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The Inner Life of “Mother”

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 compare the relationship of mother and infant to that of therapist and patient. There are, of course, important differences but the similarities within the relationship of infant and caregiver and that of patient and therapist are many, the comparisons are frequent and apt. The mother/child relationship becomes the prototype for that between therapist and patient. As we attempt to broaden our understanding of this critical aspect of our clinical capabilities, it becomes appropriate to comprehend and describe as fully as possible the actual experience of mothering from the mother’s own subjective point of view.

It is this line of inquiry that I wish to undertake through an examination of the following questions: What precisely are mothers experiencing when they are responding empathically to their infants? How are they doing it? The question of why they are doing it is also important but well beyond the scope of this paper. Given that it is near-universal that women have mothered, how and to what extent are men able to access this kind of nonverbal receptivity, and what are the special complications they face in doing so? How is this maternal capacity applied clinically in working with prerepresentational body-based transference? How does countertransference manifest itself in working with nonverbal material? Finally, I wish to present ongoing case material in which all of these issues have been particularly relevant.

Who is Mother?

How do we comprehend the experience of mothering from the mother’s own subjective viewpoint? I believe that we must begin by acknowledging that it is frightening to attempt to do so. It is frightening because all of us, at some level, carry within us the memory and the mental image of ourselves as tiny infants, helpless in relation to mother’s awesome power.  Mother herself is unaware of the ways in which she upholds and surrounds the child.  She is a mysterious and silent presence that gives and sustains life without being able to describe what she is doing. Some might call it a maternal “instinct” but I believe it is far more complex than that. Still, it is largely buried and outside of consciousness. Yet the psychoanalytic imperative -to bring the unconscious into consciousness -impels us forward. We have traveled into forbidden zones before and can do so again as we explore, this time from both sides, the earliest bond.

Up to this point, the descriptions of the mother/infant relationship from the mother’s perspective have focused solely on her symbolic and representational world, particularly as it affects her infant. Early works have described the mother’s fantasy life, her preoccupations, and projective identifications as they affect the infant.  If her preoccupations are pathological, they may adversely influence the developing child.  In recent years an explosion of psychoanalytic research has also focused on the maternal representational world but, though these studies are highly illuminating, they do not tell us how these representations are translated into actual behavior.

Yet it is precisely the “doing” which interests us. The infant does not know or care what the mother is thinking except insofar as it affects what she is doing with him or her.

Photo by @jbtaylor

The Inner Life of “Mother”

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). The Inner Life of “Mother”. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2020
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