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Disbelieving the Importance of Mothering

How did mothers forget how important they are?

During the early 20th century, medical and psychological fields wanted to be seen as scientific. Science had evolved to emphasize objectivity and detachment. (Note: It is now understood that it is impossible to take a “view from nowhere”; everyone interprets events with filters they have developed from experience.)

To advance a scientific approach, these professions moved to a detached manner toward patients and people, including children. Since the germ scare of the late 19th century, medical personnel became concerned with strict hygiene. Nurses were trained not to touch babies too much because it might spread germs and because it might spoil them (Ribble, 1943). But after babies died in these impersonal but hygienic settings, studies were done comparing babies in the best quality institutions with those from poor families. Despite various disadvantages, babies in poor households were more likely to survive and thrive (Ribble, 1943).

Part of the efforts toward making medicine and psychology scientifically rigorous was to take over much of childbirth and child raising. Mothers were to dismiss their instincts and intuition to yield to the men of science (Watson, 1928; Wolf, 2001).

Parents were also told not to touch their babies, by Luther Emmett Holt in the 1800s and then in the 1920s by psychologist John Watson, who was trying to make psychology a hard science (Blum, 2002). Watson's unscientific approach to this subject still reverberates through the U.S. culture: "Don’t pick up your baby when he fusses, you’ll spoil him." "Make him learn to sleep alone." "Just turn on the dryer and let him cry himself to sleep." These are similar to what Watson told mothers in 1928. Decades of research show how wrong he was.

During these mid-20th century decades, Harry Harlow (1958) scandalized men of science when his experimental studies of maternal deprivation in fellow mammals, rhesus monkeys, indicated the importance of mother love, not just food from mother. John Bowlby (1969) studied why children who were separated from their parents did so poorly despite, again, good impersonal care. Both came to believe that mammal infants (and children) need personal, affectionate care—known then as mother love.

I’ve been reviewing what such nurturing care looks like (see here, here and here for prior posts). Despite that history of learning how important mothers are in the first years of life, we may get the impression again today that mothers don’t really matter, or that work matters more.

The attitude reminds me of a view called preformationism, the scientific perspective common in the 17th century that an organism is born with all parts formed, and so the only difference between a baby and adult is size. Far from it. The infant’s physiological, psychological, and emotional functioning are shaped by the ongoing quality of care in the first years (Schore, 2019). As Ribble (1943) wrote:

It is vitally important to be able to see the child from his own point of view as a struggling organism that may be having a hard time, as well as a pleasant time, developing and getting used to living. His whole psychological attitude toward the world, and toward himself, as to adequacy or inadequacy, is started far back in his first experiences. If he is not functioning according to plan—Nature’s plan—he is not going to feel well. (P. 22)

Nevertheless, it is now common to read essays and books by professional women, following over a century of mostly professional male authors, telling us that what have long been considered basic needs of children need not be met. This is even though these needs are apparent in our millions-years-old existence as a species (e.g., breastfeeding, extensive touch; Konner, 2005) and experimentally shown to matter for health and wellbeing in mammal studies (e.g., Harlow, 1958; Hofer).

These women rationalize non-mothering to other mothers, the type of impersonal care that was shown to be dangerous 100 years ago. Unfortunately, undercaring for babies is commonplace today (Felitti & Anda, 2005), and experts have been alerting us to the dangers for decades (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).

There are many potential factors behind how we got to the place of dismissing mothering.

  • A reactionary feminist movement in the 1960s-70s sought to throw out whatever looked coercive to women, or made them look biologically tethered, like mothering.
  • In Western societies, where the constant refrain is individual responsibility and personal grit, it’s easy to believe that children too have to make their own way and parents should be encouraging independence from the get-go. Forcing babies into independence has the opposite effect (dependence and ill health) because they are still in some ways like the fetuses of other animals until about 18 months (Trevathan, 2011). They do not have the capacities to regulate themselves (what looks like “self-comfort” is shutting down or moving away from relationships). The various scholars we have been reviewing to show us what loving early life care looks like and why it is important would disagree that peers are more important than parents, as some have argued. Parents set the trajectory for a healthy thriving life or not.
  • Inequality in the U.S. has increased for 50 years, depressing wages so that a single-wage family could not maintain their desired standard of living, necessitating that married women (and mothers) work. And unlike other economically advanced nations, the U.S. lacks paid parental leave and universal childcare and healthcare.

Thus, multiple forces have driven women to argue that mothers and mothering don’t matter that much. A better focus for books by mothers stressed by baby’s needs would be on changing social support systems instead of adjusting down our provision for children’s basic needs.

Dr. Margaret Ribble (1943) warned:

“Not every woman can mother a child, even though biologically she may be capable of giving birth. The phase of mothering which comes immediately after birth reflects inevitably her own upbringing, to which other emotional relationships have contributed. The woman who is herself emotionally sound and whose deeper needs are satisfied in the marriage relationship gives her child this love without the help of a pediatrician or a psychiatrist, just as naturally as she secretes milk.

Unfortunately, however, our highly impersonal civilization has insidiously damaged woman’s instinctual nature and has blinded her to one of her most natural rights—that of teaching the small baby to love, by loving it consistently through the period of helpless infancy. It is for this reason that the modern woman may need help and guidance in her relationship with her baby. She needs reassurance that the handling and fondling which she gives are by no means causal expressions of sentiment but are biologically necessary for the healthy mental development of the baby.” (P. 14)

Let’s reassure mothers around us that it is good for their children if mother shows mother love and empathic care. Fathers too.

Prior Posts in Series

Mother Love Used to Matter

What Is "Good Enough" Mothering of a Baby?

Why Provide Empathic Care for Infants?


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