To see ourselves as others see us

Is it possible to peek over the blanket under which my culture has tucked me? Is it really possible to experience the world the same as others not similarly wrapped? I had once thought it was; now I am not so sure. The pull of circumstance is just too strong, and we are how we were raised. Our observations are, at the very least, constrained by those around us; our judgements are predictable.

And yet even peering through a glass darkly, every once in a while we are able to catch a glimpse of something, which for us at any rate, was not anticipated. We may label it as something else, but judged in a different time, or in an altered context, it sometimes has a similar result. Even a similar goal…

It’s interesting how insight is sometimes an unexpected thing: a sudden flash from an unintended brush with a stranger on the street.

I saw a woman pushing a buggy uphill on the sidewalk and could tell she was really struggling on the irregular surface, so I offered to help. She smiled as I approached, and halted her efforts as much from embarrassment as relief.

“They were too heavy to carry very far,” she explained as I glanced at the large bag of groceries I had assumed was her baby in the carriage. “Anyway, Lucy likes it better when I wear her on my back,” she added, pointing to the head staring at me from a contraption she was wearing. Had it not been for the eyes, I might have assumed it was her backpack.

I struggled almost as much as she had trying to push the buggy up the hill, but we fell into a pleasant conversation along the way.

“My friends think it’s strange that I don’t want to watch my first-born when I’m pushing her in the carriage,” she said with a little sigh. “They say it’s how I can tell if she needs something -her soother, or that she’s getting hungry…”

I glanced at her, ever the naïve male, long past his parenting days.

“I can feel her movements on my back, though. And I know she can feel me, so it amounts to the same thing, don’t you think?” She turned her head to look at me. “There are other ways of knowing than simply watching… And besides,” she continued, with an engaging smile, “wearing her allows me to deal with things like carrying groceries in the buggy… or fending off strangers on the street,” she teased, with an obvious twinkle in her eyes.

I had to admit that I hadn’t really thought about the pros and cons of a baby carriage before and I suppose it showed on my face because her smile grew.

“Lucy and I are a unit,” she explained. “We sense each other’s mood, and we seem to be able to do that as well with touch as with vision.” She reached back and stroked Lucy’s head for a moment. “And anyway, we had 9 months to practice it…” She giggled, and then looked at me as if I might not understand. “You get to know each other, don’t you think?” she added with a wink.

At the top of the hill, she thanked me with her eyes, and continued on her way humming a little tune. She probably forgot me as soon as I left, but for some reason, I couldn’t forget her. It seemed to me as if a curtain had been opened on a world I hadn’t really thought much about. Vision may be the most important sense for most of us, but without the other things, it would be sort of like watching a movie with the sound turned off. You really need smell, and touch and sound and everything else to make the world the world… We could get by without them of course, but our experience of the riches that surround us would be so much poorer. So much more deficient.

That realization came flooding back years later when I came across an article in an online magazine on animals and how some of them manage to parent their offspring.

It was an essay by Maria Botero, an assistant professor of philosophy at Sam Houston State University in Texas. As she writes about her experience in the Kasekela chimpanzee community in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, ‘the first time I saw a mother and infant chimpanzee pair, I was expecting to observe very sensitive chimpanzee mothers who would frequently gaze at their infants, ready to respond to the infant’s needs – but this is not what I saw. Mothers rarely so much as glanced at their infants… But then I looked closer. As time passed, I noticed that mothers are attentive through less obvious modes of interaction: for example, they constantly keep an arm or hand in close contact with their infants, monitoring them without having to look at them… it made me think of the kind of experiences that [human] infants undergo while in close contact with their mother… human infants can experience their caregiver’s emotional states while being held, for example by perceiving their caregiver’s relaxed muscles and movement when laughing, or their stress in a dangerous moment through a tighter grip. Through the affective interaction with their caregivers via touch, infants start to understand at an early age that there are others around them, that these others have emotions in response to the world, and that they are able to share these emotions and responses with others.’

Botero’s other observation seemed equally important: ‘most of our current research on the development of social cognition focuses on visual modes of interaction (such as infants following a parent’s gaze) to examine whether infants are capable of engaging in social cognition. Most of the ways we observe caregiver and infant interaction, such as observations of attachment or maternal sensitivity, ignore crucial non-visual modes of interaction.’ Maybe it takes a Hamlet -or a mother- to understand that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in some cultures.

It’s so easy to forget that, I think. But I suspect that mothers have known it all along: there’s more to mothering than simply watching and reacting. Touch, after all, is the first language we learn.

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