Gordon’s post has prompted, not surprisingly, a torrent of discussion, which now seems to have veered off into a rather different streambed. I want to paddle up to a stream of the conversation that branched off a while back, taking another look at the presumptions behind the “absent mother.” It’s interesting to compare Audrey’s account of her (part-time) working mother and the psychological detriments following from her absence with Elisabeth’s account of her full-time (and many-times-over) at-home mother and the psychological detriments following from her inaccessibility. Recently I read a memoir by Reeve Lindbergh in which she described the inaccessibility of her mother, Anne Morrow Lindberg, the primary caregiving parent who pursued her writing from home while her famous husband traveled. I’m seeing a pattern here: mothers who work outside the home are insufficiently available to their children; mothers who stay home are insufficiently available to their children; and mothers who work from home are insufficiently available to their children. I want to suggest that virtually all children will perceive their mother (or primary caregiving parent) as insufficiently accessible—whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically—because a child’s appetite for parental attention and affirmation is, by psychology and circumstance, insatiable.
The feeling that one is alone, abandoned, insufficently cared for and attended to, is one of the existential conditions of being human—it seems to be wired into our neural networks, a crucial part of almost every psychological stage of child and adult development—and it often gets concentrated in and projected onto the figure of the absent mother. We presently attribute this, quite naturally, to the influx of women into the workforce. But the absent mother is a strikingly present figure even in historical contexts in which the at-home mother is the norm: think about, say, Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat,” published in 1957, in which the mother, “out for the day,” leaves the door open for all manner of havoc and mayhem to ensue. Or think about all of the fairy tales premised on the absent mother: “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “The Wolf and the Kids,” “Snow White.” (In fact, one is hard pressed to come up with a single fairy tale that features a living, available, natural mother to the protagonist!) Whether one attributes it to a Lacanian “lack,” a Freudian “complex,” or any other psychological mechanism, the phenomenon seems to be similar: a fundamental—indeed, structural—fear of abandonment is constitutive of human identity.
Don’t get me wrong, though: to suggest that a mother (or father) can never be sufficiently accessible and available to satisfy her children is not to relieve parents of the duty to make themselves as accessible and available as they are able! Furthermore, it seems to me absurd to suggest (though many do) that a mother who is away from her children forty hours each week, particularly if the separation begins early, will have the same kind of relationship with her children—the same comfort-level, the same experience, the same authority—as a mother who is with her children during those forty hours. (I don’t have the experience to say which kind of relationship is better or worse—but that there will be some kind of difference seems very plain to me.) The simple, if troubling, truth is that children fall deeply in love with the person who is their most predictable and consistent caregiver; this is a crucial survival mechanism for defenseless infants, and it’s something that, when they’re not being attacked, most working mothers that I know acknowledge.
There are a lot of good reasons for mothers to choose to be their children’s primary caregiver: there are economic benefits, personal benefits, and, yes, benefits to the children. Some of those reasons have worked on me in my decision to forego the career for which my education prepared me and stay home with my children. But to attribute the spectre of the absent mother, and the putative pscyhological and social ills attendant on that absence, wholly to women’s entrance into the workforce is to misunderstand the phenomenon and, ultimately, to alienate the very group whose cooperation is most vital in shifting the current dynamic.