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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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33 Sonya Michel, Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, p. 151. Employed Mothers and Child Care, Bulletin of the Women’s Bureau, No. 246. (Washington, DC: GPO, 1953), pp. iii, 1.

34 Kathleen W. Jones, Taming the Troublesome Child: American Families, Child Guidance, and the Limits of Psychiatric Authority, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Mark Solovey, ‘Project Camelot and the 1960s epistemological revolution: rethinking the politics–patronage– social science nexus’, Social Studies of Science (2001) 31, pp. 171–206; idem, Shaky Foundations (forthcoming, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).

The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child Bowlby was thus addressing one of the major concerns of the post-war period. Backed by a prominent world organization, his views became a point of reference in discussions about the family, personality formation, and parental roles. According to Sonya Michel, the psychological discourse on maternal deprivation, including Bowlby, represented the ‘most vehement and explicit opposition to both maternal employment and childcare’.35 Although in the early and mid-1950s Bowlby’s views were still pretty similar to those of other researchers, his status as the man behind the WHO report and his willingness to extract social prescriptions from his work made him a central reference in debates about women’s work, maternal care and children’s emotions. His work was discussed widely, in policy conferences and the public media.

The 1950 Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth brought together David Levy, Erik Erikson, Ashley Montagu and other American psychologists, psychiatrists and social scientists to address the issue of how children develop a healthy personality. The fth in a series of decennial conferences started in 1909, it focused on ‘how to rear an emotionally healthy generation’ and called attention to the children’s ‘feelings’. Earlier conferences had focused on the economic and social aspects of the problems encountered by American children. Now, although the report recognized that ‘emotional ill health may have economic, sociological, physical, psychological, and spiritual causes’, it nevertheless underscored that ‘some of the chief ills of the present day are psychological’.36 The conference also aimed to extract the policy implications of research on children’s needs. Despite noting the tentative character of this knowledge and recognizing the existence of several competing theories, the report claimed that it was ‘well established that loving care is essential for the well-being of children’. Both the discussion during the meetings and the nal report focused on Erikson’s views about child development, especially the importance of the sense of trust as a basic component of a healthy personality. Erikson, who achieved national prominence with his book Childhood and Society, emphasized that maternal love enabled the development of a child’s sense of self.37 To support the view that mother love is determinant during infancy, the report referred to Bowlby’s WHO report. Later, in the section about ‘Effects of deprivation of maternal care’, the report also appealed to Bowlby’s WHO publication, quoting approvingly and at length his views about the detrimental effects of lack of mother love in infancy.38 The powerful in uence of Bowlby’s views is also exempli ed by Myrdal and Klein’s treatment of the topic in Women’s Two Roles. In the seemingly obligatory chapter about the ‘Effects of mother’s employment on the mental health of children’ they discussed Bowlby’s work and argued, It would be scienti cally inadmissible to apply conclusions drawn from cases of deprivation caused by emergency situations, such as death, abandonment or cruelty of the mother, or 35 Michel, op. cit. (33), p. 155.

36 Helen Leland Witmer and Ruth Kotinsky (eds.), Personality in the Making: The Fact-Finding Report of the Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth, New York: Harper, 1952, p. xvi.

37 Witmer and Kotinsky, op. cit. (36), pp. 4–5. Erikson, op. cit. (19).

38 Witmer and Kotinsky, op. cit. (36), pp. 93–97.

414 Marga Vicedo the separation through illness of mother or child, to cases where the mother is absent at regular intervals for a number of hours yet returns to the child each day and provides it with a home.

They also denied the scienti c validity of much research on maternal deprivation and its applicability to normal families with working mothers. Nevertheless, they concluded, ‘All we can do at present is to stress the undeniable fact that maternal love is a decisive element in any equation concerning young children’. And, again later: ‘We therefore support the view that mothers should, as far as possible, take care of their own children during the rst years of their lives’.39 But could mothers of infants working outside their homes really endanger the health of their children and even the whole nation? According to Bowlby, the emotional problems of society had an original cause: children’s lack of mother love in their early years. Bowlby claimed that delinquency, among other things, could stem from a lack of maternal care. Was the rise of delinquency in America perhaps not evidence for mother slacking in her role? He included divorce as a problematic disruption of the natural home unit. And was not divorce becoming more prevalent in American society? Even more worrisome, Bowlby had presented ‘full-time employment of the mother’ as equivalent to famine, war or death of a parent.





Given the increasing number of women going into the workforce, the question acquired social urgency: ‘Should a woman with children take a job?’ asked the English News Chronicle. ‘The mother who stays at home gives her children a better chance’, answered Bowlby.40 In the New York Times, Sloan Wilson, author of the best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (later made into a successful movie), contributed to the public debate with his declaration that married women with children should not have business careers.

Instead, they should assume a status that he termed ‘executive wifehood’, helping their husbands’ careers. Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, the 1956 Woman of the Year in Business, mother of two and grandmother of three, responded that a career could make women better wives and mothers. So she encouraged women to take the ‘gay’ rather than the grey annel suit. In the ensuing debate, Wilson appealed to the fact that psychiatrists were calling for a ‘loving mother who has plenty of time to give her sons and daughters’.

David R. Mace, a professor of human relations, posed a simple question to Miss FitzGibbon: had she ever heard of ‘Dr. John Bowlby, a psychiatrist of international reputation, whose impressive and well-documented report to the world’s mentalhealth experts named maternal deprivation as a major cause of serious personality disorders?’41 The Ladies Home Journal continued the discussion with a panel on ‘Should mothers of young children work?’ Besides Bowlby himself, the panellists in the forum included the United States secretary of labor James P. Mitchell; the sociologist Mirra 39 Myrdal and Klein, op. cit. (32), pp. 125, 126, 127.

40 Clipping in Bowlby’s Papers, PP/BOW/K.11/28.

41 ‘That woman in gray annel: a debate’, New York Times, 12 February 1956. Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955.

The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child Komarovsky; Dr Lynn White, a Jungian lay analyst; a mother and grandmother named Mrs Florida Scott-Maxwell; a mother of four and a nurse, Mrs Roy Davis; and others.

The article reported that while traditionally women had worked only out of economic necessity, at the present time women were going to work ‘by choice’. But was this the right choice?

Although Secretary of Labor Mitchell argued that American women needed to be part of the workforce to maintain their current standard of living and contribute to the national defence, he also claimed that ‘no nation should ever forget that the very primary, fundamental basis of a free society is the family structure – the home – and the most vital job is there’. Should mothers, then, be denied the choice to work? In the midst of a Cold War in which the United States held up individual freedom as the basis for its superiority, Mitchell was not prepared to deny American women this freedom: ‘I think it is very right that we in this country have freedom of choice, unlike the Communist world, where there is no such thing’. Nevertheless, he did hope that women workers would not be mothers, since the mother’s place was ‘in the home’. Mitchell thus defended the superiority of the American model by the somewhat ironic position that American women were free to do the wrong thing.

The women in the forum presented different viewpoints. Some who worked and had sitters reported that their children were doing ne. Others who stayed home felt that working women looked down upon them. Some said it was not always a matter of choice, for their families could not live well if they did not work. It was not a simple decision between the apron and the gay or grey annel suit.

As for Bowlby, he repeated the advice he believed followed from his scienti c work:

‘To deprive a small child of his mother’s companionship is as bad as depriving him of vitamins’. Seemingly aware of the boredom of suburban mothers, he recognized that most women ‘would like a more varied life than is available in the modern suburb’, where ‘we have made it almost impossible for them to take care of their children happily and to combine this with some sort of career or job’. His solution, though, was not to change social practices but to change social values, so that the home was given its proper place. To do that, ‘we must rst ascertain who it is that holds the values we oppose.

Personally, and this is pure prejudice, I think it is career women who look down on women who stay home’. He further argued that group care was not mothering. Neither should children under three go to day care – though after that age, he realized, ‘part-time day care has its uses’. Still, he insisted that children deprived of mothering would grow up to hate and mistrust, leading to a life of truancy and promiscuity.42 I do not mean to imply that lack of mother love was the only explanation for juvenile delinquency or even the dominant paradigm during the 1950s. Some sociological accounts, like the one provided by Harvard criminologist Sheldon Glueck and his wife Eleanor T. Glueck in their in uential 1950 book Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, pointed to mother’s work outside the home as a factor contributing to delinquency in young boys because it disrupted the authority of the father at home. Bowlby had, in fact, 42 ‘Should mothers of young children work?’, Ladies Home Journal (November 1958) 75, pp. 58–59, 154– 156, 158–161.

416 Marga Vicedo included their work in his WHO report.43 But other sociologists provided explanations that put greater emphasis on economic or social factors and their concomitant psychological consequences like anomie or stress. In general, with the exception of Bowlby, I have found that sociologists writing on juvenile delinquency, and child psychologists and psychiatrists writing on child deprivation, were not citing each others’ work. This could be because their intellectual communities had little overlap. In addition, child psychologists and psychiatrists mentioned here were observing infants or young children while focusing almost exclusively on mother–infant dynamics. In any case, my point here is not that Bowlby provided the most accepted explanation of juvenile delinquency, but that the perception among many social scientists and social commentators that juvenile delinquency was on the rise made studies about the effects of early maternal deprivation in the emotional life of a child more visible.

In turn, work on the effects of maternal deprivation by Bowlby and others helped support a division of parental and, consequently, gender roles. A staunch supporter of Bowlby’s work, Ashley Montagu contended in ‘The tragedy of the American woman’ that American women mistakenly believed that equality of rights implied equality of function. According to him, things were better in Europe, for a woman’s life was focused ‘upon the happiness of her husband and children, and this is likely to be satisfying to everyone concerned’. Montagu, who had earlier defended the ‘natural superiority of women,’ now presented his interpretation of recent research about mother love to a general audience: ‘I put it down as an axiom that no woman with a husband and small children can hold a full-time job and be a good homemaker at one and the same time’.

For everybody’s sake, Montagu hoped that American women would realize that ‘being a good wife, a good mother, in short, a good homemaker, is the most important of all the occupations in the world’.44 Another early convert to the idea that ‘any serious distortion of the mother’s emotional attitudes can be seriously disturbing to the child’ was the Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, who provided a functional justi cation for gender roles. In ‘Family structure and the socialization of the child’, he claimed that in the nuclear family the father was the ‘instrumental superior’ and the mother ‘the expressive superior’. The instrumental function concerned the relation of the family system to the situation outside, while the expressive function concerned the internal affairs of the system, such as the ‘maintenance of integrative relations between the members, and regulation of the patterns and tension levels of its component units’. Such jargon may have given his view a veneer of scienti c precision, but translation into more comprehensible language gives the same ideological meaning. Parsons was saying that for the well-functioning of society, the roles of the man and the woman in the nuclear family had to be different.

The man should work outside the home, while the woman had to make sure that the father and children did not get into each other’s hair. Thus women needed to devote 43 Sheldon Glueck and Eleanor Glueck, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, New York: The Commonwealth Fund, 1950.



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