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Health, Sports & Psychology

Working mothers and guilt

Updated Wednesday, 20th June 2007

Studying animals too closely may have mislead psychologists to overwhelm working parents with guilt.

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Talk to any young mother today and one word is bound to come up - guilt. Women feel very guilty about leaving their children, even for very short periods of time, and they're concerned about the possible short and long-term effects of being separated from their children in terms of future adult human development.

But why should parents be worried - children in day care certainly look very happy.

One of the most influential writers in developmental psychology was John Bowlby. He was very interested in research like that of Harlow, for example, who found that baby monkeys much preferred to cling to a model of a mother monkey which had a soft, textured surface than wire models which had a feeding bottle attached.

He was also interested in research that looked at very young children who had been separated from their mothers for whatever reason. These young children were inconsolable no matter how much attention and support they were given when separated from their mothers. This led Bowlby to wonder if there was something special about the mother/baby bond that couldn't be found elsewhere.

Bowlby decided that all this evidence of inconsolable distress in young children separated from their mothers and also possible evidence of long term damage in adults who had been separated from their mothers as children, strongly suggested that the mother/baby bond was absolutely vital for normal, healthy, human development. He went on to say that it was as vital as food, nutrition and vitamins in human development. His argument was that you would be incapable as an adult or forming normal, natural, human relationships if you did not have an extremely secure attachment to your mother as an infant.

But the problem was that a lot of the research, which Bowlby was using to advance his arguments, didn't pay enough attention to some vital issues. For example, it may well be it is the reason why you were separated from your mother that may have a long-term effect on your adult development. For example, if you've been separated because of some deep family problem, then that may be the cause of problems in later life. Another vital issue is the length of time you're separated. For example, if you're separated for several years, this is likely to have a longer-term impact than separation of just a few hours on a daily basis. But perhaps, most importantly of all, the research evidence now is that you don't have to be attached to a mother in particular but any secure attachment to a parental figure is sufficient to cause normal, healthy child development.

The modern thinking in psychology is that John Bowlby was overly-influenced by animal models. We know that animals bond irreversibly with their mothers at a particularly critical moment in their development, but it appears that human infants are much more flexible in their attachments to adult figures. We now know as well that it may not be best for a mother's mental health to have permanent, twenty-four hour responsibility for a highly dependent child. There is also recent evidence that it might actually advance a child's social skills to have the extra social stimulation of some day care.





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