Oedipus, Reversed

by Elizabeth S. Bernstein

In 1885 Mary Terhune, a mother and published childcare adviser, ended her instructions on how to give baby a bath with this observation:

When perfectly dry, his flesh sweet and pure with the exquisite lustre imparted by bath and friction, he is the most kissable object in nature.1

A quarter century later, at the tail end of the Victorian era, another mother and author, Marion Foster Washburn, offered a similar assessment of infant massage:

Nothing on earth is so delicious to the touch as the firm, fine flesh of a healthy baby! In these strokings and kneadings, something of your mother-love and magnetism passes over into the baby, and you are more closely bound to each other. . . . Touch is especially the love-sense, and we, who cannot yet make little children understand the words, can tell them, through our hands, how dear they are to us and how tenderly we care for them.2

“Tenderness,” in English translation, is also the word Sigmund Freud regularly used to describe the relationship of parent and child. But in his case it was used primarily in the context of warning. The mother, he wrote in 1905, “supplies the child with feelings which arise from her own sexual life; she pats him, kisses him, and rocks him, plainly taking him as a substitute for a perfectly valid sexual object. . . . Excessive parental tenderness surely becomes harmful, because it ‘spoils’ the child and makes him unfit to renounce love temporarily, or to be satisfied with a smaller amount of love later in life. . . . [N]europathic parents, who usually display excessive tenderness, often awaken with their caressing a disposition for neurotic diseases.”3

How much tenderness was too much?

Although Freud may not have been specific, we do know that he scolded his daughter-in-law for overcuddling her three- or four-month-old infant.4 Given that to cross that line threatened psychological disaster, the very uncertainty of its location was all the more reason to keep well to one side of it. A child (particularly a boy) could only grow into a healthy adult, could only avoid the neurosis associated with a lifelong fixation on the parent of the opposite sex, “if the tenderness of the parents has luckily failed to awaken the sexual instinct of the child prematurely.”5

It was, of course, mothers who were most likely to be judged excessively indulgent of their children, men whose role it was to restrain them. Freud’s 1909 paper “Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old-Boy” described the case of Little Hans, who had developed a sudden fear of horses. As Hans’ father wrote to Freud, “No doubt the ground was prepared by sexual excitation due to his mother’s tenderness.”6 Apprehending that the whole source of the problem was that the boy’s love for his mother triggered a fear of castration by his father, Hans’ father would rebuff his son’s efforts to enter the parental bedroom on awakening, saying “As long as you come into our room in the mornings, your fear of horses won’t get better.”7 Hans’ mother’s response to these early-morning paternal warnings against allowing Hans into their bed was to answer “rather irritated, no doubt, that it’s all nonsense, that one minute is after all of no importance, and so on.” Freud recognized the “hard” position in which Hans’ “excellent and devoted mother” found herself, but her husband’s accusation that she had caused their child’s neurosis “on account of her excessive display of affection for him and her too frequent readiness to take him into her bed” was “not without some show of justice.”8 Hans’ phobia resolved, but his parents would divorce.

In 1930 the New York Times proclaimed that “Behaviorism and Freud are dividing the modern occidental world between them.”9 In one sense John Watson, about whom I wrote in my previous column, and Freud could not have been more unalike. Watson claimed not to believe in consciousness, let alone the “unconscious” in which Freud trafficked. Yet they converged to a remarkable degree in their belief in the dangers of mother love. In fact, the argument from Freud quoted above, about parental tenderness “spoiling” the child in such a way that he would grow up with an excessive need for affection, was perfectly in line with the approach of behaviorists like Watson.

Was it the case, then, that the “prodigious increase” in psychoneuroses described by the medical establishment in Freud’s time was attributable to a recent upsurge in maternal “tenderness”? That hardly seems to have been the direction in which things were moving. A century after Freud embarked on his career, British historian Christina Hardyment suggested that the more relevant changes were likely these: “Babies had only recently been kicked out of their mothers’ beds, training in ‘good habits’ was a new art, and breast-feeding was at one of its lowest ebbs.”10 The feminist sociologist Jessie Bernard likewise provided this account of the “differences in mental health between1870 and 1930”:

In general, one might summarize these changes in terms of “the three c’s – carriages, carpets, and cans” – the net effect of which was to separate the child from contact with his mother’s body. Carriages took the baby out of the shawl for transportation purposes. Carpets symbolized abundance in the form of more expensive household furnishings which demand protection against the child’s depredations, so that much of the content of the relationship between a small child and his mother came to have reference to training “not to touch.” And, finally, canned baby food, . . . tended to put the child in front of mother rather than next to her in feeding.11

I wrote last month about the era to which Hardyment and Bernard refer, with “habit-training” meaning the requirement that all bodily functions – eating, sleeping, bowel movements – conform to a rigid timetable. It was an era when observers described parents, who had been warned over a period of decades against any unscheduled attention to their children, as having been convinced to raise their babies “in splendid isolation, ‘untouched by human hands.’”12 Were the children whom Freud called most likely to be afflicted by “nervousness” in later life – those who had shown themselves “insatiable in [their] demands for parental tenderness”13 – really insatiable, or rather suffering under an excessively austere regime?

It has never been a simple matter for any mother to balance her own needs, her relationship with her children, and her relationship with a spouse or partner. For much of the twentieth century, though, the balance was scarcely hers to find. The message driven home by men was that the prioritization of a mother’s relationship with her husband, far from short-changing her children, would save them from her. It was scarcely seen as possible for a woman to have a healthy, robustly physical relationship with husband and child both; this was a zero-sum game in which any abundance of maternal “tenderness” was believed to be associated with – and indeed to advertise – adult sexual inadequacies. “As a mother,” wrote Freud in 1908, “the neurotic woman who is unsatisfied by her husband is over-tender and over-anxious in regard to the child, to whom she transfers her need for love, thus awakening in it sexual precocity.”14

This theme underlay criticism of American mothers for decades thereafter, one of many respects in which Freudian theory had enormous impact far beyond the analyst’s couch. In 1943 the psychiatrist David Levy wrote the book – literally – on Maternal Overprotection.15 This was, he believed, a pathology as damaging as it was widespread; from “clinical study and common observation” he had derived the assumption that “the maternal overprotective attitude is a very common one, very likely universal.”16 This near-universal failing of women was, moreover, associated with deficiencies in sexuality, in what he called “femininity.” The “observation,” he wrote, “that highly maternal women are often sexually maladjusted is consistent with our findings . . . . Further, it appears consistent with the observation that there may be a clash between maternal and sexual drives; a high degree of maternity developing at the expense of femininity.”17

A husband, then, was only doing his duty to his children, preventing them from becoming “mother-bound . . . casualt[ies] of [their] mother’s mismating,”18 by trying to shove the balance back in favor of more sex:

[T]he release of libido through satisfactory sexual relationship shunts off energy that must otherwise flow in other directions – in the case of our group, in the direction of maternity.  The child must bear the brunt of the unsatisfied love life of the mother.  One might theoretically infer that a woman sexually well adjusted could not become overprotective to an extreme degree.19

Levy was echoed a decade-and-a-half later by another medical doctor, David Goodman, who was still worrying about the frequency with which mothers “smothered their children with excessive care, affection and protectiveness,” and still promoting a sexual solution. In Goodman’s 1959 book A Parent’s Guide to the Emotional Needs of Children, the chapter “Live Your Gender!” contained this observation:

If the American mother enjoyed the companionship of a romantic-minded husband, she might be more willing to let her children alone . . . . The truly feminine mother, fulfilled in her marriage to a truly masculine father, does not overprotect, dominate, or over-fondle her children. 20

The influence of these men was considerable. Deploying his “marvelous therapeutic voice,” Levy had even obtained from a pregnant Margaret Mead her assurance that she would try not to be an overprotective mother. The twentieth century’s best-known anthropologist was aware, she recalled in her memoirs, that she was in danger of doing just that, because she had been a “baby carriage peeker,” and Levy identified this “absorbing interest in babies” as a risk factor. “I knew that I would have to work hard not to overprotect my child.” 21

By mid-century no one’s influence on mothers could compare with that of Benjamin Spock, who viewed his own dissemination of psychoanalytic theory as “his most significant contribution to advice on child-rearing.”22 It wasn’t only that a young boy’s expressions of affection towards his mother needed to be kept at appropriate levels (“[W]hen he carries his physical ardor beyond a hug, she tactfully distracts his attention”23), it was also that he needed to understand the reason was the claims someone more powerful had on her:

[In] the ordinary family [the child] is prevented from feeling that he can  have [the mother] all to himself by three interrelated factors: his awe of his father, his realization that his mother’s romantic love belongs to her husband, her tactful refusal to let the boy become too intensely affectionate toward her in a physical sense.24

In all the centuries before the twentieth, it had not been at all uncommon for children to be nursed by their mothers for years, nor for them to sleep with their parents. To Spock, breastfeeding beyond a year risked making the child “unnaturally dependent” (assuming, of course, that a mother was breastfeeding at all, which fewer and fewer did), and bed-sharing was unthinkable. A child’s motivation for wanting to be with the parents at night wasn’t so much a desire for closeness as a desire to keep them apart. It was a question  of “romantic jealousy,” with the child wanting “to get into their bed because subconsciously he doesn’t want them to be alone together. 25 For that reason a mother who offered a boy additional comfort after a nightmare only risked making things worse, as bad dreams were likely caused in the first place by “Freudian rivalries” and subsequent fears of emasculating paternal retribution.

Spock’s books, because they translate Freud’s ideas into concrete childrearing advice, illustrate with great clarity how for most of the twentieth century the psychoanalytic overlay successfully blocked any possibility of perceiving that children might require substantially more physical closeness with their parents. The needs expressed by children who clamored for more than the recommended measure of holding and cuddling, especially if they persisted past earliest babyhood, were no longer perceived as legitimate infantile needs. They were, rather, precocious sexual needs, and as such one could not seriously consider meeting them.

My last two columns have also focused on aspects of the campaign by twentieth-century male “experts,” both prewar and postwar, to convince mothers of the need to pull back from their children. What bears additional emphasis is the extent to which the effort to reshape motherhood went hand in hand with the desire to increase women’s sexual availability to men, and the associated expectation of female passivity in the sexual realm.

By mid-century in the United States, to be “feminine” meant to be sexually receptive, to allow a man to guide the use of one’s body. An activity like breastfeeding, which required a woman to handle and become familiar with her own anatomy, was therefore fundamentally “unfeminine” in a cultural sense. “[T]he reason modern American mothers can’t nurse their infants,” Better Homes and Gardens told us in 1950, is that “they’re afraid they’ll be embarrassed making excuses when it’s time to feed their babies; afraid their husbands won’t find them attractive with a baby at the breast; squeamish at the thought of the intimate personal contact demanded by nursing a baby.”26

In 1898 Freud had observed that in the next century, “our civilization will have to learn to become compatible with the claims of our sexuality!”27 It would be hard to deny that over the subsequent decades Western civilization did just that, though not necessarily accommodating the sexual claims of men and women to the same degree. It was not until late in the twentieth century, as second-wave feminism encouraged increasing resistance to male domination, that parents began the needed work of moving society towards a place of compatibility with sexuality and with the child’s need for nurturant physical contact.

But before that, during all the decades of Freud’s greatest influence, the direction of the shift from previous centuries was clear. A mother’s physical nurturance of her children had come to be seen as dangerous, her tender touch to belong more to her husband than her infants. The men who had accomplished this re-balancing identified the complex which they sought to resolve by the name of “Oedipus.” Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus, who took what did not belong to him, having wreaked grievous, indeed ultimate, harm on his father. The male experts who continually chipped away at the amount of nurturant touch infants could expect to receive, who successfully redefined where it was appropriate for women to direct their affection – these men adopted a label that attributed to their sons the desire to steal from them, to harm them, to displace them. Surely that represents one of history’s prime examples of psychological projection on a mass scale.

1 Marion Harland (pseudonym), Common Sense in the Nursery, 1885 (Scribner’s, New York), quoted in Daniel Beekman, The Mechanical Baby: A Popular History of the Theory and Practice of Child Raising,1977, p. 90

2 Marion Foster Washburn, The Mother’s Yearbook, 1908 (MacMillan, New York), quoted in Beekman, op cit., p. 104

3 Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, 1905, in A.A. Brill, The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, p. 615

4 Shari Thurer, Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother, 1994, p. 242, citing Paul Roazen, Freud and his Followers, p. 445

5 Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, in A.A. Brill, op. cit., p. 616

6 Sigmund Freud, The Sexual Enlightenment of Children, 1963 edition, Philip Rieff, ed., p. 63

7 Ibid., p. 87

8 Ibid. p. 68

9 New York Times, Nov. 27, 1930, p.24, quoted in Lucille C. Birnbaum, “Behaviorism in the 1920’s,” American Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 1, Spring 1955, pp. 15-30 at 21.

10 Christina Hardyment, Dream Babies: Child Care from Locke to Spock, 1984, p. 110.

11 Jessie Bernard, The Future of Motherhood, 1975, p. 229, quoting her own 1957 book, Social Problems at Midcentury, p. 376

12 C. Anderson Aldrich and Mary M. Aldrich, Babies Are Human Beings, 1938, p. 102

13 Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, in A.A. Brill, op. cit., p. 615

14 Sigmund Freud, Sexuality and the psychology of love, 1908, p. 38

15 David M.Levy, Maternal Overprotection, 1943, Columbia University Press

16 Ibid., p. 15

17 Ibid., p. 139

18 Ibid., p. 34

19 Ibid., pp. 121-122

20 David Goodman, A Parent’s Guide to the Emotional Needs of Children, 1959, quoted in Maxine L. Margolis, Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed, 1984, pp. 75-76

21 Margaret Mead, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years, 1972, quoted in Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women, 1978 edition, p. 234

22 Shari Hays, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, 1996, p. 204 n.53, quoting Lynn Z. Bloom, Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical, 1972, p.126

23 Benjamin Spock, Dr. Spock Talks With Mothers, 1964, p.199

24 Benjamin Spock, Problems of Parents, 1962, p. 194, quoted in Ehrenreich and English, op.cit., p. 249

25 Benjamin Spock, Baby and Child Care, 1957 edition, p. 361

26 Ann Usher, “Can today’s mothers nurse their babies?” Better Homes and Gardens, January 1950, p. 70

27 Sigmund Freud, Early Psychoanalytic Writings, 1963 edition, Philip Rieff, ed., p. 221