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The Afterbirth: Finding Maternal Identity

In our book A Womb of Her Own, author Kristin A. Reale writes as follows:

The Dark Dawn  

In the weeks after my baby was born, I was invaded with such waves of anxiety that I had never experience before. I felt de-realized and had an overpowering fear of losing control. I was terrified that my mind and body were separating, splitting. I had a very difficult time feeling who I was any longer. I would say, “It’s like I can’t find my self!” I felt my identity was very hard to access, knowing that some or all of me was absolutely changed giving birth and a new identity hadn’t formed yet. I felt in no (wo)man’s land. And my husband, scared and confused, would just stare back at me. My autobiographical history felt very fuzzy, distant, unreal to me. My memory felt fleeting, and the fear of not holding onto memory itself was torturous. I felt painfully in the present, almost no concept of trust in time: this was absolute undiluted anxiety. I had experienced panic in the past and also a dysthymic depression in my late teens into my early twenties, but never this. I had, all at once, an unfortunate but better view into what some of my patients had described of their feelings. For the first time in my life, I felt truly “mentally ill”, and I was so terrified I would never find my way back.

One of the most difficult symptoms I experienced was of obsessive thoughts of being harmed. These would desperately frighten and confuse me. I began fearing jumping out the window, fearing objects in my kitchen or on the street…knives, forks, broken glass. I felt unprotected and exposed to the world’s ways. Traumatic news stories effected me like never before, I felt an awful merger with the possibility of tragedy, as if I finally understood how scary life could be. Where I had once been —  for the most part — defended against life’s sometimes tragic ways,  I was now defenseless at its doorstep. I begged to go back to my old way of feeling. I began to really understand why our defenses are there and how they function. For the first time in my life, I felt scared of existing. Totally unintegrated. I was falling. Unheld.

Soon thereafter I sought treatment knowing this was beyond “the baby blues” and that I was not feeling more stable on my own. Through remarkable psychiatric and psychotherapeutic support, in conjunction with a new mother’s group, I found stability and could breathe into new motherhood. It took weeks to feel better and those days and nights were some of the longest of my life.


Returning to practice and my Self

I returned to my practice in the early fall, about four months after having parted from patients for a time being. I did not know what to expect, from me or from them. I felt wobbly on my feet, emotional and unsure about leaving my 3-month-old while I went to work to attune to others. While I was feeling much more stable than in the weeks prior, I was overcome by how I used to think how simple this would all be: women who work and who are mothers are all over New York City. My neighborhood was teeming with new moms, many of whom returned to work at three months postpartum. How do they do this? Before I had given birth I had looked at returning to my practice as a concrete necessity, a simple equation: drop the baby off at that sweet organic daycare. Separate. Go to work. Be the responsible good therapist. Then return home to be mama through the night. I did not realize that not only would the separation from my baby feel “off” but shifting into my professional identity of “therapist” would also feel off: neither identity confident. What did it mean to me any longer to “hold” and “contain” my patients? What would it feel like for my patients to need to look at me as someone together when I now felt like I was just forming?

My patients were excited to know I was returning, to schedule their hour and settle back into treatment.  As I would commute on the train those first weeks, I would think, “okay, I have walked into the face of death and survived, I have lost my mind, AND I have come back to the living to tell the tale”. I was not the same person, and I questioned if I could be the same therapist anymore? I was a bit afraid of what I would find.


The Afterbirth: Finding Maternal Identity

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). The Afterbirth: Finding Maternal Identity. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2019
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