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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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Each response could in principle be focused on an object other than the mother. But in practice ‘this is improbable, since all or most of the consummatory stimuli which terminate them habitually come from the mother- gure’. Even here, Bowlby talked about a mother ‘ gure’. But it was evident that, in his view, only the mother was designed by nature to provide appropriate responses to the child’s demands.63 For Bowlby, nature had designed the child to elicit maternal responses from the mother and had also designed mother to respond to her child. In arguing that evolution designed babies to ‘enslave mothers’, Bowlby could hardly be referring to anyone other than the biological mother. Who else besides the biological mother could have been designed by nature with the instincts to care, to love and to enjoy her baby twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year? Surely no babysitter could t the bill.

Bowlby clari ed his position by drawing a parallel with the English monarchy:

It is for this reason that the mother becomes so central a gure in the infant’s life. For in healthy development it is towards her that each of the several responses becomes directed, much as each of the subjects of the realm comes to direct his loyalty towards the Queen; and it is in relation to the mother that the several responses become integrated into the complex behaviour which I have termed ‘attachment behaviour’, much as it is in relation to the Sovereign that the components of our constitution become integrated into a working whole.64 So there was a functional integration in nature, just as there was a well-functioning system in society. The system as a whole works properly when each of the parts performs its function. In the case of the mother–infant dyad, the child focuses his or her demands on the mother, while the mother focuses her responses on her child. The two together form the basis of the attachment.

Developing his analogy further, Bowlby claimed that just as political authority should be vested in one individual, instinctual responses should focus only on the biological


We may extend the analogy. It is in the nature of our constitution, as of all others, that sovereignty is vested in a single person. A hierarchy of substitutes is permissible but at the head stands a particular individual. The same is true of the infant. Quite early, by a process of learning, he comes to centre his instinctual responses not only on a human gure but on a particular human gure. Good mothering from any kind of woman ceases to satisfy him – only his own mother will do.65 63 Bowlby, op. cit. (1), p. 369.

64 Bowlby, op. cit. (1), pp. 369–370.

65 Bowlby, op. cit. (1), p. 370, added emphases.

422 Marga Vicedo In the same way that society has instituted a political hierarchy of authority for the sake of maintaining a well-functioning social order, nature has given mother the central

role in child rearing in order to ensure the proper functioning of the natural order:

‘The tendency for instinctual responses to be directed towards a particular individual or group of individuals and not promiscuously toward many is one which I believe to be so important and so neglected that it deserves a special term. I propose to call it monotropy’.66 Bowlby’s analogy between the family and the British monarchy is very powerful. First of all, it helped rhetorically to drive home the point that without a central gure of authority at home, the family unit would disintegrate. The mother as queen of the home assures family stability, much as the queen mother ensures social order.

Second, it helped him to avoid the charge that he was committing the naturalistic fallacy. Although initially it seems that Bowlby argued that monotropy should be a rule of society because it is a law of nature, a second look reveals that his argument is more complex. If Bowlby had only said that mothers are best able to provide good care since they are the ones designed by nature for the role, one could ask, but why should society follow the designs of nature? Moral philosophers have often pointed out the fallacy of going from natural descriptions to moral prescriptions. But what Bowlby said was that it is not only nature but also society that has shown the functional desirability of monotropy.

Here, Bowlby revealed that his concern was not only about the effects of working mothers on their individual children. His concern was also about group welfare, and the maintenance of a distribution of parental roles that he believed essential to a healthy social order and even to the very continuity of the species. Finding the nature of the child’s tie to the mother was about how to preserve a gendered social structure that Bowlby saw as necessary for the very survival of the human race. ‘The theory of Component Instinctual Responses, it is claimed, is rooted rmly in biological theory and requires no dynamic which is not plainly explicable in terms of the survival of the species’, he stated.67 This position had important implications for mothers. Placed in a wider historical perspective, many of the ideas presented by Bowlby and other theorists of maternal deprivation were not new. Views about the early signi cance of child experiences, the mother as the nurturer of her child’s emotional character, and the public signi cance of forming the right character for the future of the social good were all elements already present in American political and family history since the end of the eighteenth century, as economic and social changes increased the separation of men in the public realm and made women keepers of the hearth. So certain elements of Bowlby’s position were already a part of what historians have identi ed as ‘the kernel of the emotionology of motherhood’ in the United States.68 66 Bowlby, op. cit. (1), p. 370.

67 Bowlby, op. cit. (1), p. 369.

68 Ruth Bloch, ‘American feminine ideals in transition: the rise of the moral mother, 1785–1815’, Feminist Studies (1978) 4, pp. 101–126; Jan Lewis, ‘Mother’s love: the construction of an emotion in nineteenth-century America’, in Rima D. Apple and Janet Golden (eds.), Mothers and Motherhood: Readings in American The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child Yet never before had love for mother been categorized as a child’s biological necessity.

Nor had mother been identi ed as a psychic organizer. In earlier times, mother could enable or constrain her children’s capacities. She could temper, control and educate her children within the constraints imposed by differences of disposition, disease and inheritance. Now, according to Bowlby, children had a uniform, universal need for a speci c type of mother love, while a mother’s feelings determined her children’s mind.

This view had far-reaching consequences for our understanding of mother love, mother’s work and gender roles.

First, the mother’s role is entirely constructed from the perspective of the child. In all these discussions about mother love, the great absentees were always the mothers. There was hardly any research on how mothers felt about their children, about being separated from them for voluntary or involuntary reasons, or about what they felt and needed when they were with them twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, as Bowlby suggested.

Second, although mother acquires a central role in a child’s emotional development, mother love is devalued. In arguing that mother was designed to ful l her child’s instinctual needs, maternal love and care were transformed from a personal choice requiring devotion, work, patience, dedication and not a few renunciations into a natural product of a woman’s biological constitution. Furthermore, when maternal feelings are understood as the products of biology, they are removed from the realm of intelligence and freedom, and thus from the realm of behaviours that deserve moral recognition. Bowlby thought he had an upbeat message for mothers: ‘The normal mother can afford to rely on the prompting of her instincts in the happy knowledge that the tenderness they prompt is what the baby wants’.69 But when the normal mother is equated with the unthinking and natural mother, who acts just out of instinct, maternal care is deprived of rationality, of choice and of moral value.

Third, the view of mother love as a child’s biological need is used to justify gendered parental roles and this justi cation exerts a profound emotional hold on mothers. It is important to grasp not only the logic of an argument, but also its emotional fabric. For mothers, Bowlby’s view that nature had designed babies with a biological need for their love introduced a new element of tremendous emotional power. A mother was now called upon to stay home not to ful l society’s desire for social order, but to ful l the needs of her own children. The emotional power arises because women were not being asked to sacri ce their personal desires for the greater good of the social organism. Early in the Cold War the separation of spheres was justi ed with the rhetoric of containment, but as time went on even that was unnecessary. If the mother is her child’s psychic organizer, she needs to stay home, regardless of whether the times brought war or peace.

At a crucial period in reassessing parental roles in American society, Bowlby’s views about the biological need for mother love represented a powerful emotional argument

History, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997. Peter N. Stearns and Carol Z. Stearns, ‘Emotionology:

clarifying the history of emotions and emotional standards’, American Historical Review (1985) 90, pp. 813–836.

69 Bowlby, op. cit. (8), p. 17.

424 Marga Vicedo supporting separate parental and gender roles. Although by the 1950s the companionship marriage was often touted as an ideal, the different parental roles assigned to men and women made this ideal practically unattainable and socially undesirable. There was an increasing call for fathers to be kind, gentle and loving to their children during this period, but there was no broad effort to reassess the roles of mother and father.

The traditional family unit seemed necessary, as Bowlby and many others pointed out.

A father’s main role was to provide nancial support. As historian Robert L. Griswold has argued, ‘to support children nancially while fostering their sex-role adjustment became the essence of “maturity,” “responsibility,” and “manhood itself”’. In the 1950s, the father remained the breadwinner, while the mother was responsible for child rearing. The emotional force of appealing to children’s biological need for love served to justify the traditional division of labour with mother at home and father at work.70 Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the fate of Bowlby’s ideas during the 1960s and after, I want to suggest that the strong emotional hold of his position in a speci c social context and the alleged biological support for it are important in explaining the persistence and in uence of Bowlby’s views, especially in light of increasing scienti c criticisms. In the 1960s, child psychologists continued to challenge the data upon which Bowlby had erected his views about mother love. Child studies did not provide convincing evidence that the absence of the biological mother provokes the catastrophic consequences that Bowlby and others had asserted. Neither the individual psychic development nor the healthy social order seemed to depend only on mother. But those studies remained peripheral to the debates about whether mothers should work outside the home. As a measure of this, let me mention that when the WHO decided to publish a new 1962 volume entitled Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of Its Effects, all of the articles, written by a variety of researchers, were critical of Bowlby’s conclusions. But hardly anyone noticed. To this day the 1962 WHO report is little known.71 Research on non-humans also posed challenges to Bowlby’s views. During the 1960s Bowlby continued to appeal to Lorenz’s studies of imprinting in birds and to the studies of psychologist Harry Harlow in rhesus monkeys. Elsewhere I have shown that during a short period Harlow did support Bowlby’s views.72 However, after several different experimental variations, Harlow came to conclude that peers were as important as, or even more important than, mothers for the healthy emotional development of rhesus monkeys and, in his view, other primates as well. Harlow also rejected the explanation of infants’ needs in terms of Lorenz’s instincts. Bowlby, however, continued to cite Harlow’s earlier studies in support of his own views about the unique signi cance of mother.73 70 Robert L. Griswold, Fatherhood in America: A History, New York: Basic Books, 1993, p. 186.

71 World Health Organization, Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of Its Effects, Geneva:

WHO, 1962. For the history of attachment to the present see Vicedo, op. cit. (18).

72 See Marga Vicedo, ‘Mothers, machines, and morals: Harry Harlow’s work on primate love from lab to legend’, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences (2009) 45, pp. 193–218.

73 Marga Vicedo, ‘The evolution of Harry Harlow: from the nature to the nurture of love’, History of Psychiatry (June 2010) 21(2), pp. 1–16.

The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child Still appealing to the authority of biological studies, Bowlby claimed that his theory represented the disinterested position of science; only self-interested parties could reject his views for non-scienti c and socially suspect reasons. In 1965 he dismissed the criticisms of those who did not think mother should be blamed for everything that went

wrong with children and societies:

Whenever I hear the issue of maternal deprivation being discussed, I nd two groups with a vested interest in shooting down the theory. The Communists are one, for the obvious reason that they need their women at work and thus their children must be cared for by others.

The professional women are the second group. They have, in fact, neglected their families. But it’s the last thing they want to admit.74 Indeed, which mother would want to admit she neglects her child’s mental health?

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