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Mother’s Stored Memories

In my article (Toronto, 1999. The Application of Therapists’ Maternal Capacity in Prerepresentational Body-Based Transference and Countertransference. Psychoanal. Soc. W., 6(2):37-59) I describe the manner in which maternal functioning at its best is replicated in the consulting room in work with pre-verbal material. It is the mother’s inner world, as it is translated into hundreds of behavioral acts, that ultimately communicate with the child and with the client.  Again, Stern acknowledges the impact of maternal fantasy upon the infant but says that there is no “ether medium” through which fantasies of mother and infant could affect each other unless they take a form that is perceivable and discriminable to both.

A Nonverbal Exchange

One of the significant difficulties in describing this experience from the mother’s point of view is that it is for her, as well as for the baby, a phenomenon that is largely nonverbal and physically encoded. As described by Wrye and Welles, it is mother and baby in close physical contact.

The infant, having once been literally encapsulated in mother’s womb in amniotic fluid, experiences closeness postnatally through contact with skin and bodily fluids, through her caretaking in relation to milk, drool, urine, feces, mucus, spit, tears, and perspiration. A mother’s contact with and ministrations to her baby in dealings with these fluids may optimally create a slippery, sticky sensual adhesion in the relationship; it is, so to speak, the medium for bonding. This sensuality, experienced by both parties, is key in their relationship. (1994, p. 35) It is from within this slippery, sticky, sensual, and nonverbal bond that mother and baby create their dance of reciprocity and engagement.

Mother’s Stored Memories

Yet as Stern (1985, 1995) has pointed out, the mother’s experiences, as well as those of the nonverbal infant, appear to remain largely outside of consciousness. She seems unable even to begin to describe what she is doing, what it feels like, and how she accomplishes it. It has remained in that realm of human experience occupied by the poetic, the spiritual, and the mystical.

Stern’s pioneering work has represented a monumental effort to bring that realm of human experience into consciousness through his painstaking descriptions in behavioral terms of the hundreds of actions and interactions which comprise the mother/child relationship. He describes this early bond as characterized by an infinite number of lived, moment-by-moment, largely nonverbal, experiences which, taken together over days, weeks, months, and years, form the individual representations of their life together. The mother’s effective participation in this critical period in the child’s life rests on her ability to read and respond appropriately to the cues which the child gives. Stern (1995) suggests that these daily acts of mothering evoke memories of the mother’s infancy and of the mothering she received from her own mother. It requires a kind of “empathic immersion and primary identification” (1995, p. 181) which may never have been fully employed before.

The mother’s stored memories include both sides of the interaction, that is, the parts that she experienced directly as a baby, and the parts of her mother’s experience that she felt empathically through imitation and primary identification. Except in pathological situations, this need not necessitate regression. It involves access, possibly unconscious or preconscious, to the mother’s own functioning in infancy and, through identification, to that of her mother. It entails access to a play space or transitional space into which she can enter, reside comfortably without getting lost, and eventually leave in order to return to her already highly organized repr


Stern, D. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books. [→]

Stern, D. (1995). The Motherhood Constellation. New York: Basic Books.

Wrye, H.K. & Welles, J.K. (1994). The narration of desire. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press. [→]

Mother’s Stored Memories

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. (2020). Mother’s Stored Memories. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2020
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