Holding Time

Reviewed Publisher: 
Simon & Schuster, 1988
Reviewed Title: 
Holding Time
Reviewed Author: 

A profound theme weaves through Martha Welch's short but incisive book: The need for love can call forth the terrors associated with its denial in one's past. As a consequence, the very possibilities of love and of physical intimacy being fulfilled arouse anger and even violence.

Welch writes simply, poignantly, and beautifully about this basic human dilemma. She makes us understand an underlying fundamental misconception, by describing a child's angry rejection of its mother after a separation. "Where have you been when I wanted you" is the child's outcry when the mother returns. But, writes Welch, this signifies the agony of a helpless and despairing child, not the demandingness of a pampered, spoiled tyrant. To allow itself to feel safe in its mother's arms, Welch points out, would signify for such a child, that its pent-up anger could break out. But it dare not permit this release in a culture that denies that rage has a place in the infant's armamentarium of emotional expression. It is this culturally determined prohibition that occasions the child's anger and the resulting malais in parent-child interaction.

"Holding Time" grew directly out of Martha Welch's work with mother-child holding as a means of reestablishing the broken attachment between mothers and their autistic children. Her work, first reported in Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen's study of autism,1 taught her that autism, in fact, denoted a break in the child's bonding to its mother. The child's unresponsiveness or withdrawal from the mother, she found, constituted the mode of defense against the ruptured bond. It was Welch's development of mother-child holding that led her to the insight that such broken bonds can be repaired, and that this repair can take place at any later stage of development. This is, of course, a most hopeful view, that contradicts the pessimism of approaches to autism mired in structural ideals that deny any meaning to the child's despairing struggle.

This therapy underscores the continuity, already emphasized in Tinbergen's findings, between autism and "normal" behavior. What becomes clear in Welch's writing is that this continuity is based on a common thread running through all of human behavior-that the capacity for intimacy is throttled when the infants need for love is thwarted. This brings with it the above mentioned terror of love itself-even in the search for it.

Holding therapy underscores the importance of supporting a mother's need to be healthy in order to provide the child with the best possible basis for its own health. Holding provides, par excellence, the kind of interaction between mother and child through which both can grow toward this goal. That is why this therapy goes beyond autism. Welch's findings shed light on the nature and development of intimacy itself.

This is how Welch develops her position: Intimacy needs trust. To develop trust the child's needs must be met. "No amount of gentle handling is too much. You can only spoil your baby one way: by not meeting his needs." In positing this fundamental condition for the development of trust, Welch undercuts the power-play between parents and their child that is often taken to constitute "love." That power actually involved is usually obscured by the culturally supported dictum "I'm doing it for your good." Martha Welch shows, in effect, that holding as developed by her, in bringing the mother through physical contact closer to her child's needs, makes the mother drop her behaviors based on power needs. Through the physical closeness of holding the mother experiences a re-awakening of her empathic capacities and thus comes closer to her child's needs and despairs. This is what frees her as well as her child's love from the dictates of power. Instead of finding her self-esteem through domination (this of course goes also for the father) she experiences personal strength through participating in her child's pain as well as joy.

The vehicle in this development between child-mother/father is touching. The underpinnings for the role of touch in human (as well as other animals) development are to be found in Ashley Montagu,2 Nissen, Chow, and Semmes,3 Victor,4 and others. Welch weaves a pattern that integrates the neurophysiological findings within the context of mother-child development to provide us with a bridge integrating organic structure and behavioral development. It helps the reader to grasp the importance of touch (and holding) in the development of intimacy. In this way, the book achieves an integration of the whole spectrum of child behavior, running from normal to pathological. By doing that, it breaks through the artificial barriers separating our views of what is pathological from what is primarily human. In this way too, the "pathological" is properly placed as that from which the rest of us can learn about ourselves.

The book is written as a kind of practical guide for parents but also the practitioner. It is, therefore, a kind of Dr. Spock manual for healthy emotional growth, as well as a primer of what the stages in emotional development of a child really are. I say really, because Welch shows how many of the "norms" are actually functions of the culturally given, and not of what is possible in development.

Here are a few examples of how Martha Welch deals with specific problems:

* "Unless you have an open channel of easy communication coupled with mutually demonstrative physical closeness, a child will feel deprived. Sometimes a mother will also feel deprived. .. . If one or both feel deprived, resentment and anger build up. These negative feelings are acted out in small ways, for example through a child's annoying demands and constant whining and the mother's nagging, or vice versa. The open communication and physical closeness that result from holding time preclude those behaviors because anger and resentment are worked out during each session. . . . Lacking such an exchange, a child learns to repress or deny his true feelings. . . . Holding conveys a message to your child that you genuinely accept him and his full range of feelings, no matter how negative or destructive the feelings may be. . . . We have impaired our ability to express our positive feelings by impairing our ability to express the negative ones." (pp. 37-38)

* "Never has any child failed to respond when the mother has finally reached the depth of her own despair over not reaching her child. If the mother holds back, the child will often hold back. But if the mother expresses her deepest feelings . . . then the child invariably responds." (pp. 41-42)

* "Mothers sometimes worry about putting ideas into their children's heads. This concern is not supported by my experience. If the mother's suggestion does not match the child's thoughts and feelings, he will discard it. But if the child denies it vehemently, you may have hit the mark. In any case, you will not be putting ideas into his head." (p. 43)

* "Over time, I came to the conclusion that children are capable of much more verbalization than they have been given credit for and that we must be keeping children from being in touch with their feelings by not being in touch ourselves either with our own feelings or with theirs." (p. 44)

* "The child who experiences arousal as painful or as a sign of danger will work harder to block all arousal because the block is serving to protect him from painful feelings." (p. 56)

* "... if the mother responds to small signals, even infants will learn to have their needs met. Rage is the response to discomfort of a baby who does not expect to be rescued." (p. 90)

* "We were meant to rear children in large family groups with other mothers and many children. ... In fact, animal behaviorists have discovered that the great apes cannot raise their young in isolation without becoming abusive or neglectful. When they are in groups with other mothers, the very same mothers who alone appeared disturbed and dangerous become good mothers. . . . Holding time helps a mother and child to focus on each other, to express their needs clearly, and to be attuned to each other no matter what the setting." (p. 106)

* "Children need uncomplicated time. Their need is not to rush from place to place or activity to activity, but to relax and remain free to explore their own world at their own pace." (p. 114)

* "When a child reaches first grade, many changes become apparent. ... They begin to form real friendships of their own choice.. . . They begin to be more reactive to peers. . . . They begin to be interested in mastery of all kinds. ... They begin to push for more independence. ... Because the child seems competent and because the child is occupied in constructive pursuits, the mother mistakenly steps back. Some mothers are so burdened that they are relieved to have a child more or less able to be left on his own. They inadvertently allow the child to slip away. . . . This . . . will never happen ... if you practice holding. You will find that your child does go off on his ventures toward mastery. But you will always have a way of restoring your connection. . .. He will not be slipping away. He will freely return to you for nurturing and to give love to you. He will not just do this when he feels like it. He will do it when he feels like it and when he sees you need it. . . . So often mothers say that there is no problem because their children do hug them. But in reality the children do it only on their own terms, not in a mutual way. . . . You do your child no favor when you allow ... [a] one-sided relationship." (pp. 120-121)

These examples give a notion of the variety of topics Welch covers, as well as her capacity for looking at child development with open eyes. As a result she speaks to us with care, warmth, and originality, her concern always being the growth of both child and parents.

1. Tinbergen N, Tinbergen EA. Autistic Children-New Hope for a cure. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983.

2. Montagu A. Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

3. Nissen HW, Chow KL, Semmes J. Effects of Restricted Opportunity for Tactual, Kinesthetic and Manipulative Experience on the Behavior of a Chimpanzee. Am J Psychol 64:485, 1951.

4. Victor G. The Riddle of Autism. Lexington Books: Lexington, 1983.

Reprinted by permission of Pennsylvania Medicine, February 1989. Copyright Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Publication Date: 
12/1989