As mothers, we tend to suffer from huge amounts of guilt when it comes to parenting our children – harshly judging and comparing ourselves against other mothers who seem to have it all together. Part of the problem is that forms of mother-blaming have been around for a long time, beginning in the 1950s when the term “refrigerator mothers” was used to describe a type of mother who was considered cold and rejecting and thought to have caused autism in their children. While this myth has since been debunked once research found that there was a major genetic component, we still struggle every day to find the “sweet spot” between showing attunement and empathy toward our young children while nourishing our self-love and self-respect.
The contemporary attachment parenting movement has contributed to this situation by asking so much of modern moms. Such beliefs can be easily misinterpreted as absolute, contributing to the problem of unrealistic expectations, depression, anxiety, and feeling generally inadequate. There is still a strong stigma around post partum depression, which can lead to apprehension even speaking about it – especially when other mothers seem so blissed-out. Services are sorely lacking for this treatable, albeit serious, mental health issue because there is a huge awareness-gap about the profound impact the arrival of an infant can have on a mother’s state of mind and her resulting symptoms.
This brings us to the issue of “unresolved maternal loss” and “ghosts in the nursery”. Selma Fraiberg, author of the seminal paper, “Ghosts in the Nursery,” was a famous psychoanalyst in the 1970s who had a unique and very empathic take on the transformation to motherhood. She found that many new mothers needed to enter a process of healing in order to resolve “unresolved losses” from the past and to prevent them from disturbing the delicately-forming mother-infant relationship.
According to attachment theorist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, the bottom line is that a mother’s attachment disorder will likely become her child’s as well, meaning that the “ghosts in the nursery” are one’s own parental figures. Yes, our parents greatly influence our relationship patterns. Some signs that a mother might need help with issues of unresolved loss are:
1) She experiences discomfort with her infant’s dependency needs resulting in prematurely pushing her infant’s development
2) She finds herself wanting to keep an emotional distance from her infant – feeling inadequate in meeting her infant’s attachment needs
3) She notices that she is having extreme anxiety or panicking over simple things
4) She is having trouble setting boundaries when her child transitions to toddlerhood
5) She is experiencing symptoms of depression that persist and affect her sleeping, eating, and her ability to cope with daily life
For the child, this situation may manifest as major sleep issues, feeding difficulties, excessive clinginess or fearfulness, an aversion to his parent, or signs of anxiety and distress. Usually these problems can be successfully managed if there is sufficient support from a combination of friends, family, and professionals.
At Well Baby Center, our therapeutic goal is to help those in emotional distress to form a “coherent narrative” of the past by assisting in the process of grieving any unresolved losses that may be interfering with her quality of life. This may include a kind of ritual “saying goodbye” to one’s, often unconscious, fantasy of hoping to be parented in a particular way in order to successfully transition to adulthood and parenthood. We have seen that this therapeutic approach results in improved self-integration, self-acceptance, and self-love.
Well Baby Center counselors feel truly honored to nurture and guide new moms and their families in this important process. We hope to provide a warm and friendly holding environment for you and your loved ones any time you feel you need professional support. We look forward to witnessing and encouraging your growing confidence as a parent.
May your holidays be filled with joy, happiness, and a true acceptance of the natural lumps and bumps inherent in this journey of parenting!
For further tips and ideas about how to address your child’s feelings visit blog.wellbabycenter.org.
Deborah Groening is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Psy.D. Candidate and Certified Infant-Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Executive Director of Well Baby Center.
Annabelle Safinia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with families and parents at Well Baby Center. She is also the Group and Counseling Coordinator and Mindful Parenting Group facilitator/trainer.