The Role of Frustration and Gratification
Feeding: Dining—that is pampered care and excellent food in a delightful setting is the adult equivalent of a gratifying infantile feeding experience. Feeding is one of the most important early interactions that stimulates and organized development. Spitz called the mouth the cradle of perception. Both he and Mahler suggested that the beginning differentiation of self from other as well as the basic attitude toward life—sweet and optimistic or sour and pessimistic—originates in early feeding experiences. The sucking reflex is highly organized at birth allowing the infant to take nourishment and begin to organize experience, to symbolically drink in the outside world. For instance, visual perception begins during nursing as the infant repeatedly gazes at the mother’s face. When mother promptly relieves disorganizing hunger pangs and responses emotionally with tenderness and love, feeding becomes the basis of relatedness and the world is experienced as a congenial place, warm, fuzzy, gratifying—the first experience of fulfillment. Mature adults maintain this basic sense of optimism and gratification which they first experienced at mother’s breast, broadening the base of such experience far beyond, but never exclusive of, that wonderful adult equivalent, dining.
In today’s complex society other family members or caretakers may perform the maternal function of feeding. The important thing is that they stand in for mother with similar feelings of love and affection, providing the infant with the same kind of physical and emotional nourishment that she would provide, as is illustrated by the following example.
Laying at her mother’s breast, half asleep, half aware, perfectly secure in her state of satiated bliss, baby Angela is learning that the world is a safe, gratifying place. She is beginning to experience Erikson’s basic trust, the foundation on which her future experience of fulfillment will be built.
Satisfaction of hunger is the first experience of instinctual gratification in a child’s life. Because of the demands of a hungry belly are so urgent and cannot be controlled by the limited mental structures that exist in early infancy, mother limits the degree of pain and frustration that her baby experiences by feeding on demand. But no matter how responsive mother may be, baby Angela will inevitably experience nagging pangs of hunger and direct rushes of rage at her imperfect provider who does not always respond instantly on cue. Consequently, it is not the presence or absence of frustration that determines the long-term effect on development; it is the pattern of parental response leading to either rapid satisfaction or repeated delays.
Breast feeding is nature’s way of promoting normal growth and development, providing instant milk shakes of just the right temperature and texture and ensuring mother’s emotional involvement, magnetically drawn to her offspring by the pleasurable relief of emptying breasts and the hypnotic power of those dramatic eyes, which demand a response.
All of these built-in growth-promoting aspects of breast feeding can be matched by bottle feeding if loving parents understand the critical emotional components involved. But the possibilities for benign neglect are multiplied since TV programs, microwaves, and other demanding humans may drain away the intensity of the parent-infant interaction, resulting in propped bottles and vacant stares.
A physically and emotionally well-nourished baby is a happy baby, learning to churn the milk of human kindness into an enduring sense of self-love and self-esteem.
Weaning: Toward the end of the first year of life, mother, assisted by Mother Nature, will gently nudge baby Angela to give up her tenacious attachment to the breast or bottle. The urging may not be so gentle since Angel’s soft gums are now populated with razor sharp teeth. The combination of biting and the return of the menstrual cycle disrupts the nursing dyad and pushes both mother and child in new developmental directions. The rapturous closeness of infancy is gone, never to return, a victim of the infant’s overwhelming urge to break the symbiotic bond the explore the ever-expanding world—and mother’s desire to get on with her life.
Weaning stimulates developmental progression because it pushes the toddler toward the next set of developmental challenges. Diminished dependency on mother facilitates the separation-individuation process and increases the ability of the child to tolerate frustration and control impulses, all-important first steps on the long road to maturity.
Some parents, often because of unconscious conflicts with their aggression, finesse weaning. “He’ll give up the bottle when he’s ready,” they say. “What’s the rush?” As a child psychiatrist, looking through the famous retrospectoscope, used when evaluating an immature five-year-old who is having difficulty adjusting to nursery school or kindergarten, the answer to “What’s the rush?” is: failure to wean Johnny is usually the beginning of a pattern of difficulty in actively presenting the child with appropriate developmental challenges. Johnny is not doing well in kindergarten because he wasn’t actively weaned, or toilet trained, or limited during his “terrible two’s.” He tends to be whiny, regressed, demanding, unable to comfortably leave mother and prone to temper tantrums. He has not been able to develop internal control of his feelings and actions that are demanded by the harsh, cruel world outside of the overindulgent cocoon of the nuclear family. Now he must play catch-up, shoring up the weak timbers that are the foundation on which his future development rests.