The Maternal Bond – Part 3 – The Men

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By Anne P. Mitchell, Esq.
Dec 3, 2004, 11:28


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 3

III. The Men The Stanford Child Custody Study, a recent study of nearly 1000 divorcing couples in California, revealed that while more than two-thirds of the fathers wanted some form of physical custody, nearly one third of them requested less custody then they actually wanted. Thus even fathers who want custody, and who might otherwise alleviate mothers of the restrictions and burdens of fulltime parenting, are finding their desire to take on childcare responsibilities overcome by other factors. What are these other factors?

The researchers involved in the Stanford Child Custody Study hypothesize that it may simply be that fathers in some way feel less strongly about custody then do mothers.17 However this theory is based on responses to a “1 to 10” response option question asking the respondents to rate how they felt about custody, with 1 being someone who didn’t really care what custody arrangements were made, and 10 being someone who was determined to get the exact custody they wanted. On average, mothers and fathers alike rated their feelings about custody to be between an 8 and a 9, with the women averaging an 8.8, and the men averaging an 8.4. Even the researchers concede that this is a small difference indeed.

A much more likely account for the discrepancy between what fathers truly want in terms of custody, and what they ask for, is that men too have come to believe in the tradition of the sacred mother-child bond, and therefore they believe that they are incapable of providing that somehow unique form of nurturing required by their children. Hence they conclude that the children belong with the mother. In otherwords, much as these fathers might genuinely want their children to live with them, they believe they would be hurting their children by removing them from their mother.

It is little wonder that fathers doubt their capacity to nurture their children, given that this is the message provided to them every turn. It is the subtext of the maternal bond doctrine, as well an implicit assumption upon which is based the message that “good” fathers are those who provide a maternal subsidy so that their children may remain with their mothers.

Some authors go so far in spreading the word as to misquote authorities who have in reality not bought into the maternal bond doctrine. An example of this is Joanne Curry O’Connell’s response to Burton White’s article “Should You Stay Home with Your Baby?” Ms. Curry tells us that in his article White advocates “that women, with few exceptions, should not work outside the home while their children are young.”18 [Emphasis added]

O’Connell then goes on to a lengthy discourse to assure mothers that putting a child in daycare will not disrupt the maternal/child bond (as opposed to a non-gender based primary caretaker/child bond). The message is clear that the bond exists only between mother and child, and that if as a mother you can’t stay home with your child, daycare is the acceptable alternative. In fact, however, Burton makes a very clear statement on behalf of non-mother primary caretakers. In a section entitled “Fathers and Grandparents Make Good ‘Mothers’ Too” he asserts that “[n]o study anywhere has indicated that mothers are the only people capable of raising young babies. We have observed many fathers and grandparents who seem perfectly suited to the task, and are willing or eager to share the job…. These people comprise an enormous underused resource.”19

But Burton’s voice for non-mother primary caretaking is but one voice crying in a wilderness which has become overrun with the weedlike rhetoric of those who defend the bonds of motherhood. And so long as women insist that only women are capable of nurturing children, they will remain bound to the attendant responsibilities of primary caretaking.

[Continued in Part 4]

17 “Private Ordering Revisited: What Custodial Arrangements are Parents Negotiating?”, Mnookin, Maccoby, Albiston and Depner, Stanford University (1991).

18 It may be that O’Connell’s primary aim was to refute Burton’s assertion that there should be some fulltime primary caretaker, as opposed to placing an infant in daycare. But to disingenuously ignore Burton’s suggestion of alternative primary caretakers such as fathers and grandparents, and to reduce the thrust of the argument to “mother as primary caretaker at home” versus “mother as primary caretaker, supplemented with daycare” is to intentionally ignore that mothers do not have a monopoly in the child bonding business.

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