Meanings of Words, Psychology

Do pregnancy urges and maternal love define a woman’s identity?

maternal love

Why is there a belief that the act of mothering and maternal love has a biological basis ?  If and when maternal love versus father love has a biological basis, and thus it can only be a female activity, makes it a relevant question.

In this post I will concentrate on the psychoanalyst view and take on this belief (versus the ethological take).  It is quite interesting to see how this belief came to be, especially in our time and place.

Reproduction and maternal love

The rational most of the time goes through the following steps:

  • The reproduction is needed for the survival of the species, and the female is closer to the reproduction process.
  • Babies need to be taken care of intensively and for a long period (longest compared to any other species, in comparison with the relative life span) and if not done so, the chances of survival drop significantly.
  • Put 1 and 2 together and the affective tie or maternal love between mother and child has a biological basis. Or put differently without the bond our species would not have survived.

This tie, often referred to as motherhood or maternal love, is the result of an inborn urge based on instinct. It is therefor biologically determined that mothers want children, and it is therefore also determined they want to raise them and feel as something is missing when they are separated from them. Also see maternal instincts.

Maternal love and psychologysis

We take this and move to the discipline of psychoanalysis with psycho analysts like Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer, Alfred Adler, Carl Gustav Jung and later Neo-Freudians like Erich Fromm, Karen Horney and Jacques Lacan. This school believes that pregnancy, giving birth, suckling and fondling are to be seen as instinctual urges. These instincts, urges and maternal love are characteristic of a mature woman’s femininity and identity.

If a woman does not want or desire children or if she is not capable of reproducing affective tie or maternal love or experiences a dissatisfaction in motherhood then this is the result of a developmental problem and of poor adjustment to her feminine psycho sexual identity.

The biological proof in this discipline is to be found in the changing body when she is pregnant and in those first maternal moments.

Her physical state changes. She becomes throughout her pregnancy acutely interested in herself. This is the primary maternal preoccupation. (We see this preoccupation being very nicely exploited commercially.) She then is able to assess finely and intuitively the needs and wants of her baby, better than anybody else. Both mother and baby have instincts that will bind them together, a kind of reciprocal instinctuality. Their interests are identical that is to stay together in a state of interdependency. There is only one gratification. They become one. There is one unit. There is only one identity. The baby experiences ‘primary love’. Primary love is that first love received from the mother. The mother experiences ‘maternal bond’ or ‘maternal love’ or ‘instantly-in-mother-love’. These feelings come without effort or criticism. It will be this definition of primary love that the child will carry on into adulthood. When the baby grows, it will however be necessary to differentiate from the mother and to become separated. This will be a painful experience.

Again, we are now sitting in the chair of the psychoanalytical professional, taking the viewpoint of the psychoanalytical discipline.

If we go further, and go to the other end of the spectrum of this bliss situation, and the child does not know or have this ‘primary love’, then later on to become separated is for the child like falling into an terrible anxiety. Such an anxiety that it will need years to mend.

And the mother is in no better state if this motherly love has not been experienced. Why? Well, she identifies with all the beautiful fantasies her baby has of her and how she is the perfect mother or probably a perfect person (a myth that will painfully chattered when the adolescent child starts to criticize). She gladly accepts this almightiness role with open arms. She will retrospect on her own childhood and of her fantasies of her own mother and maternal love. As she will also be reminded of the disappointment when growing older (and we are all disappointed at a point) she will hope to be a better parent than her parent was.

The way a woman will be a mother to her child will be determined by her own experiences. If she has positive experiences, motherhood will be a welcome addition in her life. If she has a negative association with babies but likes toddler, this will have a different impact. If she is more closely involved when they reach a certain age than when they were babies then this could also be explained by her own psychosexual development.

When a mother is negative about motherhood or maternal love then we immediately suspect her mother of abnormal behavior. This is something the psychoanalytical school taught us. She would have unresolved developmental conflicts and the fact that she was now a mother would be the ideal way to resolve them. Motherhood could mean a cure for psychological issues if motherhood was embraced and seen positively. Meaning if she does not embrace it, she could be in an unresolved conflict for the rest of her life.

Observation of the discipline of psychoanalysis

It is clear that The School of Psychoanalysis explains motherhood on a highly individual level. Per definition. It is as if mother and child are alone in the world (and off course there is also the grandmother). The analysis and their explanation of motherhood come from feelings and thoughts at a very unconscious level. The way a woman experiences motherhood will be presented on an abstract level, and individual to her situation. In a psychoanalysis, the mother will be given an explanation of how she experiences it because sometimes she will even not be aware of it, so it has to be explained to her.

It is a good way to explain differences of experiences of motherhood  or maternal love but it is inadequate to define motherhood (and both are related). The research and analysis to come to these conclusions was clinical experience and per definition not systematic and statistical.  The women that were analyzed during the period when these theories were written, were pregnant or had infants. Motherhood of toddlers or older children might be different. The biological basis is observed during lactation but it is more difficult beyond.  Cross-cultural studies were not conducted because society as a whole was left out. No comparisons with men were done in a systematical way.

The belief is deeply rooted and any form absence, abstinence or negativity is seen as abnormal. But the point of fact is that mothering beyond lactation and / or raising children older than a couple of years has no biological basis and is poorly analyzed by the school of psycho analysis up to now.

maternal love
Sterling silver, ivory and glass nipple-shield Wellcome L0035699 Licensed under CC BY 4.0
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