Home » Blogs » See-Saw Parenting » The Therapist and the Maternal Ideal

The Therapist and the Maternal Ideal

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

In the following paper, I will review a 5-year treatment of a woman that ended abruptly upon my return from a maternity leave.  I will discuss this idea of the maternal ideal and how it affected both women and ultimately the treatment.

What started out initially as a dyad became a therapist, a patient, and a baby—Bringing to mind Winnicott’s (1947) much quoted, “there is no such thing as a baby… if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone.”  Both therapist and patient’s individual ideas of an imagined or fantasized mother, as well as our past and imagined experiences of being mothered, came to powerfully affect us powerfully in the room.  I will call this the maternal ideal—an idealized notion of what it means to be a mother.

Literature Review

Benedek, (1970) describes psychological striving for motherhood as a core feminine wish, and she emphasizes the importance and influence of the maternal ego ideal as it influences for maternal wishes and attitudes. More than an id wish, a narcissistic gratification, motherhood is a most coveted aspiration of the maternal ego ideal (p.139).  More than the desire for motherhood, the vital capacity for motherliness depends upon the psychosexual maturity of the total personality, but especially upon the maternal identifications.  Identification, (Benedek, 1976) an unconscious process, begins in the oral, symbiotic phase of development.   During this phase, infants of both sexes will introject the image of their mother and incorporate their capacity for empathy and tenderness. With this primary object relationship, the infant will organize the nascent superego, and it is generally assumed that the developmental changes in gender characteristics evolve from this primary identification with the mother (p.158).

Realization of a mature maternal ego

Maternal ideals and aspirations are deeply rooted in the unconscious feminine superego and contribute to humanitarian concerns, caring responsibility, and the development of discipline and ethics in the succeeding generation.  Internalization of the ideal mother is linked to wishes for an ideal family (Benedek, p. 139).

On the concept of the wish or wishful phantasy (Sandler, 2003), it can be said that every wish involves a self-representation, an object representation, and an interaction between the two. There is a role for both self and object. Thus the child who has a wish to cling has, as part of this wish, a mental representation of clinging to someone else; but she/ he also has, in his wish, a representation of the object responding to his clinging in a particular way (p.19).  Pines (1982) writes about the woman’s relationship to her body, to her self, to her own mother as an object, and to her experience of being physically and emotionally mothered. The mother is to her child both the symbol of the maturational environment and of motherliness itself. Her physical presence and emotional attitudes towards her child and its body are integrated with the child’s experience and her conscious and unconscious fantasies. The representation of an internal mother created in this way is a lifelong model for her daughter to identify with and also to differentiate herself from (p. 312).


Benedek, T. (1970), The family as a psychological field. In: Parenthood, ed. E. J. Anthony & T. Benedek. Boston: Little, Brown.

Sandler, J. 2003. On Attachment to Internal Objects. Psychoanalic Inq., 23:12-26.

Winnicott, D.W., 1949.  Hate and the Countertransference.



The Therapist and the Maternal Ideal

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

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

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). The Therapist and the Maternal Ideal. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 26 Jun 2019
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.