James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Mother love’s unbreakable cord

IN THE aftermath of the Great War, progressive social thinkers in both Britain and the United States campaigned for a nationwide network of mother-and-infant clinics. These were to be staffed by expert professionals trained to teach parents the most modern methods of childcare. It is hard to imagine that anyone could object to so worthy a proposal, but object they did.

"I care not how estimable the expert may be, nothing can substitute for a mother’s experience," argued Senator Reed, from Kansas. The proposed clinics would, he said, undermine mothers’ self-confidence in their ability to bring up their children naturally and lovingly: "Mother love – the golden cord that stretches from the throne of God uniting all animate creatures to Divinity.

"Its light beams down the path of time from barbarous ages, when Mothers held their babies to famished breasts… and died that they might live." There was more: "Mother love – the wild beast hears its voice and answers to its call. Tiger’s cub or wolf’s whelp, I would rather feel the rough caresses of the hairy paws of my savage mother, I would rather have her care and protection, than that of an official animal trainer."

Powerful stuff, but the reactionaries were unable to defeat the proposal, and ever since mothers have suffered at the hands of childcare experts whose absurd and contradictory theories too frequently – just as the senator predicted – undermine their self-confidence.

Behaviourism, with its enthusiasm for training and clockwork regularity, gave way to Freudianism, with its bogus notions about anal retention and phallic phases, which in turn was supplanted by the neurosis-inducing attachment theory popularised by John Bowlby: "Leaving a child under three years of age is a major operation, only to be undertaken for good and sufficient reason."

The most recent craze for "bonding" – very popular in the Seventies – has now fallen out of fashion but is of particular interest, having been discredited by a proper appreciation of the real nature of "mother love".

The main protagonists of bonding were two American academics, Marshall Klaus and John Kennel, of Case Western Reserve University, who claimed to have identified a "maternal sensitive period" in the immediate hours after birth requiring close physical contact between mother and infant. If, for any reason, this crucial opportunity to bond were lost, the consequences could be dire: the baby would be restless and cry a lot, breastfeeding might fail, and maternal affection would be lessened if the mother failed to cuddle her baby. The final outcome could be tragic – abuse, neglect, and even abandonment. At first everyone loved the idea. It was so simple and so obvious. Television gloried in images of blood-spattered infants spreadeagled on their exhausted mothers’ stomachs.

Less happy were mothers who had a difficult birth or whose babies had been premature. They were whisked off to intensive care, thus denying them the opportunity to "bond".

The mutuality of physical interests between mother and infant is an extraordinary thing. Reciprocity abounds: the baby loves its mother’s smell and a mother her baby’s; the mother gains physical satisfaction from breastfeeding, and the baby flourishes on its mother’s milk; the baby expresses its needs by crying, and the mother gains gratification from relieving its distress.

This sensuous and instinctive (and miraculous) reciprocity binds mother and infant together, not merely for the first few hours after birth but over many months. It is quite different from, though it may contribute to, "mother love" which becomes ever more tenacious as the months pass and the opportunity for a mother to interact with her baby escalates.

Set in its context, the notion that there is a unique sensitive period immediately after birth is clearly bunkum and, indeed, the studies on which Klaus and Kennel based their claims turned out to be both shallow and biased. As paediatrician Herbert Barrie has commented: "There is overwhelming evidence that you cannot detach a baby from a mother who wants it or attach one to a mother who does not."

Theories on the capacity to love postulate a role for obligation ("thou shalt love thy neighbour"), for suffering (Dido’s "No stranger myself to misfortune, I have learnt to comfort the stricken"), for self-love ("love thy neighbour as thyself") and for the love of God ("we love because God first loved us").

But the most powerful and enduring of all forms of love is that which we celebrate at Christmas – maternal love, the "golden cord that stretches from the throne of God uniting all animate creatures to Divinity".

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd