Are Working Mothers Really Depriving Their Children?

What does some of the research suggest?

Psychologists have studied how babies and children develop secure and positive relationships, and they tried to make sense of what helps and what hinders this process.

The first research was done by Bowlby, who was interested in the effects suffered by evacuee children during the Second World War.  Bowlby coined the phrase ‘maternal deprivation’.

Bowlby took further the research that had suggested that the newborn baby ‘imprinted’ its mother’s features, like baby chicks and ducks do, to prevent them being lost.  In these creatures enormous distress is displayed in the absence of the mother, and relief at her return.  Bowlby felt that the biological connection was very important.

The effects of both short and long term deprivation (having a mother and losing her) and privation (not having a mother figure at all) were seen by Bowlby as negative, especially during the first five years of life.  He saw a breakdown of care at this time as leading to juvenile delinquency, emotional difficulties, antisocial behaviour and under-achievement at school.

Later theorists have emphasised different aspects of the mother/carer relationship and have suggested that imprinting is not the most important aspect: it is the quality of the relationship that is important and that a baby who has warm physical contact with a consistent carer who is sensitively responsive to his/her needs will have the best opportunity to grow up to form secure attachments.

It is interesting to notice that a researcher called Fox (1977) studied children in an Israeli Kibbutz who were looked after by nurses while their mothers were working.  The children’s attachment was with their mothers in spite of spending less time together.

This underlines the importance of the quality of the relationship.

In studying how babies react to the sudden disappearance and reappearance of their major caregiver, Ainsworth (1978) described securely attached babies seeking interaction with their caregiver, becoming slightly anxious when she leaves the room, but comforted by another adult and content on the return of the caregiver. There are a range of less well adapted responses to maternal deprivation which suggest problematic attachment.

There is considerable cultural variation in prevalent attachment styles.

Children in normal life often suffer short term separation from their caregiver, hospitalisation or illness, holidays or working parents etc.  Long term separation is most often caused by divorce, adoption, imprisonment or death.  There is some evidence to suggest that even short term separation can cause difficult behaviour especially if the children are younger than 4 years old.  Logically it seems that long separation will have more harmful to the development of the child.  Some research done by Tizard & Hodges (1978) followed children born to unmarried mothers who were institutionalised at 4 months of age and compared them to a similar group of children brought up by their parents.  All of the children who were kept in their family home fared better than children with alternative care arrangements.  Children of this group who were adopted at an early stage did appear to develop close bonds with their parents, but children reunited with their birth mothers had experienced a breakdown of the parental bond and were likely to be described as having the worst behavioural problems at school (aged 8).

The reasons for the long term separation of children and mothers also seem to have differing affects.  Richards (1987) found that disruption because of divorce seemed to cause resentment and stress, while disruption because of death caused more depression and delinquency.

Day care has been studied in terms of cause of deprivation to children. Andersson (1992) suggests that day care is not only harmless, but actually helpful in social and cognitive development.   Consistent care from an adult alongside parental care does not seem to cause deprivation as long as it is loving and attentive.

Schaffer suggests the following table in the development of a baby/carer relationship.

NB this presupposes a relationship with 1 central caregiver

  • Phase 1
  • Pre-attachment  Birth – 2 months
  • Phase 2
  •  Attachment developing   2-7 months
  • Phase 3
  • Clear attachment to primary caregivers 7 months – 2 years
  • Phase 4
  • Strong secure attachment to primary caregivers allows widening of circle of attachment - 2-5 years

Schaffer again emphasises the quality and consistency of the primary attachment and, while accepting that all attachments are important and help to develop secure, well adjusted children, maintains that the primary attachment remains qualitatively different.

A good example of this is the attachment of Winston Churchill to his nanny.  While adoring his beautiful mother and longing to please her, Churchill kept a lifelong connection to his nanny, taking great care of her when she became elderly and keeping her photograph on his desk until his death.

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