The Mirroring of New Mothers During COVID

October 7th, 2020 by Dr. Nina Asher

Recently my psychotherapy practice has been filled with new moms. In addition, I have neighbors and extended family members who have had babies this past year, all born before the pandemic hit in full force. These are unfamiliar and frightening times. What is it like to raise a child in the time of COVID? What is it like to be a new mother living in semi-isolation with a new baby?

Prior to my work as a psychotherapist (now over 30 years ago), I was a child development specialist. I worked exclusively with new mothers with their babies and toddlers, in groups, and often in their homes, and later on the floor in my office. The real life interaction always enhanced the therapy work, and seeing the pair together added a unique intimacy to the therapy relationship.

A patient of mine with a 7-month-old recently said, “If these were normal times, I’d be out with her, walking, meeting up with other moms. I’d be traveling to see my family. They would know my baby.” Then she said, “My family and friends would see me mother her, and I would know that I could be a mom.”

It hit me like a bolt! New moms, especially first time moms, need mirroring as they move into their role of mother. Most new mothers suffer from fatigue and stress; ongoing support between the parents often decreases. Current social isolation due to COVID robs tentative new mothers of the outside input that could help them trust themselves. Mothers wearing masks ‘hide’ their babies as they walk their neighborhoods, in fear for their safety. They shy away from meeting with other moms, depriving themselves of the natural mirroring they might receive from each other.

Mirroring is a concept in which one person listens, validates, and reflects back to the other person that they have been seen and heard. It is a powerful act of reciprocity through which we come to know ourselves. Mirroring happens intuitively in most mother-infant pairs. The baby opens her eyes and the mother returns her gaze; she gurgles or cries and the mother responds to the need, but she also repeats the gurgling sound; or she speaks the need, “You are hungry, let me feed you.” Mothers and babies come to know themselves relationally as they engage in a dance of validation through mirroring.

My patient’s husband has grown children and grandchildren. He loves having this experience of new parenting at an older age, and seems to trust himself as a new father. My patient, at age 39, spent many years convincing me that she couldn’t get pregnant. It always seemed to me that she didn’t trust herself to attach to a baby, connect or ‘own’ it as hers. I knew about her deep fear of abandonment. My patient describes profound longing for a mother who wanted to mother. She experienced an early anxious, ambivalent attachment with her own mother and lost her father in pre-adolescence. She feels that she and her mother were never a ‘good fit;’ that her mother never embraced their many differences.

My patient knows her strengths in her career identity, and she returned to work as planned. But at times, I sense her retreating from her baby, turning more caregiving over to her husband and babysitter. She speaks often to me of knowing she loves her daughter and has never once regretted her decision to get pregnant. But she also admits to feeling left out, and simultaneously, missing her old life. I see that her anxiety about being a mother has intensified in the absence of ongoing mirroring from others.

Now, as she sits in her home office, she overhears her baby interacting with her husband and babysitter. Does her daughter need her, and her specifically? She distrusts her ability to ‘settle in’ with her daughter, a feeling she knows all too well from her early experience with her own mother. Is it ok for her to have these fears, and still be a different kind of mother than the one she had? Many new moms have some version of this feeling, their own attachment history defining how they see themselves as new mothers.

We all miss normal, familiar forms of contact as COVID keeps us in our homes. I think many new moms are missing the reflection and mirroring they might have known when people admired their babies as they went about their daily activities. I remember as a new mom, now many years ago, walking my daughter to a local bakery. While I bought bread, the women working there hovered over her strapped to my chest and I felt welcomed. Their validation filled me up. They were mirroring me, a new mom, as well as my newborn daughter.

I thought about how different this might be for my patient if she could come into my office, baby in tow. I picture us sitting on the floor, talking about her fears and anxieties resulting from her early attachment with her mother. I can see myself mirroring her being the best new mom she could be.

I wondered what it would be like to have her daughter join us on a zoom call. Would mirroring translate into this new form of therapy? Could I, in some way, help her know herself as the very specific mother of her daughter, in ‘real time’ on zoom?

I share this with my patient and tell her of my years working with new moms, sitting comfortably on the floor, the therapy weaving its way in and out of the mother-baby relationship and my relationship to the pair. We are discussing how it might feel for her to have her daughter join us on zoom for a few minutes each week. She’s been open to this idea, and also expresses vulnerability about me seeing her with her daughter. My hunch is that over time, we will meet in this way, and it will help my patient integrate our ongoing work with her new, living experience of being a mother.

Perhaps our work together will help re-invent a new form of mirroring during the COVID era.