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Kay Reed



uth Fischer introduced the panel, noting that in recent years

many of our ideas about female development have been modified, or even drastically altered. The concept of primary femaleness has
supplanted the long held conviction that the girls sense of herself as
female begins with an awareness of genital anatomic difference. The
female triangulation conflict has been seriously reconsidered. We have
a new appreciation of the impact of the girls body on the organization
of her development and have begun to delineate the differences in male
and female development. As we listen to patients, it is with a new
appreciation of countertransference, the patients point of view, and
Amid this change, our ideas about the mother-daughter relationship have remained intact: a tenacious bond that eventually needs to be
broken for development to progress. We have traditionally postulated a
relatedness/autonomy dichotomy, with the girl oscillating between
happy union with her mother and her own self-expression, unable to
express independent initiative and mature genital sexuality without
breaking the bond.
Today, however, we realize that development is not purely linear
and internally driven; we acknowledge relational components and anticipate evolution over time. The goal is no longer the severing of the tie
to mother (in order to attain separation, autonomy, and mature sexuality),
but an evolving transformation of the relationship (to allow the time
needed for integration and identification). Disengagement is replaced by
the consolidation of new internalizations, resulting in new levels of
organization and enrichment, not disruption or abandonment. It is the
lack of the modification of this bond that can lead to problems. This is
a radical innovation in our conceptualization of female psychology.
Panel held at the Spring Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association,
San Francisco, June 26, 2004.
Panelists: Ruth Fischer (chair), Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Ethel Spector Person,
Barbara S. Shapiro, Lynne Zeavin.
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Conflicts of autonomy, self-assertion, and mature genital sexuality

will obstruct the further identification and integration of the motherdaughter bond. In the past our focus has been on causative aggressive
conflicts in the derailment of female development. Compromises may
be made that impact autonomy and hamper independence. The daughter may have limitations on her personal and sexual agency when there
has been an inadequate modification of the internal representation of
the infantile omnipotent mother. This fantasy of destructiveness may
impede the development of an authentic self, the capacity for healthy
competition, or mature sexuality.
Although we have focused almost exclusively on the hostile/aggressive component of the ambivalence, it is clear that it is difficult, though
not impossible, to separate the aggressive from the erotic, the drive
component from the relational aspect. We need to turn our attention to
the love and interdependence each of us has toward the other. In todays
panel, said Fischer, we focus on the erotic component of the motherdaughter relationship; this includes the full range of loving feelings,
sensual as well as sexual.
Psychoanalytic authors who have addressed these issues include
Blos (1968), Kestenberg (1988), Furman (1996), Mahler, Pine, and
Bergman (1975), Ritvo (1976), and Dalsimer (2004). Kulish and
Holtzman (1998) have delineated a new perspective on the girls
experience of triangulation that includes her love for her mother and a
modification of the tie with the attainment of mature genital sexuality.
Balsam (2003) has shown us the importance of the mothers body to
the girl. Dahl (2004) gives a new appreciation of adolescent experience.
Our panelists Ethel Person (1980) and Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel
(1970) have given us groundbreaking work on the topic.
The mother is the daughters first love object, and the relationship
persists, is modified, and in various ways reverberates throughout the
girls life. This relationship will allow her to differentiate internal from
external stimuli, and to establish self-soothing, self-esteem, and affect
regulation. It will serve as her prototype for intimacy on a nonsexual as
well as a genital sexual level and will determine how she deals with
competition and rivalries.
The panel explored the evolving erotic trend in the mother-daughter
relationship, including (1) the acquisition and expression of femininity
in the daughter, (2) the daughters identifications, and (3) the daughters sexuality.
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Barbara Shapiro was the first presenter. Most women in therapy or

analysis, she said, spend considerable time understanding and working
through this pivotal relationship. Connected through bodies and physical experience, the mother-daughter dyad share early, intense attachments and multiple projections, internalizations, and identifications,
with both parties participating. Since the bond develops early, there
are psychosomatic, sensual, and erotic forces that continue through
the course of life. Some bonds enhance; some contribute pain, inhibition,
and displeasure; most do a bit of both.
Sometimes mother and daughter feel that they are one another. In
that case symbiosis must be balanced with the potential for individuation, separation, and autonomy, as well as gender identity and object
choice. This flexibility will allow regression to the experience of oneness
with the other, as during pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, infant care,
and sexuality. All these parts of life have sensual and erotic aspects. The
potential for adaptive symbiosis is related to the potential for an adaptive
and developmentally healthy erotic and sensual bond.
Unfortunately, the term negative oedipus complex diverts us
from the erotic and sensual trend between mothers and daughters. The
oedipal myth, Shapiro argued, pertains more to male development
than to female development. More relevant to the female is the myth
of Demeter and Persephone. I t emphasizes the unique relationship
between mother and daughter as a lifelong event.
Shapiro noted a number of general trends. (1) Women are relationship-oriented, seeking and forming close, lasting relationships with other
women as peers and as mother substitutes, especially during femalespecific experiences such as pregnancy, lactation, and menopause.
(2) Female eroticism and sexuality differ from that of men. Sexuality
in women is more generalized and less genitally specific than in men.
During development, many girls retain an intense tie to their mother
while simultaneously forming a satisfying sexual partnership with a
third person. (3) Physical closeness, emotional intimacy, sensuality,
and eroticism are closely related and, with or without genital sexuality,
form a primary eroticism; the first experience is with mother. Genital
sexual urges may exist separately but more likely, especially in women,
are interlinked with primary eroticism. (4) In health the erotic bond is
usually unconscious at all phases of life for both mother and daughter,
a subtle undercurrent that enhances sexual experience and sexuality
but is not specifically sexual. It enables the appreciation of ones own
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body and helps provide the ability to take pleasure in sensuality and
the physical closeness of a loved person.
More specific points cited by Shapiro include the following.
1. Pregnancy is a sensual experience, but the eroticism is not
genitally focused. Pregnancy and birth emphasize female lineage. The
mothers relationship with her own mother is particularly charged during pregnancy, childbirth, and early childrearing, a time when a woman
may seek the support of other women. A Doula is a woman who offers
support that leads to fewer complications in childbirth.
2. The first connections of mother and baby are sensual: the body,
touch, skin, cuddling, caresses, sound, singing, talking, cooing, sight,
smell, taste, and kinesthetic changes. These form the bedrock of
attachment, of the emergence of the sense of self and other, of relatedness and love.
3. Breastfeeding is a good example of this early erotic trend and
its potential for mutual enjoyment.
4. How the mother feels about her own body influences how she
cares for the baby, and how she touches and feels about her babys
body. Since we know that babies have a sexual life, it is inevitable
that eroticism of some sort is a consistent undercurrent in the dyadic
relationship, physical and emotional, between the mother and her
baby girl. It may be denied, repressed, dissociated, or perverted, but
unless there is no body care of the child, or severe trauma or neglect,
it is there.
5. During the first year, communication is physical and sensual.
Bucci (1997) discusses the subsymbolic nonverbal and symbolic nonverbal communication. These spheres continue, along with the lateremerging verbal symbolic sphere.
6. There is much research showing that mother-daughter relationships and interactions differ from those with the son starting in early
Although mother-daughter relationships are each unique, they do
share certain trends. Girl babies do better with a mother who is somewhat more engaged and directive, as long as she is attuned. Girls are
drawn to closeness, stay closer, share their emotions and intentions, and
are physically and emotionally more intimate with mothers than boys
are. Mothers are less likely to provide a developmental push away for
their daughters, are more conflicted about separating, and tend to reexperience their own separation from their mother.
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The physical and emotional closeness nourishes the erotic trend

and affects the development of a sense of self and other, as well as a
sense of comfortable interpersonal distance and ego boundaries (which
are more permeable and flexible in women than in men). This is adaptive for situations that call for empathy, attunement, and relatedness but
may impinge on autonomy and aggression. This can lead to intense and
ensnaring conflict and ambivalence. It is difficult to make broad predictions about developmental aberrations such as neglect or trauma
because development is a confluence of multilayered and complex factors. If mother and daughter are both comfortable in a developmentally
appropriate erotic bond, this lays a foundation for the daughter to be
more comfortable with her own sexuality and eroticism and how she
views herself. The daughter will sense how her mother responds to her,
in the mothers eyes and in her verbal and nonverbal communication.
Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel next addressed the problems between
mothers and girls, focusing on conflicts connected with identification.
Separation is a big conflict for the girl. One of the primary challenges
for humans is the conflict between the desire to merge with the mother
and the desire to acquire autonomy by separating from her.
Before discussing girls, Chasseguet-Smirgel reviewed the normal
development of masculinity in boys. The mother has moments of oneness with her child that are necessary if the child is to acquire the
capacity for loving. The mother should abandon the exclusive relationship she has with her child after birth and again turn part of her interest
to a man, usually the childs father, thus promoting her sons autonomy.
The father or a substitute may become the boys model, helping his
masculinity to emerge. Manhood is a combination of nature and nurture.
Stoller described the acquisition of gender identity as more complicated for the boy than for the girl, as children of both sexes are
immersed in the experience of maternal femaleness.
Chasseguet-Smirgel does not agree with Freud that the girl feels
like a truncated boy, nor does she agree with Stoller when he says that
gender identity is easier for the girl than for the boy because of the similarity of her sexual body with that of her mother. It is precisely because
she is similar to her mother that the way to femininity is questionable,
because she (like the boy) has to conquer her autonomy vis--vis her
mother. The girl is not a replica of her mother but another person. After
the initial, compulsory, short-lived merging into the mother, she must
take her distance. Her sexuality must include the integration of her
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homosexual trends toward her mother. This is necessary for the identification with the mother, as well as for the development of heterosexual
trends directed toward the father and men in general.
Two phenomena seen in the girl that were studied separately by
Chasseguet-Smirgel, one a long time ago and the second more recently,
are connected, as both are about distancing oneself from the mother and
reaching autonomy. One is widespread and normal, while the other is
extremely pathological, even fatal, asymbolic, and deeply narcissistic.
The second phenomenon (the pathological track) she referred to
as escaping mother through eating disorders. The daughter aims for
autarky, a narcissistic self-sufficiency. Stoller points out that separation from the mothers body is crucial for the development of identity.
Chasseguet- Smirgel hypothesizes that eating disorders begin in adolescence because the girls body acquires secondary sexual features that
make her body similar to her mothers; this increases the daughters
state of nondifferentiation from the mother. She fears merger as her
more adult body blurs the differences between them.
Anorexia and bulimia are desperate attempts at differentiation of
ones own body from the mothers. (In contrast, the adolescent boy is
acquiring secondary sexual features that deeply differentiate him from
the mother.) In most of the eating disorder cases Chasseguet-Smirgel
treated, there had been a difficult relationship between the mother and
the little girl, who had shown a pathological autoeroticism, with violence
against herself such as hair pulling or head banging. This behavior
indicates a lack of narcissistic cathexis by the mother. This schema
can take many forms. Eating disorders are a caricature of autonomy, a
desperate outlet of an insolvable conflict.
The widespread and normal phenomenon that aims at distancing
from the mother and reaching autonomy is penis envy. ChasseguetSmirgel stressed long ago that the main function of the penis,
besides its sexual function, is as a sign of differentiation from the
mother. When the child is driven by desire to become autonomous,
the normal way to distance from the mother is to become an individual through identif ication with the father. (Both boys and girls
identify with both parents in normal development.) The desire to
become autonomous may take diverse paths. Identif ication with the
mother is itself a means of becoming autonomous, by replacing her,
and all need of her, by the possibility of doing for oneself what she
is supposed to do. It is only when penis envy becomes separate from
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libido and seems to occupy the whole scene that it has to be analyzed
as a defense.
How does the girl become a woman? The erotic trend or drive is
present from the beginning. First relationships are incestual, with the
child being close to her mothers body. Evelyn Kestemberg (personal
communication) called it primary homosexuality. In ChasseguetSmirgels opinion, there is an important difference between primary
homosexuality and homosexuality that occurs when the girl has
acquired her autonomy and identity. This primary homosexuality is
necessary for the development of genitality directed toward men. To be
a woman requires the ability to love a womans body, and this requires
the girl to pass through an unconscious phase of homosexuality.
One cannot acquire integrative identifications without loving and
admiring the object with whom one identifies. If the relationship with
ones mother was too conf licted, this identif ication through homosexuality is repeated and enacted in adolescence. This trend in adolescence may be a mere confirmation of female identity, as in Freuds
Psycho-genesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman (1920). Had
it not been treated, homosexuality in this case (as an enactment) would
have smoothed away.
Ethel Person, next up, characterized herself as the disobedient child
on the panel, less certain about any primary, inevitable identification
between mother and daughter. She asked, What is the erotic impact
of the mother on the daughter? It was a surprise to her that it had
been a struggle to discover what she really thinks about this. One basic
dilemma: how to distinguish what is inborn from what is acquired.
For the vast majority of women, core gender is congruent with ones
designation at birth. But to what degree is gender role identity innate
or acquired through identity laid down early in life? Some degree of
gender identity is shaped by identification with the same-sex parent.
Some situations, however, suggest that such a simple explanatory hypothesis is inadequate. First, women raised by a father and no
mother may be entirely feminine, their femininity acquired through
a complementary relationship, a counteridentification. Second, crossgender attributes in both sexes may appear so early as to suggest some
inborn cross-gender traits as opposed to acquired homosexuality. Thus,
it appears that some gender attributes are innate, not acquired. What
can intersex situations tell us about the biology of sex and gender?
Biological factors and not just rearing are at play in establishing core
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gender identity and gender behaviors. If biology is a major factor in the

construction of gender, it would be reductionistic to attribute most
aspects of female gender identity to the mother-daughter relationship.
There are exceptions that are important to a fuller comprehension of the
theory of the formation of core gender identity. Drescher and Leli
(2004) are contemporary theorists who regard transsexualism as a natural, nonpathological variant.
Sexuality also transcends any strictly dichotomous categorization
and comprises diverse elements: object choice, sexual fantasy, desire, and
conscious sexual identity. Sexualities encompass dif ferent objects
and different aims. It is difficult to classify these variations. We are now
placing more emphasis on the possible role of a hormonal influence.
Various basic fantasies develop, depending on gender attributes. Core
fantasies are set in motion and are distinct for males and females. These
include mental representations of the self as gendered, and of the most
important people in our lives as gendered, and of the gender-specific
interactions between them, in relationships and dialogue. These representations of role relationships are a major component in the basic fantasies that are eventually formed. The most fully articulated gender
story takes shape during the oedipal phase, and its key components
depend on how the child identifies with, competes with, and loves and
hates each parent.
The influence of mothers on their daughters differs depending on
the nature of the emotional bond. Some girls adore their mother; others
despise her and wish to identify with other female figures. One cannot
always be certain that a females major female identification is with her
mother; or it may be a counteridentification if the mother is repudiated.
Another question: Is the growing girl in a two-parent family primarily
in love with her mother or with her father? Either avenue can lead to
perfectly normal and comfortable gender identification. All girls also
look for other females with whom to identify, as well as partial identifications with male figures. These last identifications are generally
complementary rather than primary.
Vast numbers of factors determine the degree of identification with
a mother: the mothers own self-esteem; how she is viewed in the community; the nature of her relationship with her husband, siblings, and
parents. No one model fits all. One of our blessings as humans is that
so many of us have the opportunity to select, unconsciously of course,
from a number of sources, and to incorporate what somehow fits with
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our fledgling identity as we begin to mature. What this means is that

many of us, either conciously or unconsciously, play with different possibilities about who we want to become. Many of us, if not most, entertain shifting ideals of what we want in the future, as well as shifting
identifications, sometimes embracing slivers of the opposite sex.
For most of us, pressure to conform acts to suppress any significant
experience of cross-gender characteristics. As the growing child or adolescent discovers that his or her behavior and desires are at odds with
the gender prescription of familial preference or culture, he or she suppresses or transforms them to the degree possible.
One important form of interaction is the emotional contagion that
takes place between people. Lichtenstein (1961) spoke of the emotional
imprinting of a child by the mother. One cannot assume a girls primary
identity is with the mother ( p. 204). By and large, daughters share
much of their mothers preconscious attitudes, habits, modes of being,
and sense of reality, but not always and never entirely.
Conformity may lead to suppression of many cross-gender identif ications, desires, and fantasies; but it does not necessarily lead to
their eradication. Conscious unity of self-identifications coexists with
unconscious diversity. The lack of unity, in the unconscious and preconscious (in contrast to the conformity on the surface), may serve as a
potential locus of shifts, of fluidity, in response either to individual
experiences or, on a larger scale, to shifting cultural mores. According
to Emerson, we often resemble our peers more than our progenitors.
Our mosaic of identifications gives our specific gender role identity
its uniqueness. In most people, surface behavior is consonant with what
the culture prescribes as feminine or masculine gender role identity.
Consequently, we come to identify ourselves as either and only masculine or feminine.
Person did not mean to minimize the unique preconscious interchange between mother and daughter that is so central to female development, but did want to emphasize how it is impinged on by biological
factors (hardwiring), as well as a multitude of lived experiences. No
one size fits all.
Finally, Lynne Zeavin presented clinical material. Her woman patient
has been in analysis for ten years, starting in her late twenties. At the
outset she was not as happy as she thought she ought to be, struggled in
her work (where she was very successful), and had engaged in a series
of relationships with men characterized by self-debasing behavior.
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The third of three children, she had a brother ten years older and a
sister five years older. Unlike her siblings, she had had a nanny and felt
neglected by her mother, experiencing herself as an afterthought. Her
nanny was a source of nurturance but was paid to care for her, so this
love was bought. The patient had an enduring fantasy of her being
too much for her mother to handle and had separation longings for both
parents. Her father was detached but idealized, making her feel special
when he confided to her about his extramarital affairs. The brother
eventually developed a heroin addiction and involved her in his drug
purchases in her adolescence. She developed a tough attitude and rebellious behavior to try to gain the attention she craved.
Other themes from the case included her feelings about being a
female. She felt an emptiness, a lack, a persistent feeling of not being
good enough. The wish to be all sewn up was expressed. She felt a
sense of loathing about her own needs; they seemed like a messy and
unbridled femininity. She felt she was coming undone, too full of shit,
messy, and small. Her tough, crude, and contemptuous presentation
protected her against her deep dependency needs and early longings,
as well as her disturbed ideas about femininity, as she identified with
her maligned maternal figure.
During her experience as the mother to a boy now four years old,
feelings have emerged about her own mother. She decided to stay at
home with her son, who was born by C-section; the surgery reinforced
her terrors of coming undone and her profound early anxieties about
body intactness. Her babys cries were experienced as his assertion of
dominion over her, and she had to remind herself that her baby was not
a monster. During his first two years she felt that a huge gulf separated
her from other women and worried what the analyst thought of her.
Envy of the baby and of other women was prominent. She needed to
convince herself that she could be like other women and mother her
child. Initially she kept a full-time nanny but is now caring for her child
more of the time.
At this point she is in fertility treatment trying for a second pregnancy. She experiences nightmares as she identifies with the internal,
malignant, envious maternal figure whose efforts are to undermine and
destroy her own sense of lively femininity and procreative capacity.
In the transference she experiences the analyst as purposively trying
to torment or taunt her with what she has, to keep her down, in order to
build the analyst up, especially around times of separation from the
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analysis. She senses that the analyst revels in her own triumph, happy
to see the patient suffer. This mirrors the cruel internal object that she
battles constantly. She is frantically pursuing the goal of being a normal
female through in vitro fertilization, in order to counteract horrifying and confusing feelings about herself and her objects.
The case helped demonstrate the variety of identifications that can
occur for a girl, and how the lack of a consistent, primary, nurturing
presence can influence a womans sense of herself and her body, as
well as her capacity to form satisfying love relationships.

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