A question I always ask a cli­ent in therapy is when she was a child and if some­thing caused her distress, who would she seek comfort from? Some say it’s their mother, father, or an older sibling, and many say that it’s no one. Since becoming a ther­apist and amongst my personal relations, I ob­served that an adult who had a safe and stable relationship with her mother as an infant had higher self-esteem and a positive self-view despite any trauma she might have experienced as a child or in her adult life. I imag­ine that within the psyche, there is a container that needs a moth­er’s love and must be filled at least to a half mark within child­hood. That is enough for that child to steer her way through a life that will have its share of significant traumatic experienc­es. It’s almost like maternal love is the firm ground the adult dis­covers as an infant, and from that ground, she can look out to­wards life and face any challeng­es that come her way.

One of the most profound the­ories in psychoanalytic psy­chology, called the ‘object rela­tions theory,’ maintains that the infant’s relationship with the mother primarily determines personality development, and my experience as a therapist time and again shows evidence of the truth in this theory.

I also believe that those adults who did not feel loved and found safety in their relationship with their mother struggle more in in­terpersonal relationships. They are more anxious and prone to experiencing depression at some point of time in their adult life. They have a more profound sense of insecurity. Despite their success in their life, the purpose of insecurity in interpersonal re­lationships is like a tsunami of intolerable feelings that continue to threaten to drown them.

I also feel that even when an adult’s relationship changes for the better with a mother who was either abusive, emotionally un­available, or negligent in her ear­ly years and the mother chang­es herself and becomes loving and emotionally available, it can improve the relationship. Still, I don’t believe it can compen­sate for the empty container that needed love in infancy and per­haps will require years for a cor­rective emotional experience.

An adult who did not expe­rience maternal love will keep running toward others for vali­dation and care; an attempt to start filling herself with love that might even be toxic at times. She will mostly feel needy and vul­nerable and give too much pow­er to the other; idealising and be­lieving that the other can rescue the internal anxious child and the adult who needs to know that she matters in this world.

So how does one work through this? There are so many ideas around self-love and I am all for it but I think to love oneself, to be one’s own mirror and see a re­flection that smiles back, anoth­er mirror that is a loving other, is required. Someone who shows you a version of maternal love that is imagined to be uncon­ditional and a bit of adult care but loving oneself can only be learned once we receive it from someone else. We need another person to make us see ourselves as worthy of consideration, re­spect, and love.

To all the mothers out there. Love your children. Fill the con­tainer within with care and val­idation. Your child’s mirror is you that tells her that ‘if mama says I am looking good it means I am looking good’. Be your child’s cheerleader. Hear her out. Ask her when she isn’t eat­ing or isn’t her typical chattery self. Ask again. The best invest­ment you can do for her is not just private education and fan­cy matching outfits. Just your love and attention and the be­lief that her mother has her back that she can internalise will help her navigate her way through life’s challenges. You are part of your mother’s body for nine months and while the umbili­cal cord gets cut, the ties of ma­ternal love should remain intact through life’s journey.

Zara Maqbool

The writer is a UK-CPCAB (Counselling and Psycho therapy Awarding Body) certified individual and couple psycho therapist based in Islamabad. She can be reached at zaramaqbool

@yahoo.com