There’s been a new development in our household over the last couple of months. Several times a week Hal will go to the shelf where his books are kept, pull one out, and then come over to his mother waving it in the air. Though he can’t talk, he makes it very plain that what he wants is a little reading session sitting on my wife’s lap. Watching them sitting together, the small boy cradled by his mother, both of them absorbed in the book, I realise that the pleasure that Hal gets from this is not just about what he is seeing in the book. It is also to do with a feeling that looking at a book with mother is an experience of complete security.
Security, when you are 14 months old, is a matter of some urgency. Psychoanalytical writers point to critical shifts that are taking place around the end of the first year. At the beginning of life, the baby does not recognise himself as distinct from mother. Mother is an extension of self. By a year though, things are starting to change. The development of the child’s cognitive capacities, and the enormous psychological impact of learning to walk (so that, by his own volition, the toddler can now walk away from mother) both enforce the unavoidable realisation that infant and mother are separate people. Realising he is separate from mother also means realising he is weak and dependent. What psychoanalyst John Bowlby labelled ‘separation anxiety’ sets in.
We’ve been seeing this very clearly in Hal. Though he seems to be more confident than some of his ‘friends’ from the NCT group, he is definitely more clingy than he used to be. These days Hal will trot off to explore something at the other end of the room, and then rush back and hurl himself at your legs, as if to reassure himself of how solid and real and there you actually are. Analyst Margaret Mahler calls this, in an apt phrase, ‘emotional refuelling’, and Hal’s recently emerged interest in reading with mother looks very much like another expression of his new and pressing need for top-ups of love and security.
Looking at it like this has made me realise something that is very easy to forget. Reading for adults is almost always a solitary, even isolating thing to do. As soon as you are old enough to read to yourself you usually stop reading with anyone else, outside of artificial experiences like reading out loud in class or reading to someone who, for whatever reason, can’t read for themselves. But when you are Hal’s age, and can’t read, reading is an eminently social activity. The experience of a book is also an experience of being closely connected to the person who looks after you, and feeling safe because of it.
Adults get all sorts of pleasure from reading, but our earliest experiences of books are rarely mentioned. But it seems a fair bet that, at some level, one of the things that makes being wrapped up in a good book such a wonderful experience, is that you get in touch with traces of the security of reading with mother that you felt as a child. Reading enriches us in countless ways. But we forget that it also makes us feel safe.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.