half of the original infant-parent connection?  The other part of the "fusion in which the self feels so permeable it doesn't matter whose body is whose"? Excuse me?

As the child grows and adds to his repertoire of relationships, the mother continues to provide unconditional nurturing, adapting her style to the youngster's ever-changing needs.  Mom teaches, scolds and indulges, carrying dirty plates to the sink and washing them willingly, with only a knowing shake of the head that her child didn't do it himself.  Later, she absorbs the teenager's moodiness and sometimes even rejection by increasing her capacity for patience.  The mother continues, no increases, her love and appreciation of the newly blossoming personality, seeking only that her child flourish.

And then, dum-dum DUM. The child leaves home. Oh sure, the kid's bedroom remains intact, but it instantly shifts from residence and cocoon to relic and souvenir. Storage for the chatchkes that don't look cool in the new apartment.

After all those years of caring, it isn't that mothers require someone to dote upon and respond to them. Speaking as a relatively recent empty nester, let me say, I miss my children because I miss who they are, how they speak, what they're thinking, and the unique whirlwinds of activity they create that reflect their interests and irritants, their basic needs (even the food-crusted empty bowls) and their emotional complexities. Skype doesn't cut it.

This article, called "The Brain on Love," capsulized for me the depth of connection that is lost when a child moves out and on.  For the child, it's replaced--with sorority life, with schoolwork, with generating new friendships and eventually that grand replacement in which the hand held for support and nurturing becomes a soul mate. Though parental devotion can be sublimated and redirected, the craving to hold, kiss and cuddle your unique child can no longer be fulfilled.

That may be life, but given how intrinsic and essential the mother-child bond is--and its permanent impact--adult children should at least humor their moms. "Honor thy father and thy mother" doesn't just mean to show up at Thanksgiving, but to let parents into your daily life; tell them the funny incident that happened today, let them know who you're mad at and the quandries you're pondering. Let them hear the sound of your voice and not feel they're imposing on your busy schedule.

"American Reunion" is rife with the adolescent scatological stupidity fans of the previous two "American Pie" films expect.  Having not viewed the originals, I was unprepared by the trailer for the extent of gross and graphic content, and was falsely lured by the notion of married-with-kids 31-year-olds (ie grown-ups) returning for their midwest high school's 13th reunion.  Part of the plot was the relationship between Jim (Jason Biggs) and his dad (Eugene Levy), and while a single contrived and superficial scene aims to illustrate their bond, it simply reinforces the pervasive message of the movie--that sex is constantly essential.

During the parts of the film when I closed my eyes (and there were plenty) I didn't hear the audience laughing--instead they went "eeew!" or "aargh!" or "ack!", responses to repulsive thwacks or, um, other actions that for some bring entertainment.

But none of the characters showed any real connection. The dad sat on the couch pathetically watching his son's bar mitzvah video. Stifler's mom reclined on a chaise with her anatomy bursting a satin gown. The cadre of friends seemed only to reinforce each others' immaturity, and the peripheral wives and girlfriends symbolized sanity but didn't exhibit it.

Watching that kind of display at least fueled my gratitude for the indelible connections that enrich real life. I'm glad I have my own husband's touch to soothe and reassure. But I do miss those little ones for whom I could define love.

1 comment:

  1. This is a poignant post. That's why, even when my mother seemed a little 'intrusive' into my adult life, I still gave her grace. She was just responding to her deepest need of the soul.

    I lost her last year. I wish she were around to ask me just one more 'irritating' question.