In our book A Womb of Her Own, author Meredith Darcy writes as follows: I believe that my acting out this preconceived mother ideal was devoid of depth, allowing me to dissociate my rage, hate and aggression. This “therapeutic stance”—this idealized maternal ideal—was failing. I was not connecting with my own authentic hate or anger—or with the part of Abby that was the object of it. I would gloss over and minimize Abby’s panic and hostility, much in the same way I would ignore my family’s aggression. I was embodying an idealized dissociated version of myself-as-mother—impenetrable and unreal.
My Maternity Leave
To ease my guilt and discomfort regarding leaving Abby, I suggested she see her group therapist for individual treatment during my leave. In retrospect, this was an attempt to “manage” the relationship, as a substitute for participating in it. My managerial efforts, trying to restabilize the relationship and find a “solution” only escalated the enactment (Bromberg, 2006). This was the group therapist that Abby greatly admired (she oft spoke of her muscular, fit body and her “professional” therapeutic stance). Abby agreed, and worked individually with this therapist during my 16-week leave.
In retrospect, my suggestion of a covering therapist seems more like an expression of my hostility, although at the time I was feeling I was actually “helping” Abby. Like in my dream, I wanted Abby to “leave me alone!” and have this other therapist deal with her— a dissociated expression of the anger that I would have to face if that part of Abby was truly in the room with me. Why hadn’t I expected Abby to wait for me, us both capable of managing her intense feelings of abandonment? Was the idea of my new baby, my actual baby, causing me to question my desire to continue working with her? Was Ozzy in fact Abby, her infant self that I would care for and nurture? Was there actually room inside me to hold, love and feed them both? Did I want to?
Upon my return from maternity leave, Abby seemed still in a state of utter despair. Her first session back in my office, Abby stated that she didn’t want to work with me any longer. She cried, mournfully, stating that she felt more comfortable with the other therapist, who maintained a more professional distance and sense of anonymity. She wanted to continue working with her. Abby ran from my office, mid-session, crying. Her exit felt like someone was breaking-up with me, and like I had been punched in the stomach.
I called her several times and wrote her a detailed letter, but I never saw or spoke with Abby again. I can now begin to understand her intense feelings triggered by my transformation into a mother. This was not what she had signed up for—I was the “baby” who couldn’t help her when she started seeing me. Now I was the mother who wouldn’t see her—I had left the room, emotionally and literally. My maternity leave, and Abby’s grief and abandonment she must have experienced during this period, was simply too painful for her to bear reconnection.
Inherent in any maternity leave is loss, a destabilizing time for both patient and therapist. Abby was experiencing “affective overload” from a variety of sources converging simultaneously—one of which was the abandonment she felt regarding my maternity leave, and another being the non-negotiable changes in my identity and role. I had rapidly changed, physically and otherwise, right in front of Abby’s eyes. I was different, older, motherly, craving maternity. My maternal ideal, this all-generous, loving, accepting terra mater was clashing with Abby’s “safe” and familiar internalized idealized mother: one who was cold, distanced, unsupportive and unavailable.
In the end, Abby felt rejected by my all accepting, faux-empathically attuned maternal ideal. This maternal idealization had blinded me to the power of her rage, fear, and hate—and to my own. Leonard Friedman writes (1986): “If a patient is mean, envious, degrading, competitive, angry, or seductive, the analyst must feel the act as mean envious, competing, degrading, etc. in order to feel it as such.” In Hate and the Countertransference, Winnicott (1949) writes: “The analyst is under greater strain to keep his hate latent, and he can only do this by being thoroughly aware of it. In certain analyses the analyst’s hate is actually sought by the patient, and what is then needed is hate that is objective.” My inability to feel and express my own anger, and respond honestly to hers, left Abby on her own, burdened by intense need and confusion.
Having a baby is a tumultuous time. A woman’s life is turned upside down in every way. Becoming a mother is overwhelming—her previous identity is shed and a new one emerges. This new, unknown self can be a confounding mystery. Idealized images of the mother we want to be or the mother we think we should be, flood our minds and inundate our consciousness. Repairing the childhood we wish we had and becoming the mother of our dreams is a seductive and powerful urge. But an idealized, unreal, sense of ourselves will only be destructive, and attempts to fulfill a maternal ideal will reveal its futility. The greatest gift a mother can give to her child is for her to be herself, by simply allowing her child to get to know her and to be seen “without make-up” (Winnicott, 1993). This honest and simple state proves to be a difficult challenge. When the mother is also the therapist the challenge of being authentic—“without makeup”—can be more difficult than she ever dreamed.
Bromberg, Philip, 2006. Awakening the Dreamer. Mahwah, NJ: The Analytic Press
Friedman, Lawrence, 1986. Kohut’s Testament. Psychoanal. Inq., 6:321-347.
Winnicott, D.W., 1949. Hate and the Countertransference.International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 30: 69-74