Researchers were sent out to see if they could understand what was happening to these babies in their cribs. First they looked for physical causes for this unusually high mortality rate, but they could find no specific diseases. Then they sent in a pioneering child psychologist named Lauretta Bender, M.D. She observed the babies and came back with a clear answer: They were starving for love and human attention. Infants must have contact with people. Hug them, play with them, hold them, and they will thrive and grow. Leave them alone, without attention, and they will suffer.
The very distinguished psychologist John Bowlby, M.D., was one of the researchers who worked with children in hospitals in London, and he began to understand the importance of attachment in the lives of children (and, of course, in the lives of us all). But instead of calling his study "Human Contact Deprivation" or "Parental Deprivation," he called it "Maternal Care and Mental Health." By focusing on maternal deprivation, he spawned many of the concerns that weighed so heavily on me and my generation of mothers.
Dr. Bowlby also published studies about mothers who worked in factories all day, and he found their children were perfectly normal. This research has not been widely disseminated because it is neither sexy nor sensational. And it has not influenced cultural notions about the impact of working mothers in the raising of their children. What a shame!
The news of Dr. Bowlby's preliminary research and other studies like it hit the American culture after World War II, when women were no longer needed in the workplace (the fathers were returning from the war and ready to provide for their families). These women went to their new homes in the suburbs, there to become the Cleaver moms, trying to make everything perfect for their husbands and children.
The tendency to blame mothers for how their children developed persisted. Then, to make matters worse, mothers who stayed home in the 1950s were accused of momism -- being so overprotective that they created selfish and spoiled children. Over time, scientists have begun to discover the biological causes of schizophrenia, autism, and homosexuality. But we continued to look around for the guilty party when children weren't doing well, and we found The Mom. That attitude has lasted down through the decades. The mother is supposed to be responsible for everything her son is and will become. It's as if she holds all the cards. If she's a good mother, her son will turn out okay. If she's a bad mother, she winds up with a bad son.
And, curiously enough, the father plays a minor role in taking the blame for the problems the children may have. It's a double bind for moms because fathers seem to carry much less responsibility for the problems their sons may have, but in the political and popular culture of today, they are considered absolutely essential to raising good sons. There's really no research to back up this notion of maternal omnipotence, but it sticks to us like glue, creating unending anxiety in mothers, who often judge themselves by how their sons do and blame themselves for their sons' deficits. As a specialist in the study of gender, I am extremely sensitive to the bad rap against mothers.