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Childbirth: Re-working Freud

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Helena Vissing writes as follows:

Although Freud did leave evidence of academic interest in childbirth, it was greatest earliest in his career, before he developed his theories of [phallus] envy and the Oedipal complex (Balsam, 2012). He contended that pregnancy forces a woman to confront her own mother (Freud, 1931). Winnicott noted in his classic paper on hate in the countertransference (1949) that a mother’s hate for her baby is, among other things, fueled by the fact that the baby poses a danger to her in pregnancy and birth. This attentiveness to maternal ambivalence particularly in relation to childbirth is unique coming from a male analyst at this time.

A Feminist Understanding

A new feminist psychoanalytic understanding that parts with Freud’s ideas about the female have developed. It acknowledges the biological challenges of reproduction and appreciates them as potential sources of pleasure and pride, but it also recognizes them as inherently terrifying and anxiety-producing. The pleasurable and painful aspects of birth are clearly intertwined. Contemporary writers like Balsam (2012) and Holmes (2008) base their work on the assumption that the female body and female psychological development are inseparable and synergistically related. Female development is approached from a life cycle perspective, in which bodily changes in the course of a woman’s life are integral to an understanding of her emotional life (Balsam, 2012). They have established and expanded the area of inquiry into female corporeality and its intrinsic interplay with psychic life. These writers have had to break several theoretical taboos of classic Freudian thinking in order to open up the examination of the interplay between female physicality and psychic life, or what I will call “feminist-embodiment psychoanalysis”.

Fantasies Surrounding Childbirth

Childbirth, particularly in the female mind, is surrounded by fantasies, desires, and concerns. Balsam (2012) notes that a female body event like childbirth is prepared for developmentally and worked over in the minds of girls and women “years before, and in women, years after the events themselves” (p. 76). It is through the witnessing of older pregnant relatives or friends and what follows of fantasies and concerns about their own potentials for reproduction, that girls develop their body image. Balsam (2012) identifies three topics that are central to understanding the psychoanalytic material on childbirth: female genital anxiety, female exhibitionism, and female body pleasure (2012).

Childbirth and Maternal Maturation

Holmes (2008) builds her thesis on the psychology of childbirth on the idea that it can potentially be very helpful to psychological growth and maturation because of its tendency to “thrust a woman’s inner world into the object field where it can be dealt with in terms of reality” (p. 30). Pregnancy forces a reworking of the relationships to the internalized parental objects, particularly the infantile aspects of them (Holmes, 2008). In this way, pregnancy and childbirth, in particular, can facilitate a restructuring of the psychic triangle of internalized maternal and paternal objects and self. The maturational effect lies in the new authority the self can gain in relation to the internalized parental objects. Holmes theorizes that this “internal triangle” of maternal and paternal objects and self is confronted in the three major events of female development; the menarche, childbirth, and menopause. The crisis of childbirth is particularly ripe with potentials for reconfiguration of the internal triangle and thereby integration of mental functioning. Holmes (2008) arrives at this particular importance of childbirth on the basis of her understanding that “pregnancy and childbirth function as equivalents of the phallus. Like the [phallus], the fetus is self and non-self, both subject and object; this double role gives a woman the self-containment and self-reliance that the [phallus] gives man” (2008, p. 36). During pregnancy, the woman can project feelings and anxieties about parental objects and self onto the fetus and thereby separate from them. Consequently, the act of pushing out the self-object/fetus signifies a potentially drastic restructuring of the relationship between internalized parental objects and the self. What makes the psychological stakes so high in birth is its symbolic and also viscerally concretized confrontation with the inner parental objects. Experiences of losing control, not succeeding in actively taking charge of the task, and feeling violated by interventions, whether medicalized or not, are likely experienced as major defeats of the self. It is plausible that childbirth in this way triggers unconscious oedipal traumatic material, and this could explain some of the intense feelings of failure that Balsam (2012) notes many women report after childbirth.


Balsam, R.H. (2012). Women’s bodies in psychoanalysis. New York, NY US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
Holmes, L. (2008). The internal triangle. New theories of female development. New York: Jason Aronson.
Winnicott, D. (1949). Hate in the counter-transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 30, 69 – 74.

Childbirth: Re-working Freud

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). Childbirth: Re-working Freud. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Apr 2019
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