A novel kind of therapy

The Motherhood Constellation - Beyond the Myths
May 16, 1997

Both these books set out to explore the nature of the parent-child relationship and the implications this relationship has for therapy, but they could not be more different.

The Motherhood Constellation maintains that the dynamics of the parent-infant relationship differ dramatically from those of other relationships dealt with by therapies. It has three distinct parts. In section one, Daniel Stern considers how the change in a woman's "mental world", brought about by being confronted with parenthood, can influence the development of new family relationships. He suggests that with the birth of a new baby, this world undergoes a transition from that of daughter to mother, fulfilling a "realistic need" to put the infant's welfare before her own.

In the second section, Stern clearly details various therapeutic approaches and demonstrateshow it is the "nonspecific aspects common to all therapies that account for the largest part of their efficacy."

Finally, the woman enters what Stern labels the "motherhood constellation". This involves three different discourses: the woman's with her own mother, her discourse with herself, and her discourse with her baby. Stern argues that since the situations that lead to parent-infant psychotherapy as a result of the motherhood constellation are very different from the situations that lead to other therapies, they should be dealt with differently from other clinical situations.

This book is well thought out, with a good exposition of the factors that effect change in the new mother, leading the reader through the various schools of parent-infant psychotherapy. Stern's diagrammatic modelling of the clinical situation is an extremely useful tool for anyone who is not already familiar with the parent-infant clinical situation. The inclusion of work on infant concept formation from within the field of cognitive development, thus highlighting the importance of cognitive theories for a better understanding of the clinical situation, is particularly helpful. This book is a valuable addition to the literature.

Beyond the Myths, by contrast, seeks to challenge the myths about women in society, and sees the denigration of women as the root cause of bad mother-daughter relationships. Shelley Phillips has split her book into two parts. In the first, she attempts to identify the root causes of why many mother-daughter relationships are "unhappy", and in the second she attempts to look at ways to resolve this "unhappiness".

Phillips holds that women are bound to have difficulties in their relationships with their mothers and their daughters, since the social structure we live in is so heavily dominated by men. She sets out to identify 15 myths about women and motherhood, and argues that the only way to overcome such falsehoods is to change the societal structure that encourages them. Although some of the myths Phillips addresses can be seen as an useful way of examining mother-daughter relationships, she unfortunately often gets carried away, using rather tenuous threads in the link between these myths and their implications for these relationships. For example, early on she stresses that one of the reasons mothers and daughters often lose respect for each other can be seen as a consequence of the time when an oversexed woman was seen as a "sperm-draining vampire". Phillips uses the social history of women together with literary works to draw together the reasons why there is often a conflict between mothers and daughters. But much of her exposition of women in history seems to be made to fit her hypothesis of why such relationships often fail.

In the second part, Phillips contends that all the literature we read at school or university has been interpreted from within a patriarchal society - and now is the time to reread such novels and take a political stand against living in such a society. Her claim is that this will enable us to develop better mother-daughter relationships. She appraises the work of various novelists, from the Bront s to Virginia Woolf. Although amusing, Phillips irritates with her disregard for the facts. She talks about how the Bront s losing their mother by the age of seven "inspired two of the daughters to write some of English literature's most evocative novels I" - that is, Charlotte and Emily. What about Anne? Was she not an evocative novelist too? This may seem a petty quibble, but the book does proclaim itself to be a comprehensive investigation of psychology, history and literature.

The central contention is that a person can cut the costs of therapy in trying to understand the mother-daughter relationship by using bibliotherapy, that is by rereading the literature of people like Colette, Shakespeare, and Richardson, and seeing how such authors resolved the problems of such relationships. Although this may well be cheaper than conventional therapy, I doubt this book will enable the reader to resolve real conflicts. It may, however, cheer the reader up: it is amusing, even entertaining, in parts, but not a serious book on feminist psychotherapy.

Janine Spencer is researching a PhD at the MRC Cognitive Development Unit, University College London.

The Motherhood Constellation: A Unified View of Parent-Infant Psychotherapy

Author - Daniel Stern
ISBN - 0 465 02602 8
Publisher - Basic Books
Price - £19.99
Pages - 229

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