Attachment Theory and Feminist Politics

Attachment theory does not imply that mothers working hurts their children.

Posted Dec 22, 2020

 Attachment-1 by Jencu, CC by 2.0
Source: flickr: Attachment-1 by Jencu, CC by 2.0

Some feminists have criticized attachment theory as being a sexist attack on working mothers. Their influence may be part of the reason so many psychotherapists ignore its important implications. Attachment theory is a set of ideas based on the theories of psychoanalyst John Bowlby and on strong experimental evidence created by Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Ainsworth was herself a working woman, although she was divorced and never had children of her own.

Ainsworth sat behind a two-way mirror for years and watched 1-year-olds playing with their mothers. She noted what happened when the mother left the room for a few minutes and how the child responded when she returned. She then took the study a step further and studied what happened when, instead of the mother, a stranger entered the room and tried to engage with the child. Ainsworth's "Strange Situation" study, together with Bowlby's theory, shows that how children develop their social response patterns is the direct result of the way a child's main caretaker responds to and engages with them. 

Neglectful, stressed, or inconsistent parents tended to create anxious, insecure, or avoidant children. These patterns were later found to accurately predict how those children behaved between the ages of five and eight.

Feminists argued: watching babies — what kind of proof is that? How can anyone know what a baby is thinking and feeling? Isn't it all just woolly liberal conjecture?

Gee, actually observing what is going on and seeing the same patterns over and over again. Why, isn’t that anecdotal? Unlike, I suppose asking research subjects to tell you what they are thinking. Now that’s objective data!

I guess these critics think this theory is an effort to shackle women to the home because it supposedly predicts that if they are not home 24/7, they will destroy their children. 

If the attachment science actually did prove that it is far better for children to have stay-at-home mothers, that would not mean inconvenient realities should be ignored. But luckily, it doesn’t mean that at all! Unfortunately, even the purveyors of attachment theory often misinterpret the data from Ainsworth’s experiments, due to a logical error and a phony assumption. Ainsworth was skeptical about the viability of working motherhood, but, unlike Bowlby, admitted the possibility that supplemental mothering could be arranged without harm to the child.

Maybe some of the critics misinterpreted this because they were already feeling guilty for not being home with their kids.

The logical error is equating quality with quantity. Just because a little of something is a good thing, this hardly means that a whole lot of it is even better. Sometimes a lot is worse! The dose makes the difference between a nutrient and a poison. It is not how often the mothers in the experiments interact with their babies, it’s the type of interactions. Maybe the kids also need to start having time by themselves as well as time with other children learning how to deal with others.

The false assumption is that the data that shows that the early patterns predicted the later patterns must mean that any “damage” done to the child’s brain must be permanent. That would of course mean that human beings could never adapt to new social contingencies, something that is clearly nonsense. Our species would not have survived if adaptation were not possible after the age of two!

This misinterpretation of the experimental findings ignores the fact that the 5- to 8-year-olds are continuing to be exposed to the exact same problematic parenting behavior which had triggered and reinforced their earlier behavior. Shades of the nonsense about cognitive development I wrote about in my post about the book The Myth of the First Three Years.

What about the “strange situation” phenomenon? Well, the limits of the data are clearly implied in its name. This is what happens when a complete stranger enters the picture, not a familiar adult from, say, a daycare center or a Kibbutz in Israel.

Many (but hardly all) children from abusive homes who are adopted out to loving families do indeed continue to show the effects of the earlier trauma, but that does not mean that earlier physiological changes are irreversible. The fact that some children do in fact get much better while others continue to have problems is most likely due to the behavior of the adoptive parents, who may not know how to deal well with the obviously difficult behavior of these children, and so may inadvertently continue to feed into their problematic behavior.

Children benefit tremendously from having a happy, fulfilled mother who isn’t feeling guilty. Human babies are born wired for survival. We are wired to learn how to survive through interacting with other people throughout life.