I’ve always had a problem with the term attachment to describe what happens between mother and baby. Today, in session with Janice, I remembered the word attunement and felt it was a much better, more accurate descriptor.
Janice began the session by talking about her husband’s almost complete inability to read her body sexually and to identify what gives her pleasure. The way he had been touching her the night before felt completely unrelated to her own responses; it distressed her so much that she began to cry in the middle of sex. When they talked about it afterwards, he told her he felt there was a very narrow pathway of acceptable behavior and that if he deviated from it, he’d upset her. Janice acknowledged that there was some truth to what he had said. She next talked about how he doesn’t pay much attention to his intonation when he plays saxophone, that he often sounds shrill and off-pitch but doesn’t seem to notice. Her mother had been like that, too — interested in music but unable to carry a tune.
Janice went on to talk about her chiropractor. She described him as a very empathic man in terms of the needs of her body. She didn’t know how to describe what happened in his office, but whatever it was felt to her like “heaven.” At that moment, my cellphone began to vibrate on the desk and I briefly glanced toward it. In an agitated tone, she said, “What? What is it? What are you looking at over there?” She sounded distressed. I thought about her husband and her mother — insensitive, out of tune. Then our session from Monday came to mind — the way her yoga teacher had noticed that Janice seemed out of sorts during class; in order to help “ground” her, the teacher held onto Janice’s feet during Shavasana. This had calmed her. The yoga teacher resembled the chiropractor. Her husband, mother and I did not.
I put it together in this way: now that she’s coming “out of boxes” — the way we describe her emergence from the set of autistic defenses she has relied upon to protect her vulnerable self — she feels incredibly raw and needs others to show a very close attunement to her feelings and needs. Anything other than a highly sensitive touch feels unbearably hurtful to her; even my brief distraction by the cell phone felt painful. I linked it to her mother’s almost complete inability to empathize with baby Janice. It struck me that what normally goes on between mother and baby is a kind of musical attunement, reminding me of the way members of a tight band are “attuned” to one another. I told her that, in ways I didn’t fully understand, her autistic escape into music was a kind of substitute for her mother’s inability to be attuned.
Janice felt the truth of all this and it reminded her of the way her mother used to hum in the kitchen, how much Janice had liked it, even if her mother didn’t have a good ear. Because her mom would usually hum the tune she’d most recently heard, Janice would intentionally hum a different tune that she, Janice, preferred, in order to get her mother to switch. This usually worked and her mother would echo the tune that Janice had just hummed.
Mother and baby photo available from Shutterstock