Joan Raphael-Leff

Dark Side of the Womb (podcast)

Joan Raphael-Leff is a psychoanalyst and transcultural psychologist who leads the UCL/Anna Freud Centre academic faculty for psychoanalytic research. She was previously head of University College London’s MSc in Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology, and Professor of Psychoanalysis at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex.


Fascinating  podcast for the UCL Psychoanalysis Unit discussing pregnancy and parenting from a compelling multidisciplinary perspective including psychoanalysis, neonatal research, social psychology, feminist theory, and cultural studies. Key points include:

  • The issue of “two people in one body, one of whom may be of different sex to that body”
  • “In terms of psychoanalytic issues, what affects a pregnant woman’s imaginative experience of that ‘Other’ inside her body during the course of pregnancy”
  • And “what it is that the foetus is experiencing within the womb”
  • Issues of antenatal dependency: “our survival and growth is dependent on someone else offering us hospitality. Each of us as a guest in the body of an other” – and the psychological, ethical, and political repercussions of this fundamental experience of dependency
  • How recent technology has changed our understanding of previously “eternal” subjects, such as sex, genesis, reproduction, death
  • Changing demographics and reproductive rates: Germany now has the lowest rate of fertility in the world (39% of educated German women choosing not to have children)
  • “By 2025, for the first time in history, the death rate will exceed the birth rate in most developed countries”
  • “Men who also are cohabiting with the pregnant woman actually have hormonal changes during the course of the pregnancy.”
  • The role of the ‘internal mother’ within the pregnant woman
  • henry-ford-hospital-1932-THIS (1)

    ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ (1932) depicts Frida Kahlo’s miscarriage. She finds herself abandoned on a bed amidst a barren and phallic industrial landscape surrounded by six images: a fully formed male foetus, an orchid, a snail, a female torso, fractured pelvis and an autoclave

  • Pregnancy as a multi-transformative experience: it transforms the seed into a baby, a woman into a mother, a couple into a threesome
  • How stress and anxiety during pregnancy can permanently affect the metabolism and regulatory systems of the baby
  • Discussion of antenatal anxieties and depression, which are often severe (‘persecutory anxiety’)
  • Disparity of teenage pregnancy (e.g. between the ‘idea’ of teenage years as carefree and the reality of total responsibility)
  • Increasing control over reproduction, yet the equal illusion of control (issues of infertility, including male infertility, and unexpected and unknown consequences of technological interventions)
  • Psychoanalytic repercussions of recent developments such as IVF, same-sex parenting, ‘virgin births’, transplanted wombs, etc
  • Experience of postnatal ‘persecution’ anxiety – including high levels of clinical postnatal depression across Western countries – perhaps linked to the discrepancy between the ideas and ideals of what pregnancy would be like and the postnatal reality (which is often very different from the magazines etc)
  • How perinatal psychotherapy enables the integration of complex experiences, including the parent’s or carer’s own unresolved experiences of childhood (that the pregnancy often brings up), unconscious fantasies and expectations, and  issues surrounding secure and insecure attachments

For thirty-five years Joan Raphael-Leff has specialized in emotional issues of reproduction and early parenting, writing more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and twelve books. Founder and first international chair of COWAP (IPA’s Committee on Women and Psychoanalysis), she provides training for practitioners working with teenage parents, and is consultant to perinatal and women’s projects in many high and low income countries.

Her most recent works include The Dark Side of the Womb: Pregnancy, Parenting and Persecutory AnxietiesPregnancy: The Inside StoryThe Psychological Processes of ChildbearingSpilt Milk: Perinatal Loss and BreakdownParent-Infant Psychodynamics: Wild Things, Mirrors and GhostsBetween Sessions and Beyond the Couch, and Female Experience: Four Generations of British Women Psychoanalysts on Work with Women, (co-edited with Rosine J. Perelberg 

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