Thousands of mothers are plagued on a daily basis by intrusive thoughts in which they imagine or see themselves doing harm to their children. The problem was highlighted this month in two articles (here and here) that appeared in The New York Times.
In these thoughts or mental images, the women consider dropping their infant or child from a building or bridge, suffocating or abandoning the baby, throwing him or her against a wall, or wrecking their car with the baby inside.
Only a very small percentage of women act on these impulses, yet the suffering of those who regularly entertain such thoughts is nonetheless considerable. Their emotional state can also affect their bonding with the baby, the health of the baby, and the wellbeing of their family.
Scientists attribute such maternal mental health problems to an interplay of genes, stress, hormones, and disrupted brain chemistry. Unfortunately, these experts are not paying much or any attention to depth psychology. They’re failing to see or appreciate the role that inner conflict plays in creating this mental and emotional suffering.
Recent studies indicate that, within one year of giving birth, at least one in eight women, and as many as one in five, develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Women suffering from these conditions are more likely to experience thoughts or impulses to harm their children. A dozen states, moved to action by occurrences in which a mother kills herself or her baby, have passed laws encouraging screening, education, and treatment.
Many of the women are seeing psychotherapists and receiving psychiatric care. Yet few of these professionals are treating the deep inner conflict that frames the emotional experience of these women. In this post, I show how impulses to do harm to one’s child are related to this inner conflict. (In previous posts I have shown how inner conflict contributes to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, stress, panic attacks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which are other aspects of maternal mental health.)
The primary conflict in the human psyche is between aggression and passivity. The aggression arises through the inner critic or superego, and some of it becomes aggression directed against one’s own self, usually as criticism, mockery, or condemnation. On the other side of the conflict, inner passivity makes defensive efforts and compromises to minimize the impact of the inner critic’s self-aggression. Through inner passivity, an individual typically puts up only a weak, ineffective defense of the self (see, “The Futile Dialogue in Our Head.”)
A person caught in this conflict often begins to identify with the passive side of the conflict. If the conflict is particularly intense, the inner passivity becomes more acute. A woman or a man in this emotional predicament can begin to lose emotional stability and the capacity for self-regulation of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
At the same time, a woman with a new baby can be feeling overwhelmed and disoriented by the demanding requirements of motherhood. The emotional challenge can be complicated by a premature birth, financial stress, relationship or family disharmony, or the absence of the father. The mother can feel unsupported emotionally, by others and by herself, at the time when she’s required to be strong. She can start to experience her situation through inner passivity. Now, it’s more likely she will begin to feel helpless, overwhelmed, trapped, and a slave to the demands of her child.
When, through inner conflict, a person’s sense of self tilts sharply toward the passive side, she or he can begin to feel increasingly out of control. The individual is less able to dampen anxiety and inner fears. Many such fears are associated with what classical psychoanalysis has called baby fears. These irrational fears that babies typically experience involve being dropped, smothered, choked, and treated roughly. (Read, “How Inner Fear Becomes Our Worst Nightmare.”) These baby fears still linger in the psyche of adults, and a mother can project them on to her child. Now she identifies with the child, meaning that she unconsciously places herself in the mind of the child and takes on (becomes entangled emotionally in) its helplessness and vulnerability. The fears can be especially pronounced if she herself is experiencing harmful thoughts toward the child. As she identifies with the helplessness of the child, she can be resonating at the same time with feelings of being helplessly overwhelmed in her own experience of motherhood.
At I’ve said in previous posts, we have an unconscious inclination or even determination to experience whatever is unresolved in our psyche, no matter how painful. The inner conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity tends, in varying degrees, to be unresolved in most people. This means that people have an affinity or resonance with both the experience of absorbing the incoming aggression (from the inner critic) and the painful inability (because of inner passivity) to fend it off. For some, the conflict is especially intense and problematic.
Men and women can experience inner passivity and its symptoms in a wide variety of ways. Details of this aspect of human nature are described in my book, The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself from Inner Passivity. A woman who begins to entertain feelings or thoughts of doing harm to her child is descending into a deeper experience of inner passivity, particularly as she feels helpless to stop the intrusive thoughts. This emotional state corresponds with the woman’s inner experience, namely her sense of helplessness to deflect her self-aggression (emanating from her inner critic). The woman’s consciousness is flooded with both passive feelings (identification with the child) and aggressive thoughts (imagining doing harm to the child). The conflict prevents her from establishing a strong sense of self.
These women are going to pay an emotional price in deepening fears concerning the safety of their child, as well as in the anguish of self-torment that arises as they castigate themselves for having such aggressive impulses. At the same time, as she identifies herself with the passive side, she’s locked into the conflict and is driven to continue producing the aggressive thoughts and feelings that place her child in danger because, as mentioned, she’s compelled to go on experiencing whatever is unresolved. Resolution can be achieved, of course, through the individual’s deepening awareness of the conflict, which includes an awareness of the nature of her psychological defenses.
She might be producing, for instance, this unconscious defense: “I don’t want to experience these familiar passive feelings of being helpless and lacking control. Look at how fearful I am that I could act on these thoughts and harm my child.” Another defense: “I don’t want to experience these familiar passive feelings of being helpless and out of control. Look at how much guilt, shame, and horror I feel at the prospect of doing harm to my child.”
These defenses are her adamant denial of her unconscious willingness to identify with the passive side of the conflict. In other words, she is determined unconsciously to cover up her readiness to “know herself” through that passivity. Another defense: “I’m not passive! If anything, the problem is that I’m too aggressive! Look at these terrible aggressive thoughts I keep having.”
It’s a terrible predicament: Much conflict and anguish is experienced as the woman produces aggressive thoughts toward her child while, simultaneously, feeling helpless in curbing or stifling those thoughts.
The second article on the subject in The New York Times reports on a case of postpartum psychosis. The report describes the emotional state of a woman in the months preceding the moment when she leapt from an eighth-floor window with her 10-month-old child strapped to her chest, killing herself. The child was cushioned by the woman’s body and survived. Again, it was inner conflict that drove this woman to commit the deed. In cases of postpartum psychosis, the women are likely to possess a particularly harsh inner critic, and their defenses against that inner aggression are particularly weak.
The 44-year-old woman, “a levelheaded lawyer working for the State Supreme Court,” had become obsessed within several months of her son’s birth with the notion that she had caused him irrevocable brain damage. The baby had banged his head in a minor incident, and medical specialists, after examining him, reassured her that babies can withstand such minor bumps and that he was fine.
The newspaper account of this woman’s emotional state needs to be read for an appreciation of the degree to which she was irrationally accusing herself of being a bad mother. It appears that, at the same time, she was identifying with her son who she believed would grow up to be damaged and helpless due to her “negligence.” In her suicide note, she wrote that she had become, as a mother, “the worst of the worst.”
By all appearances, she was painfully trapped in inner conflict. Her harsh inner critic mercilessly abused her with allegations that she was a bad mother. Through her inner passivity, she would have absorbed much of this aggression. Tormented by this inner aggression, she retreated far over to the passive side. Now it is understandable why she would begin to fixate on her son as the passive victim of her negligence and of her aggressive impulses toward him, just as she herself was, in a psychological sense, the passive, helpless victim of her own inner aggression. Frequently in cases of postpartum psychosis, the inner passivity is such that mothers become profoundly under the influence of commanding inner voices.
People who learn this knowledge are in a much stronger position to avoid inner conflict.