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Motherhood–An Emotional Holding

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

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”?

Processing the Birthing

When my labor was finally over, immediately I needed to talk about and process what I just survived: I think I knew on some level that I was really not the same and never would be. It was a genuine experience in crossing over. I realize now that through the experience of giving birth, my old identity had been shattered. Not only had I survived giving birth, but in that, I had birthed a new self of my own. And so the intensity of anxiety I was feeling was partially due to my own unconscious resistance to integrate a new sense of self. It was a self that would need to learn about the depths of my own psychology in ways that hadn’t been asked of me before, while also having to care for a new being that I had created, and soon after, return to my practice and learn who I was now as a clinician. I felt at my own pure infancy in this new identity — in the weeks to come, I would feel so utterly vulnerable, defenseless, unsafe, everything felt new and unknown…like a newborn.

“Holding” the Newborn

It seems that the first weeks and months of motherhood are bound up not only in the conscious experience, but mostly the unconscious. Women speak of “not being able to think”, feeling some new sense of a “purpose” or “understanding of life”, or having extreme difficulty in delaying their attendance to the newborn’s cries, or even allowing someone else to tend their newborn. We know this as one major non-thinking physiological sense when women’s breasts begin to leak milk at just the sound of the babies’ cries. This is a somatic not-conscious response. The merger, the level of empathy, the attuned caretaking, is a very unconscious process for mothers.

We do not come to motherhood, already formed as mothers. We become mothers through the long winding painful experience of birthing and mothering, feeling this intense need to attune to another. We may not have known or may have been afraid of what this intense dependent relationship can conjure up in us: Love, anger, feelings of intolerance, an overwhelming desire to give, or even self-protection from all the taking.  I began to question and liken this process to mine as a clinician. The absolute sheer intensity of knowing another, feeling responsible to attune to their emotional state, the feeling of being out of control of one’s own emotional reactions to another, this I did not know would be a part of new motherhood. And it was revealing how feeling like an exhausted new mother reminded me of times I sat with patients not knowing how to contain my own overwhelming affect or response to unconscious material they were presenting and provoking. I was looking into the eyes of what it really meant to hold. This new identity forming as “mother” — or as I would realize also as “clinician” — did not fit nicely in a box, or in critical theory book, or on a cover story of a parenting magazine. Holding was complicated, fulfilling, thorny, wearing, dark, and deeper than I could have ever imagined. I did not know that my new identity forming was the process of becoming a mother, and eventually a better clinician. I did not know it would be so painful.

Pushing the Boundaries as Mother and Clinician

While I wanted OUT, I also knew on some level that touring this horrid place was probably the best thing I could do to improve my skills as a clinician. My sense of “holding” my patients and being a “good” therapist was deepening and changing. Tolerating these overwhelming feelings I was having and barely holding onto myself was exhausting. I questioned if, in fact, my patients had felt “held” by me? Had I somehow been able to convey to them in words at the appropriate times that I knew and understood the deepest anxiety that was being experienced, or as Winnicott would add, “waiting to be experienced”? (Winnicott, 1989) How could I have? As I held my infant, and my self, my ideas around the depths and meaning of “holding” were stretching beyond the boundaries I once safely practiced behind.

While I do not mean to minimize in any way the terror and absolute discomfort I felt at these times, I feel it allowed me to become better in touch with my own more negative reactions to the needs of patients that I may have been protecting myself from earlier in my career — revealing that my hate may have very well been unacknowledged pre-motherhood. I became more aware postpartum of the nuanced darker feelings stirred within me when being asked to contain someone, and this knowledge, thankfully, gifted me also with more awareness of when I may have dropped them. Pre-motherhood, I did not consciously know the hate was rumbling, did not know how to acknowledge it, feel it and work with it. Pre-motherhood, I believe I had a more all-accepting attitude and feeling of selflessness…as long as the hour ended. But in motherhood, the hour doesn’t end. Motherhood opened up a whole underbelly of emotion for me that I first experienced in a dissociative state: the ambivalence toward my infant, like Sarah, was too much to bear. Wanting to jump, be taken “out”, to escape, held a mirror to the sheer intensity of the relationship, and what is really being asked of us as clinicians to “hold”.

It turns out that holding patients, similar to holding my incredibly uncomfortable and fussy six weeks old, was much more slippery. The reality of motherhood –like good treatment — is emotionally messy, complicated, contradictory, and filled with love and hate. My related identities as mother and clinician are forever forming and contrasting as corresponding parts reveal themselves. Entering each clinical experience, I am always reminded to have fewer preconceived idealized notions about my relationship to holding, the idea of being the good mother and the intricate therapeutic process. Deep in my mind, on a very visceral level, those purely incongruous notions of love and hate are always existing, woven into all good clinical work, and provide the traction for the elusive process of psychological development and growth. As clinicians, we need not be so frightened of our more subterranean parts and experiences. Instead, we should be encouraged to welcome our vulnerability to these parts, and to see them as a crucial part of our clinical map.





Motherhood–An Emotional Holding

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). Motherhood–An Emotional Holding. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2019
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