Weaning and whining with Snacks the cat
The latest fine idea to be targeted by Sarah Palin’s hunting rifle of righteous indignation, in her customary enthusiastic and ignorant fashion, is that of Michelle Obama’s plan to award tax breaks to mothers for the cost of breast pumps. Of course no justification is given for Palin’s ridicule of the plan, but Obama’s rationale is that breastfeeding results in improved physical health that among other things, could cause a drop in obesity levels. However, in addition to these more tangible benefits, breastfeeding has long been considered to be of huge psychological significance to the infant, and teaches valuable lessons of separation, reunion and how to hold feelings of ambivalence. The California indie-pop of Best Coast provides a scarily illustrative example of what might happen when these concepts are not addressed while still an infant.
Melanie Klein, a contemporary of Freud, describes how the first object that the infant internalises in their own mind is their mother’s breast, long before the mother as a whole being. The breast’s significance is so great because of its capacity to feed and comfort the helpless baby. However, the infant soon realises that this comfort is not available at all hours. Sometimes the infant will be hungry but the mother will not be available to feed, resulting in intense feelings of rage and frustration in the infant. Initially this means that there are two internalised breast objects, the ‘good breast’ and the ‘bad breast’, as the infant is incapable of holding multiple representations of the same concept. To do so would cause terrifying, confusing feelings of ambivalence, whereby something so comforting and positive as the ‘good breast’ would inherently contain the potential to hurt and enrage the infant.
At the age of four to five months, after many mini-separations from the breast, and around the time of weaning, the major and permanent separation from the breast, the infant learns to hold these feelings of ambivalence and to perceive the breast as a whole, containing both good and bad elements. This is due to the blow to the infant’s psychological world caused by the realisation that the infant has no real power over the mother. She is independent from the infant and thus not controlled. This separation and ambivalence form the template for all the person’s attachments in future life. However the struggle against powerlessness and separation is something that for many never ends.
I was rather uncomfortable with the music of Best Coast for a little while. Its sunny, scuzzy guitar-pop is played against lyrics about extreme dependence (I’m always waiting by the phone, can’t wait for you to get home’ – Crazy For You) and anxieties centred on separation and abandonment (‘Every time you leave this house, everything falls apart’ – Goodbye; ‘I hate sleeping alone’ – When I’m With You). I initially took these songs to be rather anti-feminist, full of implications that the only way for a girl to be happy is when there is a man around to take care of them. I thought these songs to be regressive and slightly disturbing. However, the more I listened to this concept album of bitter-sweet songs about perpetual separations and reunions, the more it clicked into Klein’s theories of object relations. The songs are continually reliving the infant’s relationship with their mother’s breast, but transferring their feelings about that object on to partners or prospective partners in adult life. The conflict caused by the ambivalence of emotions felt towards these object is ably expressed in Goodbye with, ‘I don’t love you, I don’t hate you, I don’t know how I feel’. It seems as though these songs are longing for control and power, which is impossible to achieve. The adult will never quite get enough from their lover as the ambivalence feels intolerably anxiety provoking.
It would be inappropriate and unwise to make assumptions and generalisations about those who have or have not been breastfed as an infant, and this is in no way a comment on the morality of such a practice. But to ignore the psychological significance of breastfeeding and then weaning is to ignore a vastly important way in which the infant learns about relationships. Klein said that ‘Not until the object is loved as a whole, can its loss be felt as a whole’. Coming to terms with ambivalence and the inherent ‘bad breast’ and ‘good breast’ within all the people with whom we form relationships is crucial in learning about to deal with unavoidable separations and abandonments in life. Or you could just get a cat.