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«The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child: John Bowlby’s theory of attachment in post-war America MARGA VICEDO* Abstract. This paper ...»

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BJHS 44(3): 401–426, September 2011. © British Society for the History of Science 2011

doi:10.1017/S0007087411000318 First published online 6 June 2011

The social nature of the mother’s tie to her

child: John Bowlby’s theory of attachment in

post-war America

MARGA VICEDO*

Abstract. This paper examines the development of British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John

Bowlby’s views and their scienti c and social reception in the United States during the 1950s.

In a 1951 report for the World Health Organization Bowlby contended that the mother is the child’s psychic organizer, as observational studies of children worldwide showed that absence of mother love had disastrous consequences for children’s emotional health. By the end of the decade Bowlby had moved from observational studies of children in hospitals to animal research in order to support his thesis that mother love is a biological need. I examine the development of Bowlby’s views and their scienti c and social reception in the United States during the 1950s, a central period in the evolution of his views and in debates about the social implications of his work. I argue that Bowlby’s view that mother love was a biological need for children in uenced discussions about the desirability of mothers working outside the home during the early Cold War. By claiming that the future of a child’s mind is determined by her mother’s heart, Bowlby’s argument exerted an unusually strong emotional demand on mothers and had powerful implications for the moral valuation of maternal care and love.

It is fortunate for their survival that babies are so designed by Nature that they beguile and enslave mothers.1 Who should care for children? Historically, this question has been at the centre of important social debates about gender roles that continue to this day. Although the answer to the question is prescriptive, the range of possible alternatives depends on the answer to an empirical question: what do children need? This last question has also been a matter of continuous scienti c debate. Since views about child development help to ground decisions about child rearing, the terms of the public debate about childcare have been shaped by scienti c pronouncements. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, the work of British psychiatrist John Bowlby has been tremendously important.

In the 1950s, Bowlby postulated that infants have an instinctual need for maternal love and that disruption of their attachment to mother has disastrous consequences for * Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, 314 Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, M5S 1K7, Canada. Email: marga.vicedo@utoronto.ca.

I am grateful to Mark Solovey and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments to improve this paper, and to Juan Ilerbaig for help nishing it. I thank Peter Galison, Ellen Herman and Mark Solovey for continuous support for my work, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for nancial support.

1 John Bowlby, ‘The nature of the child’s tie to his mother’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1958) 39, pp. 350–373, 367.

402 Marga Vicedo their emotional development. Important works on the history of child rearing, the history of the family and the history of changing conceptions of motherhood have noted the impact of Bowlby’s work. In particular, American historians have identi ed Bowlby as the most important gure in post-Second World War debates about maternal deprivation and have noted his in uence on discussions about child development and parental care.2 However, we do not have a full historical account of the development of Bowlby’s ideas, their scienti c reception, and their social impact. Since Bowlby was British and spent his career in England, most historical research focuses on the English context. In addition, much of the literature on Bowlby combines a historical presentation with a defence of his scienti c views. There are contradictory accounts of what Bowlby claimed and of how his views in uenced several areas of social thought and practice in different countries.

I examine the development of Bowlby’s views and their scienti c and social reception in the United States during the 1950s, a central period in the evolution of his views and in debates about the social implications of his work. I argue that Bowlby’s view that mother love was a biological need for children in uenced discussions about the desirability of mothers working outside the home and supported a gendered distribution of parental roles. By the end of the decade Bowlby had moved from observational studies of children in hospitals to animal research in order to support his thesis that mother love is a biological need. This argument exerted an unusually strong emotional and moral demand on mothers.

The paper is divided into ve sections. I rst examine and clarify Bowlby’s views expressed in his 1951 report for the World Health Organization. In the second section, I analyse the reception of his views by the scienti c community in the United States, focusing on psychoanalytic discussions about mother love. In the third and largest section I show that Bowlby became a major reference point in discussions – in academic circles, national conferences and the mass media – about whether mothers should work outside the home. Bowlby’s in uence, I propose, can be explained by the social interest in his views about the effects of maternal deprivation at a crucial juncture in debates about women’s role in modern society, and by the emotional appeal of his position. In 2 On Bowlby’s in uence in the United States see Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Expert’s Advice to Women, New York: Anchor Books, 1978, p. 229; Mari Jo Buhle, Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 162; Ann Hulbert, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children, New York: Vintage Books, 2003, p. 205; Julia Grant, Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 211; Maxine L. Margolis, Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 70; Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky, ‘Introduction’, in Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky (eds.), ‘Bad’ Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America, New York: New York University Press, 1998, pp. 1–28, 14; John Byng-Hall, ‘An appreciation of John Bowlby: his signi cance for family therapy’, Journal of Family Therapy (1991) 13, pp. 5–16; Barbara Melosh, Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 75; Ellen Herman, Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 133.





The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child the following section I examine psychological research on child separation that did not support Bowlby’s views. The nal section focuses on Bowlby’s development of his ethological theory of attachment behaviour, as he turned to animal research in order to support his claim that the relation between mother and child is instinctual. Here, I also re ect on the implications of his views for mothers.

The 1951 WHO report: the mother as psychic organizer At the end of the Second World War the United Nations commissioned a study about the needs of homeless children, a major concern in post-war Europe. G. Ronald Hargreaves, chief of the Mental Health Section of the World Health Organization (WHO), gave the task to British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Edward John Mostyn Bowlby (1907– 1990).

Bowlby’s interest in mental health began when he spent a year working in a school for maladjusted children following his education in Cambridge. With a medical degree from University College Hospital in London, he specialized in psychiatry at Maudsley Hospital, trained in psychoanalysis at the British Psychoanalytic Institute, and gained experience as a staff psychologist at the London Child Guidance Clinic and Training Centre. After serving as a psychiatrist in the British Army during the Second World War, Bowlby became a deputy director and then the head of the children’s department of the Tavistock Clinic, London, where he remained until his retirement.3 Early in his career Bowlby established a link between lack of maternal love and psychopathology. In 1940 he published a discussion of ‘about 150 cases’ of neurotic children. He reviewed their les at the London Child Guidance Clinic and also met some of them and their mothers a few times. To understand the causation of neurosis from an ‘analytic angle’, Bowlby confessed that he had ‘ignored many aspects of the child’s environment such as economic conditions, housing conditions, the school situation, diet, and religious teaching’. Though he recognized that ‘some psychiatrists’ thought that those factors might in uence a child’s mental health, Bowlby chose to focus on the ‘personal environment of the child’, which for him meant only the mother, as he did not gather information about the fathers or families.4 3 On Bowlby see Jeremy Holmes, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, New York: Routledge, 1993;

Robert Karen, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; Suzan van Dijken, John Bowlby: His Early Life: A Biographical Journey into the Roots of Attachment Theory, London: Free Association Books, 1998; Inge Bretherton, ‘The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’, Developmental Psychology (1992) 28, pp. 759–775; Ben Mayhew, ‘Between love and aggression: the politics of John Bowlby’, History of the Human Sciences (2006) 19, pp. 19–35. For a more critical discussion of Bowlby’s work, see A. Dally, Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal, New York: Schocken, 1983; Diane E. Eyer, Mother–Infant Bonding: A Scienti c Fiction, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992; Barbara Tizard, ‘Employed

mothers and the care of young children’, in Ann Phoenix, Anne Woollett and Eva Lloyd (eds.), Motherhood:

Meanings, Practices and Ideologies, London: Sage, 1991, pp. 178–194.

4 John Bowlby, ‘The in uence of early environment in the development of neurosis and neurotic-character’, International Journal of Psycho-analysis (1940) 21, pp. 154–178, 154, 155, 156, original emphasis.

404 Marga Vicedo Bowlby identi ed twenty-two children who had experienced a break in the relationship with their mothers. Of those, ‘fourteen had become affectionless thieves and three had become schizophrenic’. This group included children whose mothers had died, children in foster homes or in the care of relatives, and children hospitalized with major illnesses. According to Bowlby, the ‘dramatic interruptions of the child’s emotional development’ that had led to their pathologies resulted from ‘the broken mother–child relation’.5 Bowlby then turned to a second group of neurotic children that had ‘never suffered any obvious psychological trauma’ and had ‘remained in a relatively stable home, looked after by their mothers and well cared for according to ordinary standards’. Yet they had ‘developed into neurotic children with great anxiety and guilt and abnormally strong sexual and aggressive impulses’. After investigating the causes of their troubles, Bowlby noted that one factor stood out: the ‘personality of the mother and her emotional attitude towards the child’. In some cases the mother ‘had strong unconscious hostility towards her child’, which could be observed in ‘unnecessary deprivations and frustrations, in impatience over naughtiness, in odd words of bad temper, in a lack of the sympathy and understanding which the usual loving mother intuitively has’.6 In sum, for Bowlby, lack of adequate mother love and care was a main factor leading to affectionless criminals; psychopaths; and neurotic, aggressive, oversexed and anxious individuals. He reached similar conclusions in a subsequent study, ‘Forty-four juvenile thieves: their characters and home-life’, where he identi ed a ‘prolonged separation’ from the mother as the ‘outstanding cause’ of the children’s emotionally unstable character and delinquent behaviour.7 Bowlby’s views reached a worldwide audience with the WHO publication. This landmark report appeared in 1951 under the title Maternal Care and Mental Health.

In 1953 Bowlby published another version, Child Care and the Growth of Love, which was reprinted six times in the following ten years and was translated into fourteen languages, and which sold over 400,000 copies in the English paperback edition alone.8 The thesis of Bowlby’s report was that maternal care and love are essential for a child’s mental health. Bowlby started by pointing out what he considered to be one of the most important advances in recent psychiatric research: ‘The steady growth of evidence that the quality of the parental care which a child receives in his earliest years is of vital importance for his future mental health’. According to Bowlby, psychiatrists and childguidance workers believed that it was essential that ‘the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother 5 Bowlby, op. cit. (4), pp. 162, 163, 158.

6 Bowlby, op. cit. (4), pp. 163, 164.

7 John Bowlby, ‘Forty-four juvenile thieves: their characters and home-life’, International Journal of Psycho-analysis (1944) 25, pp. 19–53, 107–128, 113.

8 Bretherton, op. cit. (3), p. 759. John Bowlby, ‘Maternal care and mental health’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization (1951) 3, pp. 355–534; idem, Child Care and the Growth of Love (based on idem, Maternal Care and Mental Health, abridged and ed. Margery Fry), Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1953. All references are to the 1953 abridged version.



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