Home » Blogs » See-Saw Parenting » A Therapist’s Harrowing Journey into Motherhood

A Therapist’s Harrowing Journey into Motherhood

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017), the author Kristin Reale describes her harrowing journey into motherhood in the following way: My journey into pregnancy and motherhood was life-changing both personally and professionally beginning with the labor and delivery. I had not realized, for instance, how tied I was to my midwife. While my husband and doula were “great” and doing everything they could to support me, what I did not realize was how psychologically connected I felt to my midwife as my protector, my eye-to-eye support, my mother-substitute, and how much I needed her there with me as my labor experience intensified. My own attachment system was being deeply triggered. My complicated psychological history and current needs were calling out: the matrix of a difficult maternal relationship with my own mother, a complicated and trauma filled individuation process earlier in my life, and a need to develop an ever more varied emotional world that made space for ambivalence, anger and need came together to form my very own postpartum depression.

A Need to Be Held–Physically and Psychologically

What I now understand was that my craving for an attuned mother my entire life would come to a head during labor and the first months of motherhood, exposing me to the deep fissures that had occurred as a result of being psychologically dropped again and again as a baby and child. I was never quite “held” due to my own mother’s intergenerational trauma and those fractures were to be revisited again and again in the most painful and unexpected ways. No matter how much “work” I had done on myself psychologically in the decade and a half prior, I now believe that the surge into new motherhood provoked my concealed wounds like nothing before could reach. My being the independent, “parentified,” well-trained therapist I was, I was unaware of some of the hidden needs that lurked within me until they were hemorrhaging. Feeling frightened without that moment to moment attuned care from my midwife, I believe was the first “break” in my mind in which I experienced a lost, un-held devastating aloneness that mimicked trauma from my childhood. I was not conscious that I would need her to such a degree to protect me from sinking into my abandoned dark well.

Breastfeeding: Enduring the Pain

My introduction to motherhood was not soft or sweet, or “natural feeling”. There was nothing touching about the physical process of becoming a mother. It was violent, out of control, agonizing, exhausting, so raw, unending. This, too, I later learned, is how I would also describe breastfeeding and the emotions of new motherhood the first months after birth. Breastfeeding was unbelievably painful and unending. My baby would sometimes feed non-stop for hours in what most new mothers learn to be “cluster feeding”. The ways in which my baby would attach to the breast I never expected: his tiny mouth was so strong, the suction so deep, there was no question he was wired for survival. I was completely exhausted, yet every 3-4 hours I was on duty feeding him around the clock, in pain or not. As much I would describe it, I think my husband had such a hard time imagining that the idealized notion of breastfeeding wasn’t as it seemed – that I must be exaggerating. To get my point across, I one day joked that he should imagine that breastfeeding could be likened to a rabid squirrel grabbing hold of his testicles with his mouth every couple hours — and chewing on them. He never doubted the pain I was describing again! Oh, how I was so surprised by the demolished image of the idealized notion of breastfeeding, just one part of motherhood among many that I have had to reconceptualize through my own personal experience.

I now wonder if the shroud of the idealized mother exists to shield women from the difficult truth of motherhood, similar to how epidurals anesthetize the physical and psychological pain of birth, hiding the truth of what the physical experience is actually like. So when we face labor and birthing for what it actually is and find it grueling and complex, what do we find when we face motherhood for what it is? How does it amend how we practice? How does it reshape what and how we feel for our patients? How does it alter our own elevated expectations of holding? How does this redefine our relationship to feeling “maternal”?


A Therapist’s Harrowing Journey into Motherhood

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). A Therapist’s Harrowing Journey into Motherhood. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 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.