mothers really are the primary nurturers

AdamF children, families, love, Mormon, women 31 Comments

I have long been dismayed by the seemingly arbitrary idea that mothers should be first in charge of nurturing their children, with fathers there to step in and “help” as an equal partner.

I have recently received some “further light and knowledge” on this topic. For the past three years or so I have become very interested in attachment theory. Basically, it says that we have an evolutionary necessity to seek out closeness or security to significant others. It ensures survival as the infant seeks proximity to its caregiver. Without emotional connection and touch, infants will die despite having their other needs met.

As adults, it is more emotional than physical. Think of Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away. Isolated from society and separated from the one he loves, he creates his friend Wilson to keep him company, even risking his life once to save Wilson. This basic attachment need is with us from the “cradle to the grave.” 1  Whether we deny it, ignore it, ramp it up and become overly anxious, or embrace it, it is there to stay–in all of us.

Infants have a hierarchy of attachment figures–usually but not always a relative. The primary attachment figure is the one whom the child usually prefers when distressed, or whom the child seeks out, monitors, or attempts to maintain proximity to. Basically, the one whom the infant prefers to be nurtured by. It seems normal to assume that the parent who is around the child more, or is the most caring would naturally be the primary attachment figure. If the father is the stay-at-home parent, wouldn’t he be the primary attachment figure, i.e the primary nurturer?

Not in most cases. This role is usually given by mother nature to mothers, regardless of how involved she is with her child.

“The fact that infants preferentially seek proximity to their mother derives from the reality that attachment is mainly a function of availability. Interestingly…even when the mother works outside the home and the father is de facto the primary parent, the mother is still strongly preferred.” 2

One of the foremost attachment researchers, Mary Main, suggests that this may be due to the infant’s prenatal experience. I wonder if there are any studies with primary attachment figures and adopted children.

This finding softened my feelings a bit. While I am certainly capable of nurturing my son, it is okay with me that he generally prefers my wife first… especially now that I understand it a little more. It also tells me that this part of the Proclamation is spot on. Mothers are the primary nurtures, AND there are cases where individual adaptation is better, or necessary.

1. John Bowlby

2. David Wallin, Attachment in Psychotherapy

Comments

comments

Comments 31

  1. But this affect could also be the result of cultural norms that prescribe how male/females act. So the female, despite working, still acts like the nuturer and caregiver, while the father even though he is home may still be more detached and distant. I obviously have not read the studies, but is this something they consider at all. I am not sure that gender roles are so easily bracketed. Anecdotally I have seen the same pattern that the research describes but I have also seen that the traditional gender roles are still fairly strictly adhered to.

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    Actually, even when the mother is cold and distant, and the father is warm and nurturing, the infant still seeks the mother first–in the majority of cases. Interesting thought though, and I agree, how we are socialized regarding our genders does have an effect on how we parent.

  3. There seems to be a bit of basic biology that we are forgetting when we see objections to this basic concept. Even though one can always find exceptions to the rule, the rule still applies. The fact that societal pressure as well environmental and experiential data may counter the basic biology, it still applies. While social conditioning can play a positive and negative effect, it should never overrule God’s intentions.

  4. “I have long been dismayed by the seemingly arbitrary idea that mothers should be first in charge of nurturing their children, with fathers there to step in and “help” as an equal partner.”

    While when kids get older it may seem arbitrary or a social construct, there is absolutely nothing arbitrary about it when kids are young. In many parts of the world that don’t have formula, mother are very literally the primary nurturers of children because baby survive by nursing, something that a man can’t do. Because babies have to eat every few hours, new moms get very little good sleep so it makes a lot of sense for the dad to be in charge of providing for the family at least for the time while the baby is nursing.

  5. I wonder if a father and mother can both be the “primary attachment”, but in different circumstances. For example, when my kids want food, they seek out mom. But when they get hurt, the cry out for dad. They feel uneasy when mom is gone but fine when I’m away at work. But when they want to have fun and play, they usually seek me out for that.

    So I’m a little resistant to the idea that a mother, or a father, is THE “primary attachment” across the board in all circumstances. I see both father and mother being the “primary attachment” for children, depending on the circumstances.

  6. I’m with Aaron – I wonder how much of this is influenced by the cultural norms anyway. Sociological studies also show that women do more housework and spend more time with children, even when the mom works and the dad is a SAHD, just because women care more what people think of their house or feel more responsible to spend time with their children – or have higher standards for the child’s appearance, etc. A lot of it sounded like women are too proud to be like the dads (more laid back and awesome).

  7. I should add that the “primary” figure is part of a hierarchy–ostensibly a child prefers either parent to a stranger. Also, it seems to me that children can and do get different needs met from different people. According to the 30 or so years of research and the theory (which I’m sure I’m not doing justice!) the hierarchy does indeed exist, despite our anecdotal data. From what I understand, however, it is fluid–the primary attachment figure could even be someone other than a parent.

  8. AdamF – I think a good place to look at the data is in lesbian couples, and even there, this does hold true (that one parent is the primary attachment).

  9. That is also why any studies with adopted kids would be interesting. How much does the mother and child’s experience during pregnancy affect all this? Also, from what I have read, the quality of attachment has a lot to do with the state of mind of the mother–even more so than her behaviors. I wonder if socialization is related to this aspect.

  10. Yes, I do agree that in most cases the mother is going to be the primary nurturer at first due to nursing and recovering and all that, which creates a bond…carrying the child for nine months! So I understand that the Proclamation on the Family explains the mother as the primary nurturer as the ideal. But life doesn’t always work out that ideally and some just plain don’t want it! So it should never be used as an excuse to ostracize those women who are working outside the home because they want to and not necessarily because they need to. I’m afraid the ideal can cause negative reactions against those women who decide to go against the “ideal”, especially in the Church.

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    Well said Kaylana. I completely agree–there should be absolutely no ostracism. So many people seem to skip over that “individual circumstances” sentence in the proclamation. It is so hard for many of us to NOT worry about what other people are doing, and just focus on ourselves. I get caught up in stuff like this sometimes, and always try to repent! 🙂

  12. I agree with you and the post. I think its a natural challenge to men to develop a father-child relationship to approach what comes naturally to the mother. I read one headline from a study that showed that children of women who breastfed for 9 months had higher IQ on average. Whether that was a good study or whether it was tied to nutrtion or social behavior, I don’t know.

    This is certainly tied, probably not exclusively, to biology and the oxytocin hormone. From wikipedia on oxytocin: “Rat females given oxytocin antagonists after giving birth do not exhibit typical maternal behavior. By contrast, virgin female sheep show maternal behavior towards foreign lambs upon cerebrospinal fluid infusion of oxytocin, which they would not do otherwise.”

    Another study compared emotional connection/touch with young kittens and their subsequent social development with humans, suggesting that absence of that connection at a young age will decrease the ability to form close emotional connections in life. Certainly the human spirit is resilient and you see success stories in unexpected situations, so
    overcoming adverse situations should never be counted out.

  13. Why do you think that mother is soft and father is hard? Mothers are born to nurture. This is not a bad thing. Feminists would tell you that it is. It’s not. It’s nature.

  14. As a completely insignificant anecdote I can tell you that even though my wife stays home with the kids, my 5 year old little boy, who was placed with us when he was eight days old, strongly preferred me when he was an infant. This was despite my extensive travel schedule and that my wife is an amazing mother. It is very nice to have one of the five “on my team”!!!

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  16. “I’m afraid the ideal can cause negative reactions against those women who decide to go against the “ideal”, especially in the Church.”

    Why do you suppose that is? if the ideal that is preached is how God would like it to be, why be critical of that? We are allowed to make choices and we have to live with that.

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    There is no reason to be critical of “the ideal” – rather, those who use the ideal to puff themselves up or put others down, imo.

  18. Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing are all hard work. I guess one of the natural benefits is a “head start” on bonding and then super reinforcement of the bonding while nursing. However,I think children tend to bond with whoever bonds with them. My first child was really hard. She would cry if I held her, cry if I put her down. My husband would put her in the car seat and drive around town for hours on end. Guess who she bonded with? Yeah, I was the milk man, but Daddy was EVERYTHING else to her.

    I have to be honest, for the most part I really think my husband is a better parent. I am way too anal about keeping bed times, getting home work done…blah blah blah. Dad is way more fun, he just enjoys the kids. I know I would rather hang out with him than me. I like that we balance each other out.

  19. Jeff Spector –

    “I’m afraid the ideal can cause negative reactions against those women who decide to go against the “ideal”, especially in the Church.”

    Why do you suppose that is? if the ideal that is preached is how God would like it to be, why be critical of that? We are allowed to make choices and we have to live with that.

    I think the problem comes because most individuals who don’t fit the “ideal” don’t want to think of themselves as “broken”. And creating an “ideal” where there are many, many, many exceptions automatically makes all those exceptions the “non-ideal” and therefore, the imperfect choice.

    I work outside the home, and my DH for all intents and purposes is my son’s primary caretaker. I really like how this works for us, and I am very happy. I tried to do the SAHM thing and was extremely unhappy. I think its hard to look at something like that and be told, “You are living a nonideal lifestyle. You are broken. But don’t worry, when you get to heaven you will be fixed.”

  20. Kate,

    “be told, “You are living a nonideal lifestyle. You are broken. But don’t worry, when you get to heaven you will be fixed.”

    But you’ve made a choice that you are comfortable and happy with. Why would you let anyone tell you you are “broken.” I’ve never heard that expressed that way in any church setting that women must be SAHMs. The fact that the Church recommends that and subscribes to the idea that mothers are the primary nurturers is not just a Church idea, it is a biology idea. And if you are happy, what makes you feel guilty?

  21. Jeff –

    Have you really never heard it expressed that mom being home is the ideal? I can list a number of talks for you – from Pres. Benson through Pres. Hinckley – that clearly hold mom at home up as the ideal.

  22. Oh, and I am fine with biology/Church stating that women are the primary nurturers, but its the societal construction placed on it – and the implications of that – that I have issues with.

  23. “Have you really never heard it expressed that mom being home is the ideal?”

    Oh, all the time. What I meant was, who stated that if you don’t do the ideal, you are broken?

    “but its the societal construction placed on it – and the implications of that – that I have issues with.’

    Ironically, the church is really at odds with the present societal construction. That women can do and have it all……

  24. Jeff – “Ironically, the church is really at odds with the present societal construction. That women can do and have it all.” And the current economy is at odds with lots of people’s ideas that people can make a living and provide for a family. There have been statement (most pre-GBH) that women who attempted to live other than the prescribed ideal were sinful or selfish for that choice. Perhaps that is the same as being broken. However, GBH always added the caveat that individual circumstances may vary and that couples need to make decisions prayerfully together.

  25. I’m going to use a really ridiculous analogy here, so forgive me. At the moment, its the clearest way I can think of of getting what I am trying to say across.

    Lets pretend for a moment that the prophet were to say that the ideal was for all men to be carpenters, and that a man’s highest calling is to be a carpenter. But that individual circumstances will vary, and some men may not be carpenters in this life, but will in the hereafter. It is their divine role, to be a carpenter, and everything else is secondary to it.

    You live your life and get your training in, say, being a fisherman. You really enjoy it, you are very good at it, and you are happy with your life. Then you find that you are supposed to be a carpenter, so you quit fishing and try your best at carpentry. You can’t manage to hold the wood properly, and you really suck at it. Plus, miss your fishing. You give it a very long, hard, prayerful attempt, but the items you make are horrible and you are miserable. The longer you try to do it, the more you hate it, so you eventually just go back to your fishing, which you love.

    Meanwhile, you are constantly hearing about how your role in the next life will be carpentry – not fishing – and you hear about how much people love carpentry, how they get their greatest fulfillment from it, etc. In addition, you hear talks where the prophet says that any man who chooses a profession other than carpentry is selfish and sinful.

    What do you think, do you think that you would feel broken if this were you?

    And, yes, I have been told that I am broken for not being a SAHM, although just from friends within the church, not from leaders.

  26. Kate – “And, yes, I have been told that I am broken for not being a SAHM, although just from friends within the church, not from leaders.” Some friends. 🙁

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    “I have been told that I am broken for not being a SAHM”

    This makes me ill, but I think I understand why it happens–not because they are any less broken–unfortunately it seems to be a part of mortality to have all this underlying anxiety about our lives and our choices and values, and when others in the group aren’t “towing the line” so to speak, just like we THINK they ought to be, we have to point it out. Kids start doing it when they’re 2 or 3, and many people never stop.

  28. I can’t find fault with much of what Bowlby wrote, except that much of it was mere inspiration, brilliance, astute observation — but subject to his own biases. He didn’t conduct much empirical research. Contemporary research, however, supports the idea of an attachment “hierarchy” (i.e., if my primary figure isn’t available, I’ll seek out my second,” and so forth). Also that this hierarchy is subject to change. Also supported is the idea that non-maternal figures can be (and are) primary attachment figures. This can be a nanny (Bowlby certainly would have agreed with that, considering his writing about the loss of his beloved nanny at age 4), a father, a grandparent…basically whoever provides the primary care and nurturance to the child.

    WRT mothers being “naturally” evolved for primary childcare, sure, pregnancy and breastfeeding would seem to support that. But we are in danger of overlooking the function of evolution — to adapt to maximize reproductive success and survival. The person who can/will provide the means for this reproductive/survival success is not always the biological mother. Thankfully so.

  29. I think women can be a great influence for good, but they can also be a great influcence for bad and can destroy in a way that is almost irreparable. I have seen a mother be as selfish as a person can possibly be and watched her children suffer greatly because of it. I think women were given the ability to nuture naturally, but when women turn against that nature and focus on themselves they are some of the ugliest creatures on earth.

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    Thanks for stopping by M.A.! I was hoping for some of your attachment erudition.

    I agree – it is a good thing it doesn’t HAVE to be the mother, because there are all kinds of cases where it is not preferred or even possible.

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