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Maternal refers to the physical and psychological care given to another person on the model of a needy infant. For Freud ever since the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c [1895]), the ambiguity of the maternal for the infant was inherent in its ambiguous nature: breast-object or person-mother, total/partial, satisfying needs (mixed with the quality of care dispensed and the sensations procured), internal/external, protective shield/seduction.

Freud isolated an essential component in these dualities: the care associated with the protective shield and intended to satisfy needs also awakens partial sexual drives in the erotogenic zones. Supported by the self-preservation drives, they manifest themselves in auto-eroticism. The infant stimulates the erotogenic zone freed from need, creating a second erotogenic zone. This is accompanied by fantasy activity, which then replaces this self-production of pleasure. The ego thus develops and becomes autonomous through the internalization of maternal functions (1905d).

The maternal object is at the origin of desire, but is sensorially initially known with certainty by the pleasure ego. In the infant's first memories, perception of this object is associated with cessation of unpleasure, sensations of nursing or contact, and the pleasure of elimination. The infant is vitally dependent on this perception, since it compensates for its original powerlessness. The numerous memory traces left behind serve various functions. The ego makes use of memories of the shared origin of pleasure and memories of the maternal object to maintain the two modes of mental operation. Internally, the ego begins to conceive of the continuity of the internal object through hallucinated reinvestment of the memory traces. Between inside and outside, ego responses, combined with the emotive and muscular expressions of tension, gives meaning: It establishes mutual understanding and provides a basis for gratitude. Externally, the maternal object, although essential, is lost, sought for (1926d [1925]), and possibly rediscovered. The mother's absence and the loss of the object (initially unthinkable other than as a malefic occurrence) are prototypes of danger. The desire for the mother unaccompanied by her presence triggers anxiety and mobilizes thought.

"For the infant the psychic maternal object replaces the fetal biological situation" (1926d [1925]). The breast epitomizes that sensory object, which has become mental. A part of the ego-other, susceptible of being lost outside yet preserved inside, the sensory object thus forms the core around which narcissistic unity is organized. The infant's consciousness of no longer being the breast triggers a constructive depressive crisis during weaning in subjects introduced to the oedipal drama. The maternal fusion is then repressed to promote a bond with the mother. Yet unconscious ideals continue the infant's primary identification with the original infant-mother unity.

Whenever an aspect of the repressed primary maternal fusion becomes conscious, a feeling of the uncanny overcomes the subject, while regression promotes the subject's nightly hallucinatory return to the maternal breast in dream thoughts (Braunschweig and Fain, 1975). The child—seduced by the care he has incorporated with repressed sexual aspects of the mother, and subject to continued excitation of this internal sensory object whose signifiers are enigmatic—attempts to control the experience by repeating it autoerotically.

The subject's imago, an imaginary schema, arises from the libido-charged imprint resulting from the attentions of the mother and attached to the subject's inner core. It provides a focus for regression, orients the choice of a man's sexual object later in life, and definitively marks the secondary nature of the relationship of a daughter to her father and to men. For the mother, a girl who has become a woman, maternal love prolongs sublimated sexuality as an alloy of narcissism and object love. Unbounded solicitous affection gives rise to a "shared illusion" of unity between mother and child: the child constructs itself in unity with the maternal, in a space for a two, seeking reciprocity, which is then individualized.

The mother then leaves the phase of "primary maternal preoccupation" to address her womanly desire for a lover and her sexuality. This introduces the child to its limitations (Aulagnier, 1975/2001). Maternal affection is a reaction formation, a compromise between sexual and aggressive drives.

Melanie Klein presents the bisexual maternal as the foundation of the psychic world, which contains both good and bad objects. For Donald Winnicott, only satisfaction of initial psychic and somatic needs frees the subject from the illusion of omnipotence and establishes the pleasure of thinking. For Wilfred Bion, maternal reverie initiates thought. And for Didier Anzieu (1989), perceived maternal affects form part of the skin-ego. Freud thus initiated a series of developments in thinking on mother-child attachment and interaction that has continued to this day.

See Also

Abandonment; ; Ajase complex; Alpha function; Anaclisis/anaclitic; Archaic mother; Breastfeeding; Censoring the lover in her; Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Related Subjects; Counter-Oedipus; Dead mother complex; Double bind; Early interactions; Erotogenicity; Eroticism, oral; False self; Family; Family romance; Feminine sexuality; Femininity; Fort-Da; Good-enough mother; Handling; Holding; Homosexuality; I; Identification; Identifactory project; Illusion; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Infans; Infant development; Infant observation (therapeutic); Intergenerational; Lost object; Love; Maternal care; Maternal reverie, capacity for; Mother goddess; Narcissism; Negative therapeutic reaction; Object; Object, change of/choice of; Object relations theory; Oceanic feeling; Oedipus complex; Parenthoood; Perversion; ; Phallic mother; Phallic woman; Postnatal depression; Pregnancy, fantasy of; Primary love; Primary need; Primary object; Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary father; Reverie; Signal anxiety; Social feeling (individual psychology); Sucking/thumbsucking; Symbiosis/symbiotic relation; Technique with adults, psychoanalytic; Want of being/lack of being; Weaning; Wish for a baby; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a.


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
  • ——. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.
  • ——. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.