Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

The Transition to Motherhood: Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience Perspectives

Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

The Transition to Motherhood: Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience Perspectives

Article excerpt

Although psychoanalytic theory has provided substantial insight into the impact of the primary object on an individual's inner world throughout development, the psychic development in adulthood of the primary object herself has received less attention. Becoming a mother could constitute an important transitional period (Erikson 1959; Rappaport 1994), where psychic changes occur to enable a mother to identify with her infant and sensitively respond to her infant's needs (Winnicott [1956] 1975). Further, how a mother adapts to these changes and responds to her child could have additional consequences for her infant's socioemotional development (Winnicott [1956] 1975; Pines 1972; Rutherford and Mayes 2011). Critically, in addition to the psychic reorganization accompanying motherhood, research also suggests an accompanying neurobiological reorganization (Kinsley and Lambert 2008; Rutherford, Potenza, and Mayes 2013). Broadly, this reorganization includes an adaptation of the brain's reward system, as well as changes in those brain circuits recruited in processing emotional valence and underlying executive functions (Swain 2008, 2011; Gonzalez, Atkinson, and Fleming 2009; Rutherford and Mayes 2011).

Although psychoanalysis and neuroscience reflect typically disparate literatures and differing domains of discourse with discussion at the level of the mind versus the brain, there could be significant value in considering the convergence, as well as divergence, of psychoanalytic and neuroscientific theories regarding a woman's transition to motherhood. This transition could be normative in understanding how women more generally transition into the maternal role, and also clinical, by focusing on how mothers might struggle in their caregiving role with an accompanying compromise in the mother-infant relationship. Therefore, in this paper we first review psychoanalytic perspectives on the transition to motherhood and then the neurobiological reorganization that has been described during pregnancy and postpartum. Second, we consider how these perspectives incorporate past experience with a child in the transition to motherhood and the potential effects of maternal past experience on how she responds to her child. Third, we consider the critical role of individual differences, including clinical symptomatology, in the psychic and neural reorganization associated with motherhood. We conclude with a consideration of the value of integrating psychoanalytic and neuroscience theories in guiding our understanding of this period of transition, including where further development of these theoretical perspectives is needed.

The transition to motherhood

From an evolutionary perspective, psychic and neurobiological changes accompanying motherhood might occur to ensure the survival of highly dependent infants (Lorenz 1943). These changes could include heightening mothers' sensitivity toward their child through enhancing mothers' ability to perceive and respond appropriately to their infants' needs, as well as through increasing levels of motivation for caretaking behavior (Rutherford and Mayes, 2011; Swain 2011). Psychoanalytically, this heightened sensitivity could be achieved through a mother's increasing identification with her child (Winnicott [1956] 1975; Pines 1972) and biologically through substantial shifts in the hormones progesterone and estrogen, triggering maternal behavior (Bridges 1984). Given that these postulations reflect different levels of understanding, we first review the psychic and then the neurobiological reorganization that might underscore the transition to motherhood.

Psychic reorganization

Pregnancy and the onset of motherhood have been recently considered as critical periods of transition in the life cycle of women (Erikson 1959; Rappaport 1994), where an intrapsychic reorganization occurs (Benedek 1959; Bibring et al. 1961; Pines 1972, 1982). Critically, the transition to motherhood-particularly the first pregnancy-might also constitute a time of crisis, where women must search for a female identity and this marks the final stages of their being independent single units (Bibring 1959; Pines 1972). …

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