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Chapter 4

Maternal Intrapersonal Anxiety:

Why Anxiety and Where it Begins

In this chapter, I take a deep dive into my theory; a construct that explains a connection between perception of change, emotional attachments, the value we assign to the various elements of our lives, and how all of this relates to the abstract notion of "self."  In doing so, I state my case for how grief can manifest for women who perceive undesirable change in their lives as loss, and how that experience of loss can generate symptoms of grief, especially if left unrecognized and unresolved. I also cover how personal boundaries, when weak or not in use, impact the onset of maternal intrapersonal anxiety. 

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Chapter excerpt

“Where did I go?”  Perhaps an equally challenging and imposing question is, “Did anyone notice that I left?” I’m aware that after weeks, months, and years of being a mother and losing my sense of self, I am less inclined to talk about it as if I couldn’t explain it if I tried or that no one would understand my choice of words should I explain. Worse yet, maybe no one would care. I feel cursed that I even think about these things. I actually think about the person I was, the “me” that would sit amidst the dry autumn leaves and stare at an ant, empathizing with its struggle to carry the crumb from here to there. Wasteful times that allowed me to hear my internal voice, the nonsensical and the serious. As motherhood has grown on me, I hear my voice less and less.  Rather I hear the sounds of children and their needs. I hear the calls of responsibility, the words of direction as I prioritize the tasks to be accomplished each day. I hear the chatter of the TV and the call to be my husband’s partner. The voice persists as the familiarity fades. And with it my sense of self, a self I love. How strange to come to a place where I hear the voice say, “I miss you.”  

                                                                                                 --Diary entry, Spring 2000 



Why Anxiety


I wrote that entry while sitting in my Advanced Social Work Practice course at Rutgers University during my final semester.  My apologies to Professor Lowenstein for not paying more attention to him; I suppose the entry couldn’t wait. Weaved throughout my notebook are similar entries, each describing some set of feelings I had about motherhood or the loss of self that I was experiencing. Interestingly, I never once used the word “anxiety,” and yet anxiety is considered fundamental among most grief theories, either as a symptom of grief (one emotion of many in response to loss) or as the core emotion central to grief (the collective experience); that is, grief is anxiety. As I mentioned in the Introduction, the pastoral theologian David Switzer wrote in detail about the collective experience of grief in a theory called Grief as a function of Separation Anxiety. From this theoretical perspective, anxiety is the core experience of an infant when separated from the mothering figure; the word “grief” is used to specify the anxiety experienced during the separation. Since no mother can be with her child 100 percent of the time, it’s theorized that an infant learns of anxiety through his or her initial experiences of separation from the mother or mothering figure.

While infants don’t have the intellectual ability to understand the meaning of helplessness, abandonment, and the other consequences of separation, infants do respond to pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort. For instance, when an infant’s needs are not met, a sense of discomfort, displeasure, and pain mount, which cause the infant to cry. If the needs continue to be unmet, the infant will eventually display what might be described as panic. When the infant is finally soothed with comfort and pleasure (i.e., food, warmth, or physical touch), the panic is relieved and the crying generally stops. In this repeated experience, an infant learns to equate the presence of the mothering figure with the satisfaction of needs in contrast to the absence (separation) of the mothering figure, which arouses discomfort, frustration, pain, and panic. It’s the dissonance between pain and pleasure, comfort and discomfort that creates the learning of anxiety; anxiety is the expression of pain when a threat of separation (a threat to the integrity of the self) is perceived. That is, separation is the impetus for anxiety.  


Infants, no doubt, become adults, and as they do they seek significant relationships that continue to fulfill their physical and emotional needs for comfort (e.g., touch, affection, warmth, love). Adults typically establish many significant relationships over the course of a lifetime.  When any of these relationships are lost, the loss stimulates the learned response to separation from the mothering....


Hi Anne, 

Anne, this is really really interesting. I never thought of my "self" as a significant other!!  haha.  But i can see how you can think of this. Does it ever get lost for good like when you actually lose a person you love?

Justine R.


Hi Justine, 

Losing a significant other is often devastating and I never want to confuse this with my model of Maternal Intrapersonal Anxiety. More of the point of my model of MIA is that loss occurs in our lives in many ways....small and large, and we can grieve if what we value becomes diminished or missing. Becoming a mom does change lots of things, and sometimes, yes, aspects of lifestyle may be altered forever given the circumstances, but I wholeheartedly believe that we are constantly evolving as human beings and change is part of living life. Letting go of the past or anything of value is hard, and we can move toward something great, things that make us happy, a life that includes parts of ourselves that need to be nurtured. That does happen. Again, stress interferes with coping skills, so it's important to recognize that and seek all of the different kinds of support that are out there in the world. 

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