Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Tanya Cotler Ph.D.
Tanya Cotler Ph.D.

Mother Matters

The birth of agency in the space between mother and child.

Source: FelipeSalgado/unsplash

“There are two ways of spreading light: To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

—Edith Wharton

Human beings thrive when they feel that they have free will, their mind matters, and that they are seen and understood. This experience—termed personal agency—is particularly important during phases of vulnerability, life transitions, and times of identity development and change, such as new motherhood.

The journey to motherhood has been termed “matrescence” due to similarities with adolescence in terms of hormonal, physiological, and psychological changes. In her recent New York Times article, Alexandra Sacks describes how a mother gives birth to a new identity and life along with her new baby.

In his book, The Birth of a Mother, prominent psychoanalyst Dr. Dan Stern (1994 ) described the major identity shift that occurs when a woman becomes a mother and how her mind vastly changes. He highlighted the likelihood of increased vulnerability, which causes a heightened need for validation and love.

Vulnerable due to all that has changed within her (physiologically, hormonally, and psychologically) and the unknown ahead of her, the mother looks for guidance. When she looks inward, her guide includes memories of how she herself was parented. These can appear as either "ghosts in the nursery" (Fraiberg, 1975), symbolizing moments when the mother felt sad, scared, and even traumatized or unloved. Alternatively, Alicia Lieberman (2005) studied the antidotes to the ghosts—memories of "angels in the nursery"—times she felt loved, seen, and that she mattered. In both instances, when the mother looks inward, she is distracted by efforts to either fix or repeat her own parenting experiences through her child.

The mother’s internal landscape intersects with the rampant social, cultural, and historical advice she receives—advice which is often replete with paradox. She is told that "it takes a village," but is expected to do it all herself (with a smile and an apron on); to be sensitive and empathic to her babies—but with strong limits so they don’t end up entitled.

And, of course, there is the ever present juxtapositions in the mommy-group conversations (both online and offline) related to nursing vs. bottle feeding, sleep training vs. co-sleeping, working vs. staying at home, and countless other contradictory guidelines. The competitive noise can easily strip a mother of access to her own mind as well as distract her from presently attuning to the separate mind of her developing baby.

There is momentum building around sharing the "real of motherhood" and demystifying the allure of the sacred all-perfect mother. Central to this notion of real motherhood (with all its inclinations and imperfections) is the concept of personal agency of both mother and baby. The mother is a mother in relationship to her baby. She has her own needs for her baby, as well as desires, thoughts and feelings about her baby and herself. Equally, her baby has his or her own mind from the very beginning. Denying this turns the baby to a mere blob and renders the mother to feel similarly invisible (Pinterest-worthy parties and joining parent council for recognition—anyone?).

A mother is unlikely to feel—or parent—in one specific way, and mostly experiences rapidly changing emotions in response to the recurrent rhythmical pattern of exchanges with her baby. A mother is likely to feel both love and hatred, both empowered and helpless, both excitement and resentment, both hope and hopelessness, and both revival and utter depletion at various moments.

Prominent psychoanalyst and writer Jonathan Slavin (2015) explains that personal agency is developed alongside other "agents" in our lives—teachers, therapists, doctors, friends, and family members—who fill us with hope when we are hopeless, and who accept us when we are blinded by self-doubt. Alternatively, our agency can be undermined when others do not acknowledge us as separate, capable, and unique beings.

Interestingly (and beautifully), the best agent to help a mother realize her own capacities and potential is, often, her own baby. Psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin poignantly emphasizes the importance of the two-person negotiation of agency between a mother and her child. The baby yearns and needs recognition from mother to thrive and the mother needs acknowledgement from others and most importantly from her own baby to support the development of her maternal identity. Research by Beatrice Beebe et al. examining moment-to-moment exchanges between mother and baby demonstrate that there is a constant interchange of ideas, thoughts, and feelings between a mother and her baby. It is through these emotional turn-taking conversations (using vocalization, facial expression, and body language) that agency is realized for both mother and baby.

The mother’s subjective experience of being a real and effective mother is birthed through her interaction with her bab,y as is the baby’s own sense of him or herself as a complete capable and separate person. The answers a mother seeks—from guidebooks, blogs, and other people—often exist within her relationship and rhythmic attunement and conversation with her baby. If permitted and appreciated, mother and baby can come to be seen, to matter, and to feel alive all on their own.

Join me as we journey through motherhood in my new blog series “Motherhood made real: An unfiltered look at the maternal experience."

About the Author
Tanya Cotler Ph.D.

Tanya Cotler, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Toronto, Canada, specializing in reproductive and maternal mental health and parent-child attachment.

More from Tanya Cotler Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Tanya Cotler Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today