«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 ...»
The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child (or permanent mother-substitute – one person who steadily “mothers” him) in which both nd satisfaction and enjoyment’.9 Could someone substitute for mother? This became the most controversial issue in the discussion about Bowlby’s ideas and their social implications. Bowlby stated that a child needs care from a steady mother, a mother substitute or a mother gure. In the report, however, he focused exclusively on mothers. Thus his thesis about parental care nally translated into the view that ‘mother-love in infancy and childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins for physical health’. As for father, Bowlby gave him the standard treatment of the time: father was necessary as a provider for the family and supporter of mother.10 Could a babysitter or another caretaker substitute for mother? Although Bowlby did not deny this openly, the possibility of substituting for the real mother became unlikely after Bowlby clari ed what the child needed from mother.
To explain the role of maternal love on a child’s psyche, Bowlby resorted to a biological process, embryological development, and established an analogy between the development of mental health and the embryo’s growth. Biologists, Bowlby noted, had proposed the existence of certain tissues that acted as ‘organizers’, tissues that guide the growth of the embryo. ‘In the same way’, Bowlby argued, ‘if mental development is to proceed smoothly, it would appear to be necessary for the unformed mentality to be exposed, during certain critical periods, to the in uence of the psychic organizer – the mother’.11 Furthermore, the mere presence of the mother seemed insuf cient for her infant’s good mental health. Bowlby considered the emotional quality of the mothering to be just as important. The sympathetic love that a mother ‘intuitively’ felt for her child and her ‘unconscious feelings’ were crucial for normal development. So good mothering required not only love, but also love with certain characteristics. The lack of such a natural feeling could be expressed in myriad ways, from impatience to unruliness, from unnecessary deprivations to spoiling. For the child, the most important thing was not only to receive maternal care and love, but also to sense that the mother was happy with that love.12 In a statement that would become a rallying point for his supporters and detractors
worldwide, Bowlby set the standards of good mothering very high:
The provision of constant attention night and day, seven days a week and 365 days in the year, is possible only for a woman who derives profound satisfaction from seeing her child grow from babyhood, through the many phases of childhood, to become an independent man or woman, and knows that it is her care which has made this possible.13 It did not seem that a caretaker or even a father could perform that role with the feelings of the real mother.
9 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), p. 11.
10 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), p. 182, emphasis added. On p. 13, Bowlby stated, ‘In what follows... little will be said of the father–child relation; his value as the economic and emotional support of the mother will be assumed’.
11 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), pp. 57–58.
12 Bowlby, op. cit. (4), p. 90.
13 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), pp. 75–76.
406 Marga Vicedo Bowlby further noted that children’s need for mother love had clear implications for the organization of family life. For the mother to provide the happy constant devotion required by her children, she required a close support group, the family. He presented the nuclear family as a natural unit essential for the healthy development of children: ‘It is for these reasons that the mother-love which a young child needs is so easily provided within the family, and is so very dif cult to provide outside it’.14 Referring to the family as the ‘natural home group’, Bowlby saw any breakdown of the group as a disastrous event. He compiled a list of the factors that could prevent a family from caring properly for a child: illegitimacy, chronic illness, economic conditions, war, famine, death of a parent, desertion, imprisonment, divorce and fulltime employment of mother. ‘Any family suffering from one or more of these conditions must be regarded as a possible source of deprived children,’ he declared.15 Through the WHO report and its coverage by the international press, Bowlby’s ideas spread rapidly among scienti c and public audiences. When Bowlby titled his piece in Home Companion ‘Mother is the whole world’, the message reverberated across the globe. The Johannesburg Star in South Africa reported Bowlby as saying that ‘when deprived of a mother’s care a child’s development is almost always retarded physically, intellectually and socially’. Another South African newspaper, the Cape Argus, reported, ‘Social behaviour depends on mother love’. ‘The importance of a mother’s love’ was also covered in the East African Standard from Nairobi. The French reported that between the attitude of the mother and the future behaviour of her children, there was ‘une relation de cause à effet quasi mathématique’ – a relationship of cause and effect almost mathematical. The Italians put it more poetically: ‘Solo le mani di una Madre possono plasmare il destino’ – only the hands of a mother can shape destiny.16 In the United States, the New York Times had been reporting on Bowlby’s work from its inception. As early as 1949 one article noted that ‘British psychiatrists observe effects of missing mothers’. Three years later an article on the WHO report presented Bowlby’s claim that ‘depriving a child of maternal care can have results so grave for his future that he should no more be deliberately exposed to such risk than to a heavy dose of tubercle infection’.17 These ideas found a receptive audience among American psychoanalysts who were already researching how mothers shape their children’s emotional personality.
The power of mother love In the United States, several factors after the Second World War led to an increasing concern about the development of emotions and their role in personality formation.
14 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), p. 76.
15 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), p. 84.
16 John Bowlby, ‘Mother is the whole world’, Home Companion, 17 January 1952, pp. 29–30. Newspaper clippings in John Bowlby Papers, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London, PP/BOW/A.4/1, press cuttings April 1952–May 1953 and PP/BOW/A.4/2, press cuttings 1953–1954.
17 ‘British psychiatrists observe effects of missing mothers’, New York Times, 10 April 1949. Quote from ‘Warping of child traced to family’, New York Times, 12 April 1952. ‘Use of knowledge urged in child aid’, New York Times, 27 March 1953.
The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child There was widespread preoccupation about the children orphaned or otherwise affected by the war. Returning veterans often faced emotional problems in readjusting to civil society. So did women who, after entering the workforce in massive numbers to help the war effort, were prodded to return home to their roles as wives and mothers. Many social scientists focused on the emotional aspects of the problems involved in readjustment and the construction a new post-war order, in the home and in the workplace. In this context, the question of how emotions develop and how one becomes an emotionally healthy individual came to the fore of scienti c and public debate. This emphasis, in turn, led to a focus on mothers, since mothers, in raising their children, had a privileged position in moulding their emotional personalities.18 In the mood of the hour, many American social scientists and intellectuals focused on the damaging effects of too much or not enough mother love. During the war and its aftermath, mothers were blamed for doting too much on their children and thus making them dependent and immature. This was the era of ‘momism’, when the strident attacks against ‘mom’ by popular writer Philip Wylie were hardly distinguishable from the equally negative scienti c pronouncements of psychiatrist Edward Strecker, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and sociologist Geoffrey Gorer, among many others. Those authors accused ‘moms’ of turning their children – especially their boys – into immature individuals by overprotecting them. American historians have paid considerable attention to the literature on momism and overprotection. Most recently, Rebecca Jo Plant has shown how momism contributed to the pathologization of mother love during this period.19 At the same time, studies exploring the signi cance of maternal care and love in an infant’s early years also commanded increasing attention. Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham’s writings about children who suffered devastating emotional consequences when separated from their mothers during the war in uenced many psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in America, where some analysts had already been studying maternal deprivation. Among the most in uential researchers were David M. Levy, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and chief of staff at the New York Institute for Child Guidance; private psychoanalyst Margaret Ribble; and émigré psychoanalysts René Spitz in New York and Therese Benedek at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis.20 18 On the turn to emotions after the Second World War see Marga Vicedo, The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting in Birds to Attachment in Infants (forthcoming, Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
19 Philip Wylie, Generation of Vipers, New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1942; Geoffrey Gorer, The American People: A Study in National Character, New York: Norton, 1948; Edward A. Strecker, Their Mothers’ Sons: The Psychiatrist Examines an American Problem, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1946; Erik H.
Erikson, Childhood and Society, New York: Norton, 1950. On momism see Mari Jo Buhle, Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998;
Ruth Feldstein, Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930–1965, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000; Rebecca Jo Plant, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
20 Anna Freud and Dorothy T. Burlingham, War and Children: A Message to American Parents, New York:
International University Press, 1943. On Levy see ‘David M. Levy, M.D.’, American Journal of 408 Marga Vicedo These researchers observed infants in nurseries, hospitals and orphanages and came to the same conclusion: without mother love, children become emotional cripples. Levy argued that the child had ‘an emotional hunger for maternal love and those other feelings of protection and care implicit in the mother–child relationship’. According to Spitz, mother provided the emotional sustenance that was the basis of all other aspects of human growth. Spitz used two terms, ‘hospitalism’ and ‘anaclitic depression’, to refer to the debilitating conditions affecting children deprived of maternal care and love. Ribble discussed ‘stimulus hunger’ as the child’s need ‘for a long and uninterrupted period of consistent and skillful psychological mothering’. Benedek claimed that ‘trust in the mother’, or a ‘sense of security in the relationship with the mother’, was necessary for the healthy development of the ego, which could then deal effectively with other relationships.21 Thus when Bowlby’s report appeared, his main thesis about the importance of mother love tted well with the views of some child psychoanalysts in the United States. In fact, Bowlby had already drawn upon the studies of Levy and Spitz to support his views in the WHO report. However, Bowlby’s study cannot be interpreted as simply one more work on maternal deprivation, and for two reasons.
First, Bowlby actively constructed a consensus in his report. He did this by strategically emphasizing the common points between the different researchers working
on children. He relied upon studies that covered a range of related but distinct issues:
infants separated from their families due to hospitalization of the mother or the infant, separation from mother during short periods, permanent separation from mother or from the whole family, unsatisfactory maternal care, and faulty emotional attitude of mother towards the child. But he included all of those studies under the umbrella of ‘maternal care and love’, thereby obscuring the dissimilarities among the children and situations studied. In addition, he boosted this consensus by appealing to a standard epistemological tenet in science. He noted that one particular study on a topic cannot provide convincing proof of a conclusion, but the convergence of several studies done independently of each other adds evidential support to individual conclusions. Thus his views were proven by the convergence of similar results ‘from many sources’. This convergence, he often repeated, left ‘no doubt that the main proposition is true’.22 The second reason why Bowlby’s WHO report cannot be seen as just one more report on maternal deprivation is that it came to stand for the authoritative document of the
Orthopsychiatry (1938) 8, pp. 769–770. On Benedek see Thomas G. Benedek, ‘A psychoanalytic career begins:
Therese F. Benedek, M.D. – a documentary biography’, Annual of Psychoanalysis (1979) 7, pp. 3–15.
21 David M. Levy, ‘Primary affect hunger’, American Journal of Psychiatry (1937) 94, pp. 643–652, 643–
644. René A. Spitz, ‘Hospitalism: an inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood’, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (1945) 1, pp. 53–74; idem, ‘Anaclitic depression: an inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood, II’, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (1946) 2, pp. 313–342;
Margaret A. Ribble, ‘Disorganizing factors of infant personality’, American Journal of Psychiatry (1941) 98, pp. 459–463, 461, 460. See also idem, The Rights of Infants: Early Psychological Needs and Their Satisfaction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1943. Therese Benedek, ‘The psychosomatic implications of the primary unit: mother–child’, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (1949) 19, pp. 642–654, 649, 651, 650.