Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships
Becoming a new mother – a developmental period of transition to motherhood called Matreance – invariably stirs up a new mother’s memories of her own childhood, especially unconscious ones from the very early period of life. Selma Fraiberg et al. coined this phenomenon in the 1975 seminal paper “Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships.” The phrase speaks to how important it is for a new mother to become aware of and understand how her past may be affecting her emotionally in the present.
Essentially the experience of having a baby conjures up unresolved conflicts around attunement in the new mother’s own history so much so that she may feel haunted by the memories of the past. These feelings may make bonding difficult and emotional painful with her new baby. These anxieties become heightened and can feel excruciating to the new mother as she attempts to transition into motherhood.
Research into attachment styles has revealed that the ability for a new mother to form the mental representations of her infant’s internal world is known to be a strong indicator of how secure the infant’s attachment is to her. Nurturing and responding to the babies emotional needs and cries in a consistent and reliable way over time allows the infant to develop a positive sense of self and allows the mother to break the cycle of her early childhood trauma of neglect and feel connected to her baby.
The good news is that with treatment mothers can allow themselves the opportunity to work through these strong and powerful memories in a new way with a therapist. Together the patient and therapist make meaning of what happened in the past and work to let it be in the past. Eventually, a thorough understanding and compassion for what happened in her own history replaces the need to repeat the past and the ghosts dissipate.
I encourage all of my perinatal patients to read Ghosts in the Nursery while in treatment to gain a deeper understanding of what is being felt during the postpartum period with the new baby, particularly around hearing the baby’s cries and attending to it’s basic needs.