A psychoanalytic theory of mothering

In the ongoing battle known as the mommy wars, participants tend to treat different styles of mothering as interchangeable choices. The assumption is that a woman chooses to adopt attachment parenting, or chooses to value work outside the home. Hence the arguments often boil down to identifying which women are making the best “choice.”

In a thought provoking chapter of a new book, Parenthood and Mental Health: A Bridge between Infant and Adult Psychiatry, (Tyano et al., 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd), Joan Raphael-Leff, of the Faculty for Psychoanalytic Research, UCL/Anna Freud Centre in London, proposes that women approach mothering with specific psychological orientations. She divides these orientations into four different groups: facilitators, regulators, recipricators and conflicted. I’m intrigued with the idea that mothering style reflects specific psychological orientations and I find her descriptions spot on.

According to Raphael-Leff, the different orientations to mothering manifest themselves during pregnancy. She concentrates in particular on facilitators and regulators.

The facilitator:

… treats pregnancy as the culmination of her feminine experience. Throwing herself wholeheartedly into the process, she dons maternity clothes early, ‘communes’ with her baby, reveling in the special attention. She plans as natural a birth as possible, wishing to minimize the traumatic ‘caesura’ that will reunite her with her familiar baby.

The regulator views pregnancy as:

… an unavoidable means of getting a … baby. She resents being treated as an ‘incubator’, prey to comments by strangers. Childbirth is imagined as a dreaded, exhausting and painful event to be mitigated by medical intervention… Their elevated incidence of elected Caesarean sections indicates preference for predictability and a way of bypassing the potentially humiliating experience of vaginal birth.

Not surprisingly, a woman’s psychoanalytic orientation has a profound impact on her mothering.

For facilitators:

Enveloped in the maternal body, the infant rediscovers mother’s voice, her wake/sleep rhythms, cadences of breathing and kinetic patterns of stillness and movement. Some experiences are new: the feel and fit of mother’s fleshy contours, the taste of breast milk and odours of her breath, armpit, vaginal excretions, her bodily warmth, unmuffled immediacy and differing smooth silkiness/rough edges of her caress . . .

Feeling mothering is her vocation, the Facilitator mother adapts herself to her baby, convinced that only she, the biological mother primed by pregnancy, can fathom her infant’s needs. Hence as exclusive carer, she maintains close bodily contact, treating every gurgle as a communication that must be responded to.

Whereas regulators believe:

… mothering is a ‘learned skill’, acquirable by others. Since to her neonates do not discriminate between people, she introduces co-carers early on, establishing a routine which reduces unpredictability, provides continuity between nurturers, and differentiates between ‘valid’ crying and ignorable ‘noise’. Hence, proximity is not an issue. The main goal is to ‘socialize’ the asocial, presocial or even antisocial infant and regulate his or her desires. To this end the baby must adapt to the household regime.

Inevitably, different orientations lead to different views of work outside the home.

… To maintain their self esteem, Regulators need to engage meaningfully with adults outside the home, whereas Facilitators dread separation from the baby. Wishing to provide full-time exclusive care, they return to work reluctantly of economic necessity or job stipulations. Conversely, Regulators resent economic dependence, and the slow ‘mommy-track’ which penalizes career advancement and salary growth.

Mothers of both psychoanalytic orientations experience distress when mothering does not go according to plan.

… [A] Facilitator mother experiences ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ … before and during the months following childbirth. Her identity becomes primarily that of a mother. Holding a distinct mothering philosophy, she strives towards her maternal ideal of devotion, suspending her subjectivity by adapting to the baby, intuitively facilitating, holding and dedicating herself in unconscious identification with both maternal ideal and vicariously gratified baby-self… Facilitating mothers feel devastated if unable to breastfeed. Desperation over minor lapses of maternal perfection induces irreparable guilt, remorse and anxious over-involvement. Self-reproach for ‘ruining’ the ideal may escalate to depression, hopelessness and, in extreme cases, even suicide.

In contrast, regulators may feel:

… ‘primary maternal persecution’. In-depth exploration of their subjective experience boils down to feeling trapped. If the sense of exploitation persists, feeling undermined, and at the mercy of a potentially greedy/spiteful infant, hostility must be managed. Most Regulator mothers do this efficiently. More breastfeed today than in the past – health-education stresses both infantile immunity and maternal benefits … Intake is regulated by schedule, and feeding bottles are introduced early to ensure shared care. This allows the mother to replenish herself by spending time in an enriching social world, protecting her from risks of ruptured defences and/or surrendering to ‘sentimentality’.

What I find most compelling in Raphael-Leff’s analysis is the idea that different styles of mothering are not “choices” and do not reflect specific philosophies. Rather, different styles of mothering reflect the different psychological needs of the mother. If that is the case, the mommy wars are worse than pointless, because there is no “right” way to mother. There is only the ongoing effort by mothers to balance their psychological needs against the needs of their children.

Attachment parenting does not reflect the needs of the child; it reflects the needs of the mother. Natural childbirth, exclusive breastfeeding, the family bed are not objectively “better” for babies and are neither feminist nor rebellious. They are comforting and satisfying to women who have a particular psychological orientation to attachment.

Similarly, rejection of natural childbirth or exclusive breastfeeding is not “selfish” or unwomanly. It is the best way for women who have a deep and real need for regular involvement in the world of work and who would feel trapped by attachment parenting.

Taking a woman’s psychological orientation into account is not a radical idea. We do not expect all marriages to be the same and we do not expect all friendships to be the same. We understand that these relationships only succeed when they meet the particular psychological needs of the participants.

There is no basis for believing that there is only one way to conduct the mother-child relationship. While it is critically important that the relationship meet the psychological needs of the developing child, a successful mother-child relationship should also meet the psychological needs of the mother. And since mothers differ in their psychological needs, we should anticipate and celebrate many permutations of successful mother-child relationships.