Workshop review: Mothers and Daughters: Common Themes and Therapeutic Considerations with Dr Caroline Burke October 2009

Reviewed by Elizabeth Murphy

Dr Caroline Burke, whose very interesting article on Mothers and Daughters: Common Themes and Therapeutic Considerations appeared in the summer edition of Inside Out, held a workshop on 10th October with the same title. This was part of the excellent autumn/winter series of workshops presented by IAHIP. As someone working largely in the area of mother/daughter relationships I was very keen to hear what she had to say. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a superb presentation, judged from content, style and accessibility. My only problem with the day was frustration with its shortness!

Caroline has been working for many years at the University of Minnesota where she is involved with post-graduate courses, including teaching in the area of the psychology of the relationship between mothers and daughters. She is also a practicing psychotherapist. Interestingly, she herself is the mother of two sons!

Caroline had trained in both psychotherapy and psychology concurrently and I thought that this was certainly one of the strengths of her presentation. Her intimate knowledge and reference to research and theory was most impressive and it was matched by a strong therapeutic humanistic approach.

We broke into small groups for a few minutes to talk about how and why we were there and what our interest in the subject was. Everyone there bar one was a daughter, and many were mothers and some grandmothers. (It was notable that only one man attended the workshop though obviously it was open to all). This was fed back briefly and this began the kind of interaction that happened right through the day.

Caroline gave very a clear but brief outline of the theories of Freud, Horney and Bandura as well as Object Relations theory relating to the development of the infant in relation to the mother (and the father), in particular the female infant. While using a structured approach, facilitated by her use of power point, Caroline spoke very easily and fluently throughout with an impressive knowledge of her subject.

The afternoon session was more psychotherapeutic in tone. We looked at the issue of eating disorders. (One of the things she shared was that research shows that there is a high proportion of mothers with eating disorders who choose to breastfeed in order to burn calories and maintain weight which I found very surprising as my experience is that women who breastfeed tend to have generally healthy relationships with their bodies.)

Another useful subject touched on was post-partum depression and Caroline offered quite clear distinctions between a) “baby blues”, which is a common experience for women between 3 and 5 days after giving birth, b) post-partum depression which is much less prevalent in some cultures and is usually related to environmental issues and questions of support, and c) psychotic illness in which there has usually been a pre-existing condition now exacerbated by the birth.

One of the high points of the workshop was the use of a very beautiful DVD of mothers and daughters reflecting on their relationships with regard to different issues e.g. effects of the daughter having a child, loss and death, etc. In all cases these were simply shots of ordinary women saying a few words, but the impact was profound. The images and words were universal and the group could really relate to them.

Another aspect of the day which made it special was the interaction of the group. From the beginning Caroline’s invitation to get together to explore briefly why we were here led to a space of great sharing – comments, questions etc. Caroline’s ease with questions was matched with her interest in people’s comments and experiences. It was a stimulating and a nourishing day.

Elizabeth Murphy AIHIP is a psychotherapist with a special interest in mother/daughter issues. She can be reached at idirmhna@gmail.com or 086 0588545