The Maternal Bond – Part I – The Dilemma


By Anne P. Mitchell, Esq.
Dec 3, 2004, 11:30

Summary: The Maternal Bond was originally published in the American Journal of Family Law, and is serialized here at by special arrangement with the author.

1992 (c) Anne P. Mitchell, Stanford Law School
Published in: American Journal of Family Law, Volume 9, Number 3, Fall, 1995

Part 1
The Maternal Bond

Bond \’bnd\ noun:
1: something that binds or restrains;
2: a binding agreement;
3: a band or cord used to tie something;
4: a material or device for binding;
5: an obligation made binding by a money forfeit;
6: (adj.) bound in slavery 1

One often hears about the bond between mother and child. The phrases “maternal bond” and “the mother-child bond” are fairly commonplace in today’s jargon. Moreover, one hears these phrases most often in a positive context…the mother-child bond being considered a special and somehow magical connection which transcends mere relationship. It is, somehow, an inseverable umbilicus, something not to be tampered or interfered with, something sacred. It is The Mother-Child Bond.

This bond is one proclaimed not just by women, but by men, who have come to believe that there exists a bond between mother and child which fathers can never hope to approximate with their children. It is also relied upon by the family law system, and by society in general, in order to perpetuate women’s role as, first and foremost, caretakers of children.

I. The Dilemma As suggested by the definition with which this paper opens, a bond is not just a special sort of magical relationship. Even where that exists, a parent-child bond is at minimum an enormous responsibility. Therefore to place upon a mother’s shoulder the mantle of a unique and inevitable mother-child bond is to also place upon a mother’s wrists the shackles of responsibility for that bond, and that child.

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Where a mother has become so intimately and inextricably bound, she may have little ability to break free to pursue other objectives. This is true even where there is a father present and willing to assume the childcare responsibilities. In attempting to take on the responsibilities of childcare, the father may find it nearly impossible to disentangle mother and child of the binds that tie them together, and his attempts will be unavailing. In part this may be due to the father’s own perception of how revered the mother-child bond is, and a belief that as a father he is bereft of parent-child bonding ability. This in turn is linked to society’s perception of the same, which the father may well have internalized. In other words, fathers too have come to believe that a child belongs with its mother, as that is where the parent-child bond is.

The father, having bought into these perceptions, may be less willing to assert a claim to time with his children, believing it to be meddling with the mother-child relationship; this may be particularly true in the case of custody/visitation issues. Society then indicts the father for not wanting to be involved with his children, imputes an inversely proportional desire on the part of the mother who is caring for the children, and thus the cycle is complete, with the mother in perpetual maternal bondage.

It is also true, however, that there is quite simply an unwillingness on the part of mothers to allow fathers to take over the primary caretaking

function, for mothers too have internalized the general societal view of the sacredness of the mother-child bond. This is particularly true in custody contests, but is also true within an intact two-parent family structure, where a mother may allow a father to help with the children, but will rarely be seen relinquishing the larger share of childcare to the father. As Erica Jong has observed, “We long for men to share [parenting] tasks with us equally…but we probably do not want to relinquish them. We are as attached to our children as ever. Liberation has not severed the umbilical cord – nor would we want it to.”2

[Continued in Part 2]
1 Source: Webster’s OED Dictionary.