“He feels a dark star of pain in his throat and the last warmth of her touch on his fingers”
― Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon
At 92 years of age, Stuart, was reluctantly bought by his son to see psychologist Daniel Siegel. Despite initial protests, he warmed to the therapy sessions. The more he talked, he more he saw his lifelong feelings of emptiness and emotional detachment. That realization motivated him to continue with the therapy and to become a better companion for his wife in their retirement . The therapy began to chip away at rigid walls that prevented intimacy and affection and made him numb.
Stuart’s wife saw how tuned-in to her feelings he became through the therapy. They were now happier than at any previous point in their 62 years of marriage. She told Professor Siegel that Stuart’s parents were the coldest and emotionally distant people she had ever met.
Stuart’s painful journey had indeed began at the start of life, not towards the end . Babies are programmed for connection, warmth and love. When absent or disrupted because of emotional neglect or loss, it is scary. The rapidly evolving young brain and body adapts to survive this trauma. But that adaption can become a lifelong maladaption. We cannot remember or recall our relationships as infants. But the earliest years define how we navigate the world and relate to others.
Neglect is often inter-generational and unintentional. We rarely think about what it meant for our parents to have been children themselves. If their parents were emotionally unavailable or unreliable in their affection, then it leaves an imprint. Children don’t come with a handbook and parenting is largely automatic and instinctive. What if our instincts are distorted by an early deficit of love?
9 year old Leon has a “dark star of pain” at losing his beloved brother and mother for the uncertainty of foster care. Between Leon’s 9 and Stuart’s 92, dark stars that are not soothed can be the source of much silent pain. Such stars are everywhere. Up to 40 % of adults struggle to connect or to thrive within relationships due to scars of childhood
I recently heard love defined as the promotion and protection of another’s internal emotional world. Love empowers with the soothing sense of being a “we”. To truly love, we need to be emotionally present and in-tune with another. This can be intolerably painful and uncomfortable for someone who has not previously felt part of a “we”.
On one level we know all this. We identify it immediately in the detached James Bond or insecure Bridgette Jones. In the songs of Amy Winehouse. It has driven plot lines from Tolstoy, Dickens and Hugo to many 2020 Oscar nominee films. But it rarely drives us to demand a public conversation about how we may address it.
The right to Love is not set out as a specific right in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child although the preamble states: Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding,” The latest science on human development shows child protection and development depends on the presence of love. Is it time to have an internationally recognized right to love?
We await any sequel from Kit De Waal to see how Leon’s life pans out. Healthy relationships with Maureen, Tufty and Mr Devlin are healing for Leon . An authentic connection with a teacher or another caring adult can help a traumatised child recover. Leon’s foster carer Maureen soothed him and helped him to believe that in the end “things would be alright”. Crucially, she helped him to understand he mattered as an individual. We live in a world where mental health services are scarce and stigmatized and only accessed by a fraction of those who need them. Soothing relationships are the best hope for recovery for most.
Stuart’s healing began when he became self-aware that mental maps from his childhood were not serving him well. We can imagine how much richer his life may have been if this had occurred earlier. Or if the emotional neglect was prevented from the start. Research shows that mothers who become similarly self-aware are less likely to neglect their own children. This knowledge has informed parenting programmes designed to give attached and nurturing caregiving.
A right to love would call on governments to ensure every child has a loving family in which they are protected. It would call for parenting programs to be universally available and stressors removed from parents. It would demand that schools and communities prevent loneliness and isolation of children. That no adolescent reaches adulthood without being part of a “we”. That everyone knows how to talk about about attachment, neglect, belonging and connection. That we talk about it without stigma or judgement.
Over recent decades we have seen unprecedented, game-changing results in public health. The world has harnessed the latest science to reduce child and maternal mortality and expand life expectancy. The next frontier of human rights in many countries has shifted from survival and basic protections, to helping us thrive and flourish. We need the public demand and political will to ensure, within this, everyone has the right to love .