Hungarian psychoanalyst, Margaret Schonberger Mahler, was born in a Jewish family in 1897. After completing High School, she went to Vaci Utcai Gimnazium in Budapest though it was fairly uncommon for women to continue studies. There a friend introduced her to Sandor Ferenczi, a renowned psychoanalyst, who was responsible for developing Schonberger’s interest in the concept of the unconscious and also encouraged her to read Sigmund Freud. In 1917, Schonberger joined a Medical School in Budapest. After a few semesters, she transferred to University of Munich for clinical trainings. She had to face discrimination due to her religion and her sex and had to transfer from Munich to Jena. She graduated magna cum laude from Jena in 1922. Before her graduation however, Margaret witnessed something that later defined her career. She was working late at a clinic one night when a man brought his son who was terminally ill. The man left his child at the clinic who died later that night. This propelled Margaret to study the symbiotic relationship between children and their parents. This marked her transition from pediatrics to psychoanalysis, and she started training at Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute from where she graduated in 1933.
At the age of 39, she was married to Paul Mahler and to escape the horrors of World War II they moved to England and later, to the United States. There she was invited to the faculty of Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute and also offered to be chair of the Child Analytic Program. It was at this time that Margaret Mahler made her most valuable contribution to the field of psychoanalysis and child development: Separation-Individuation Theory. According to this theory, the development of psychological “self” for a healthy infant occurs in three phases:
1. Normal Autistic Phase – This period lasts for first few weeks where the infant is detached and oblivious to the world. Most of its time is spent sleeping.
2. Normal Symbiotic Phase – This phase lasts until about five months when the child recognizes the mother but does not consider itself separate from the mother.
3. Separation – Individuation Phase – The child breaks out of its “autistic shell” and begins to interact with the people around him. This phase can be divided into the following sub-phases:
a. Hatching – The period lasts from 5 to 10 months. Using the mother as a point of orientation, the infant becomes interested in the environment.
b. Practicing – The period lasts from 10 to 16 months. The child starts crawling or walking, and explores the world independent of his mother.
c. Reproachment – The period lasts from 16 to 24 months. The child becomes anxious due to being distant from the mother and tries to bond with her again. However, as the child gains language skills, this phase dies down.
Although Margaret Mahler faced many hurdles in life, she persevered and was able to make a significant contribution to her field. She laid the foundations of Masters Children’s Centre in New York. She received several accolades during her career including Barnard College’s highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction, in 1980. She died at the age of 88 in New York City.