By Amber R. Balk, Ph.D. May 2, 2019
Transpersonal psychology expands the scope of general psychology to encompass a broader base of considerations, possibilities, and influences. While considerations within the field are far-reaching, we frequently focus on either one of two periods of a lifetime: 1.) adulthood and the practices adults can utilize for personal development or 2.) the often overlooked dimensions of prenatal and perinatal experiences on fetal and newborn development and the effects those experiences can yield in adulthood. One neglected gap pertains to what happens in childhood, especially in practical ways that could help parents and caregivers provide more holistic support to the unfolding child.
Transpersonal perspectives can inform caregiving in many ways, but I would like to focus on a specific example from my own experience as a mother to highlight one practical aspect: How to engage symbolism– here, the case is the symbolism of a favorite animal– to better understand and relate with a child. Additionally, I will consider not just the child’s development in this context, but also the shared effects it has had on my own continued growth and development as a mother/adult, thus bringing in an additional transpersonal layer. In conclusion, I will offer some tips for those wishing to more soulfully engage the children in their lives– helpful for parents, aunts and uncles, teachers, or any caring member of the community.
Mama Cat & Baby Cat
Scrolling through the litany of images and article titles of social media this morning, I found myself gazing at a mother leopard walking alongside her cub. I was awestruck at their beauty but noticed a stirring of something else. Something was slowly moving under the surface of my awareness, something deep within me. I paused.
I typically do not get sad about my daughter getting older. I am too excited to witness her ever-constant unfolding to cling to her past selves– to get caught up in longing for a past version of her seems selfish and could possibly even be detrimental to her development, if I allowed it to interfere with her natural flow of growth and continual change.
However, today I saw the photo of the leopards, and I felt a painful tug at my heartstrings as it reminded me of my daughter’s early years. In those years I was “Mama Cat.” But even before I was deemed Mama Cat, my daughter was obsessed with cats and referred to herself as “This Kitty” or “Baby Cat.” She drew countless drawings of cats, including many of “Mama Cat and Baby Cat” together, who were typically surrounded with hearts and rainbows and always touching, if not merged in some way.
These days things are a bit more complex. I marvel at her unfolding, like a mysterious flower unfurling its petals. She is nearly 11, very much a “Tweener,” caught between the younger themes and needs of early childhood while coming ever more into a pubescent, nearly-teenage self.
She’d kill me over that last sentence, and she’d probably abhor this entire article, lol.
She is creative, witty, quick as a whip, and has an astonishing sense of humor. She’s beginning to be more focused on her appearance, cares increasingly more about what others think, no longer hugs me or holds my hand in public, and will soon surpass me in height.
She rolls her eyes when I say “Mama Cat” anymore. I don’t take it personally. She’s amazing, and I will always be Mama Cat, even if she doesn’t call me that or need me to be that anymore.
Symbolism, Identity, & Ego Development
It is interesting to me how pieces of ourselves are bound up and interwoven with pieces of others. We had a shared identity as Mama/Baby Cat. It was a reflection of her development, and the symbolism informed who she was becoming and the qualities she brought forth into the world. One of the pleasures of being a mama is getting to be an intimate part of that innate process.
It is not uncommon for a child to have a favorite animal and to obsessively pursue it in their life. My daughter not only referred to herself as a young cat, but she also sported a cute hat with a cat face and ears. For years the hat was simply an integral part of her daily ensemble. She wore countless cat shirts. Her favorite toy was “Kitty,” and they were inseparable. She plastered herself with Hello Kitty tattoos. She drew cats constantly.
None of this was at all abnormal. Perhaps what was unusual was that I was watching, aware of the symbolic layers, and utilized this information to help me more deeply meet my daughter’s needs and attune to the unfolding of her soul into this lifetime and particular form.
Animals are complex symbols, containing layers of unconscious material. Indeed, everything in the outer world contains layer after exquisite layer of meaningful qualities and attributes. Animals, plants, other people, and landscapes all carry qualities that speak to parts of us. Maybe we love them, or maybe we are repulsed, but they speak to us on deep levels.
And… here’s the kicker…
What speaks TO us
is actually speaking OF us.
Or, to say this another way, we are constantly learning about ourselves through Other.
My developing daughter was identifying with cat symbolism, although she wasn’t aware of this and certainly wasn’t doing it on purpose. We are talking pre-ego-solidity– when her sense of self was only first beginning to take root within her current being. Everything about “cat” resonated with her. I took note.
Cats are complex. They need a lot of affection and yet demand independence. They are soft and cuddly but also quick, deft hunters, and can be fierce with sharp teeth and claws. They like to have their space, but when they want your love, you had better be there, and you had better know how to properly pet them!
It was easy for me to see these qualities in my daughter. She has always been fiercely independent. Yet, she has a tender side that needs to be met with skilled empathy and warmth. She likes to do things her own way. She used to tell me, “Too much love!” if I hugged her too much. And her method of retaliation was very much a storm of teeth and claws in her younger years. She could be so warm and sweet and suddenly need space.
I have often described her as “very catlike” to baffled friends, teachers, and parents. It seemed to instantaneously help them understand her more deeply– they too were unknowingly fluent in the language of symbolism– and suddenly they knew how she needed to be engaged. It was a helpful tool to simply refer to the animal, which immediately conveyed layers of complex nuance that would have taken much longer to explain otherwise.
The Mama Layer of Mamatoto
The more complex piece that I didn’t anticipate was how being “Mama Cat” would affect me. It was as though I was granted admission into a sacred realm. Interestingly, the name came after I had been to a workshop for my own psychospiritual development in which the images of lions repeatedly appeared, and I came into contact with my inner catlike nature and needs. When I returned home, with no mention of the unconscious material that I had processed, she simply began referring to me as “Mama Cat.” The spontaneous naming seemed like a deep honoring of the soulful work I had done; she did not need to consciously know and understand the details of my experience in order to recognize it in me. She could see it, and she appropriately responded by giving me a new name.
It seemed as though we were cocreating a field together. She was doing her (very much unconscious) work of developing an ego– a psychic structure which would help her navigate the world, understand her place, and develop a sense of self. I was working on consciously transforming my ego as an adult– engaging transpersonal practices that changed how I navigate the world, how I understand my place, and helped my sense of self to grow more fluid and flexible.
I once heard from a very wise woman– a midwestern midwife– that mother and child are merged and referred to as “mamatoto” in Swahili. They are seen as one. This is true during pregnancy but also for a time after birth. Birth is not a moment when one becomes two, but rather is one significant step within a massive process that takes place over years, if not an entire lifetime.
Being Mama/Baby Cat was an aspect of our mamatoto process. It was essentially transpersonal, as both my daughter and I were learning about ourselves, each other, and the world all at once.
Sometimes it felt literal, as we curled into each other, rubbing faces, and something a lot like a warm purr swirled in my chest. Sometimes, I deliberately recalled her cat nature when she did not want to hug me, and this helped me not take it personally and have hurt feelings. It wasn’t about me. She just needed her space and independence.
I could respect her cat nature, even as I simultaneously discovered my own, which at times was very different than hers.
Shifting Energies: Growth & Development Bring New Symbolic Needs
Recently, she told me that she isn’t so into cats anymore. Intrigued, I asked why. She responded that she has been more drawn to dogs, their loyalty and big hearts. I immediately thought of her age, with its shift to concerns of pack mentality, friendship loyalties, and increasing desire to fit in and belong. Dogs are profoundly relational, deeply tuned into feeling, and show their love through solid presence and companionship.
I think the pang of nostalgia I felt today when I saw the image of the mother and baby leopard reflects an unconscious acknowledgment of the shift my daughter and I are going through. We are no longer Mama/Baby Cat. We are becoming something else, something changed and different.
There is excitement in that, but there is also the bittersweet taste of death and rebirth. Yet, the death is fresh and birth is again in active process; the new layer of form remains unknown and unrevealed.
A ritual is called for, however subtle or private. Even the writing of this piece feels like ritual to honor what is occurring.
Some Tips for Transpersonal Childcare
• Pay attention to the child’s favorite things: animals, colors, numbers, places, & archetypal characters such as superheroes or movie and book characters.
• Consider the attributes of these favorites. What are their likes and dislikes? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Can you see these qualities in the child?
• Research the symbolism of the particular favorites. This can easily be done with a Google search of the specific favorite and the word symbolism. For instance, “cat symbolism.” There are also many wonderful books, such as Ted Andrews’ animal and nature reference guidebooks: Animal Speak, Animal Wise, and Nature Speak.
• Honor the soul resonance by supporting the child’s attraction to her/his favorites. Try to refrain from interjecting your favorites or adding your opinions about their favorites. Simply observe, encourage, and support.
• Engage in activities such as play or art that encourage the expression of the favorite.
• If a child is upset and doesn’t want to talk, ask what their favorite would do or wants to do in the situation.
• Consider your personal relationship to the favorite– Do you like it? Why or why not? What does this tell you about yourself? Does it somehow inform your interactions with the child?
• Remember that you don’t need to teach or inform the child about their favorite. They already know. Anyways, to make it a linear, heady, informative experience is unnecessary and can detract from the innate magic of the process.
• Explore your own favorites and see how that can inform you of yourself and how you relate with the others.
• Consider systems that reveal intricate layers of qualities, symbols, and characteristics. The Enneagram and astrology, especially Archetypal and Evolutionary schools of astrology, are fascinating systems that can help you explore yourself and others more deeply. (And yes, quite naturally, my daughter has a Leo the Lion sun!)
• Allow yourself to be amazed and enthralled by the wisdom of the psyche, both within us and also all around us. Everything has significance and meaning. We are ourselves great unfolding mysteries. Could it possibly get more exciting and enchanting than that?!
Amber R. Balk, Ph.D. is a transpersonal educator, writer, researcher, and independent consultant who combines diverse educational and professional backgrounds to provide well-rounded and unique individual and group psychospiritual services. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.