Feminism and Attachment Theory

[In the 1950s], Bowlby argued that a young child needs their mother ‘as an ever-present companion’, providing ‘the provision of constant attention night and day, seven days a week, and 365 days in the year’. What he hoped to get across, above all, was that young children should have someone they feel confident turning to when alarmed. Bowlby had been clearly informed by his wife, based on her own experience, that ‘constant attention’ to a child was both an impossible and unhelpful aspiration for mothers. And late in life, he acknowledged that he regretted this statement and the implied demand for ever present care.

Duschinsky, R. (2020-08). Cornerstones of Attachment Research. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Part of the feminist critique of attachment theory could be attributed to Bowlby’s early polemical claims about the responsibilities of mothers. The most well known impression of Bowlby’s ideas and perhaps attachment theory is derived from the works written for a general audience during the 1950s, including articles in popular women’s magazines, presentations to professional organisations and the famous Child Care and the Growth of Love (1953). In these texts from the 1950s, Bowlby argued that a young child needs their mother ‘as an ever-present companion’.

Bowlby’s writing for a general audience during the 1950s was in sharp distinction to his later work and scholarly writing. Such a strategy helped him get some core ideas heard, even if these were mostly the rind of the views he actually held.

A thoroughly different man is known to those who read Bowlby’s scientific and clinical writings compared to his popular writings. The very content of Bowlby’s claims and his use of familiar words was different between his popular works and his scientific and clinical writings

The second generation of attachment researchers generally did little, especially compared to Bowlby, to speak to a wider public. This explains the continued focus of Bowlby’s earlier widespread ideas directed towards the general public. There is a misalignment between the current technical positions of attachment theorists and criticisms leveled at popular representations of the paradigm.

Did Bowlby reinforce the patriarchal model/family pushing the ‘mother back into the kitchen’ for the purpose of having ‘secure’ babies? Later, (1969, in Attachment, Volume 1), Bowlby was absolutely explicit that ‘almost from the first many children have more than one figure towards whom they direct attachment behavior; these figures are not treated alike; the role of a child’s principal attachment-figure can be filled by others than the natural mother’.

Bowlbys simplification had far reaching consequences for the theory

There was a huge backlash of reactions to Bowlby in 1960. Anthropologist Margaret Mead had famously been an early critic of Bowlby. The nub of their disagreement, from Bowlby’s perspective, was that Mead seemed to be arguing that an infant cared for by interchangeable caregivers within a village would have the same prospects of healthy psychological development as an infant cared for by a small number of very familiar and cherished people.

Marga Vicedo

It is likely that feminist opposition to Attachment Theory was produced via misreading and misunderstanding Bowlby’s proposition: “When all this work, with so much emphasis on the importance of maternal care, first became known it met with huge opposition not only from other psychoanalysts as already described, but also from feminists. In the 1960s and 1970s so many younger women were struggling, often through joining consciousness raising groups, to find ways of freeing themselves from lives that were feeling very restricted. They were looking after babies and children with little sense of being valued for doing so, and with very little independence, financial or otherwise. To hear, as so many of them did, that Dr Bowlby was apparently telling them that as mothers they should be not only available all the time, but also constantly responsive to their babies and children, seemed like the last straw. Such a reaction seemed very understandable at the time, but unfortunately it was mainly because many of them had not read Bowlby’s work, but just listened to the general outcry and joined in. Bowlby has made it clear that it is not routine care of babies or young children that is so significant, but the ability of the mother to respond with pleasure and encouragement to the child’s social advances that really matter. Two feminist women therapists were honest enough to write an article (Brave A. & Ferrid, H. 1990. John Bowlby and Feminism. Journal of the Institute for Self Analysis, 4(1): 30-35.) in which they admitted that at first they were ill informed about Bowlby’s views on maternal care, and that they had misunderstood what he had written. When they studied his work, they described how they came to appreciate the value of Attachment Theory in their own work as psychotherapists. It is, however, only fair to say that Bowlby did believe that mothers, on the whole, were better able to offer the sensitive, responsive care that babies and children need than were fathers. But he was a man of his time and this kind of judgement – that men of his generation were better kept out of close contact with small children- was probably accurate. It would have been almost unheard of that a father was present at his baby’s birth at the time when Bowlby was having his family, yet now it is commonplace. I think if he were alive today, he would be modifying his view. Some fathers may be more able to make secure attachments for their children than their mothers and of course this may always have been the case because, as Bowlby has so clearly shown, the ability to do this is due to their own experience of being sensitively parented. As it becomes more and more common for fathers to care for small children, so it will become easier for other fathers to feel more confident in playing a more intimate and sensitive parental role.”(Attachment and Human Survival: p13-14, Woodward, Joan)

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

Ruth Feldman‘s very recent research findings – looking at single parent dads, single sex male child rearing couples – endocrinology is the same in fathers – when fathers are primary caregiver, oxytocin levels go up just the same as mothers – biobehavioural synchrony of baby reflects the oxytocin of primary cargegiving fathers.

Ruth Feldman


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