Power is almost always a double-edged sword, and the power of motherhood is no exception. Absolute power carries the weight of absolute responsibility, and when it comes to child-rearing, that weight is simply too heavy to be born by a single person. No-one recognized and understood this more than feminist author Ann Dally. She was the first woman to study medicine at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, and she became a general practitioner in 1953 before going on to become a psychiatrist and author. If that sounds impressive, consider that she accomplished it while being a mother to six children.
As a mother, Dally was critical of child care “experts” who offered often contradictory advice, such as adhering to strict feeding schedules, limiting affection, and treating children as subordinates.
Inventing Motherhood and Re-defining the Relationship between Mother and Child
She also took issue with the concept of “maternal instinct” (and here we saw she was not the only one), and believed that nurturing skills were largely learned through socialization. Further, she pointed out that these skills, as well as the level of devotion called “maternal” were often demonstrated by both fathers and adoptive parents.
“There have always been mothers, but motherhood was invented.”
As proof of her argument, she points out that even the word didn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1597. In her 1983 book “Inventing Motherhood, The Consequences of an Ideal” she ties that invention to the advent of industrial capitalism in the 19th century. For most mothers, this new role served to increase their social isolation and degree of power over their children while decreasing their own social power.
While she acknowledged the importance of bonding in child development and of the relationship between mother and child, she also believed that other factors were equally important. The child’s needs for stimulation, a variety of experiences, and opportunities for play are also important aspects of healthy development.
She believed that the best and most effective mothers were happy, stable people with the opportunity to nurture in ways that expressed their own personalities and personal strengths. Much of her work was focused on challenging what she viewed as a highly unrealistic and destructive definition of motherhood as defined by a patriarchal society in which women were relegated to the confines of their homes and had dogmatic views of the relationship between mother and child.
Motherhood and self-knowledge
Rather than struggling to conform to an idealized concept of an all-powerful, all-giving mother while under threat of causing permanent damage to their children, Dally advocated for mothers increasing their self-knowledge. By doing so, she believed that they could maximize the effectiveness of their strengths while recognizing their weaknesses and enlisting help from others in those areas. In her view, an important element of effective parenting was developing a social network consisting of people with a variety of skills and learning to delegate.
Ideally, children would be the beneficiaries of a number of family and friends’ individual strengths and talents, while mothers would be relieved of the pressure for perfection. The relationship between mother and child would be less stressful. She believed that such pressure was partially responsible for a number of mental health issues common among mothers, as evidenced by the title of one of her earlier books, “Understanding: Coming to Grips With Moments of Inadequacy, Neurosis, Isolation, Depression, Masochism, Frustration”. While recognizing childrens’ valid need for unconditional love, protection, continuity and reliability, she disputed that mothers were always the best, or only, source of these important things.
A controversial figure as a physician as well as a feminist, she was put on trial and censured for her controversial methadone treatment of heroin addicts. She was among the first to advocate treating addiction as an illness rather than a crime. She believed that addicts, despite their drug use, could still continue to function make valuable contributions to society.
Similarly, she believed that changing the definition of motherhood and the notions about the relationship between mother and child would help free both men and women from the false constructs of rigid societal roles. As a result of her ideas, today’s fathers share more of the day to day responsibilities, as well as the joys and rewards, of parenthood. Mothers, as a result, enjoy more of the benefits of personhood.