In reply to Bowlby

Sue Baker takes issue with John Bowlby

To me as editor, this response by Dr Susan Baker to a sermon by Andrew Wallis seems important not just for the particular points made - which as Sue says don't reflect any personal criticism of Andrew - but for the general point about how we all tend to put implicit trust in prevailing opinion. We should listen carefully to those who are well qualified to propose a different angle, indeed, to dissent entirely. I suggested to Sue that Mark 3, 34-5 (that's where it was, when I looked it up) might have a bearing. If anybody who treats me in accordance with God?s will is "my brother and sister and mother", won't this also apply during the first three years of my life?

I was sitting quite peacefully listening to the sermon when Andrew Wallis was trying to get over the importance of maternal love. Andrew used for an example a study he had read by Bowlby, the words Maternal deprivation and psychologically damaged children came out. I am a professional working mother and have worked throughout my children's lives and am therefore particularly sensitive to criticism that my working could do harm to my children! My argument is not with Andrew who was unfortunate to pick out Bowlby, but with Bowlby himself.

Firstly, who was Bowlby?

John Bowlby studied childcare in the 1940s. In 1953 he wrote "Child care and the growth of Love". Bowlby argued that a child's personality development is achieved through a close relationship with his mother. If a child is prevented from forming an attachment with his mother, or if - after forming an attachment - the relationship is disrupted, Bowlby argues this has a devastating effect on a child's development. He called such disruptions maternal deprivation. Bowlby said maternal deprivation caused deep damage to personality development in the first three years of life. After those three years the child could gradually cope for longer spells on his own. The mother in his opinion seems to have a biological duty to give up everything, and devote herself to her children; otherwise the child will have personality problems later on. Anything that interrupts this duty, like having a job, using forms of childcare like nurseries, having a broken marriage, or being a single parent, has a disastrous effect on the child.

The dominant ideology was "A woman's place is in the home; it is her natural role". The political economic agenda at the time when Bowlby was writing was to rebuild family life. Men had returned from war and needed the jobs the women had taken over. Women were being forced back into domestic life. The Ministry of Health argued that nursery provision was detrimental to the child. The male experts of that time, citing the opinions of Bowlby and other social scientists, viewed nurseries as bad - when only a few years previously, during the war, it was argued the other way round: leave the children in nurseries and go and work in factories.

A working mother's response

I challenge this dominant ideology. Women have always worked. Are the children of working women always psychologically disturbed? There are psychologically disturbed children who have a mother who stays at home. Is it just the mother's responsibility? Where is the rest of the family, and society?

Let us first ask, what do women feel? This is something that Bowlby did not ask.

Gavron reported that many mothers of young children feel isolated, frustrated and housebound. Oakley interviewed women in this situation: 70% were dissatisfied with housework, and complained of loneliness and low self esteem. Brown and Harris reported high levels of depression in full time housewives. The role of motherhood is not all happiness. Moreover, home can be a dangerous place: there may be child abuse, violence. Mitchell said some families are much more dangerous than the outside world.

Other research has thrown further doubt on Bowlby's work. Rutter said babies do form attachments with people other than their mothers. Their fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends all play an important part, and can equally provide a safe continuous relationship; so the biological duty that Bowlby gave exclusively to mothers can be shared. Rutter argues that good quality day-care does not disrupt a child's emotional bonds with his parents; he continues to prefer his parents to other carers. So attending day-care is not as traumatic as Bowlby suggests.


Women if they are lucky enough to be in the position to afford good childcare and have the support of their families, friends, neighbours, society should be able therefore to choose good quality childcare, and work - without the risk of maternal deprivation and the psychological damaging of their children. So were you there during this sermon? Did you catch the words: Bowlby, maternal deprivation and psychological damage? I expect most of you missed it or hardly noticed it. Hopefully you now know something about Bowlby, and why I as a working mother am critical of him.

Dr Susan Baker BDS Cert HSC(Open)

References: K100 Course Team (1998) K100 Understanding Health and social care, Unit 1:Caring a family affair? Milton Keynes, The Open University.
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 21st May 2003