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MATERNAL ABSENCE

Entry Citation:

Vallance, Denise. “Maternal Absence.” Encyclopedia of Motherhood. 2010.

Nearly 7 million U.S. children, about a third of all children with a nonresident parent, live apart from a biological mother.

Although this reference material includes mothers who chose to be noncustodial and other cases, it is excellent in it’s discussion on the effects of maternal absence on the children.

Maternal Absence

Most mothers expect to live with and care for their children from childhood through to adolescence. However, either through choice or force of circumstance or a combination of both, some mothers find themselves living apart from their children on a long-term or permanent basis. The process of maternal absence typically involves a physical, emotional, social, and sometimes legal shift in the nature and quality of a woman’s relationship to her birth children.

The last century has seen an increase in maternal absence, and the main reason appears to be the diversification of family structures. Among these changes are a decline in fertility rates, an increase in nonmarital cohabitation or common-law relations (including same-sex couples), an increase in the divorce rate, and an increase in the prevalence of reproductive technology. In the last 100 years, blended- and lone-parent families have replaced the nuclear family as the most common family structures in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Reasons for Maternal Absence

There is nothing new about mothers leaving their children or handing them over to other people, as has been seen throughout history. For example, the Greeks and Romans left their unwanted babies on the mountainside. One of the most well-known examples in the Bible describes how the mother of Moses sent her baby into the bulrushes to be found by the princess so that he could escape the fate of fellow Jews at the hands of the Egyptian enslavers.

In times of war and political unrest, children are often sent away to relatives or strangers who live in the safety of the countryside—as is the case of children who were evacuated from London to escape the bombings during World War II. On a grander scale, thousands of Jewish children were sent out of Europe to escape the Holocaust.

Economic policies and the demand for cheap labor also lead mothers to part from their children. Many women from the Philippines and from countries in south Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean leave their children in kinship care in order to care for other people’s children in North America and Britain. These women work for years, sometimes decades, in low-paying jobs so that they can send money home to educate their children. In some African countries, out of desperation, families sell their children into slavery.

Some mothers lose their legal rights to parent due to incarceration, institutionalization, abandonment, allegations of abuse, or history of substance abuse or addiction. Others may be separated from their children because their ex-partners engage in maternal alienation, in which the ex-partner refuses to let the mother see her children.

Other mothers may relinquish their children for the purpose of adoption due to emotional, relational, or social circumstances that will not allow for adequate care of their child. Military service, study, work, adventure, and personal growth are other reasons that some mothers leave their children in the care of others.

Stigma Related to Maternal Absence

Mothers living apart from their biological children are greatly stigmatized. The woman who disrupts the maternal bond by living separately from her children threatens the deeply entrenched, idealized image of the traditional family in which the woman’s primary (if not sole) responsibility is to care for her biological offspring. In a world that values maternal presence, mothers who live apart from their children are often seen as unfit, unnatural, improper, or even contemptible, thereby deviating from the dominant social and moral expectations of society. Because a mother often is held primarily responsible for her children, her absence is implicated in any negative outcome associated with her children.

Research suggests that noncustodial mothers who voluntarily gave up custody reported they felt stigmatized by strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family. Studies show that absent mothers feel pressured to explain their circumstances. Though women who choose to be childless are often seen as selfish, it is often seen as more socially acceptable than a mother who has abdicated the care of her children. Additional research indicates that absent mothers tend to be viewed more negatively than absent fathers in terms of interpersonal adjustment, psychological deviance, morality, and professional competence. These mothers are seen as lacking respect for themselves and for their children, and as irresponsible and avoiding family obligations. They have sometimes even been viewed as depraved, immoral, or crazy. The result for the mother is that any feelings of grief and loss of their children are intensified by the shame and social isolation at home, work, and in the everyday world.

Affects of Maternal Absence on Children

An abundance of theoretical and empirical literature focuses on the negative affects of maternal absence on children; however, absent fathers are not scrutinized in the same way as absent mothers. There is a disproportionate amount of scholarly attention given to maternal absence.

In the dialogue of “caregivers” or “parents,” the assumption is most often made that the writer’s intention is to refer to the mother. This is exemplified in the famous quotation by Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, who continues to be cited in texts on parenting: “There is no such thing as a baby,” meaning that without a mother, an infant cannot exist.

John Bowlby, whose career as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst spans from the 1940s to the late 1980s, is most well known for developing Attachment Theory, which has implications for understanding the effects of maternal absence on children. An attachment is an emotional bond or tie between a preferential caregiver and a child for the purpose of protecting children from danger and providing them with a sense of safety and security. Bowlby’s view had ethological/evolutionary origins, as he observed a biological predisposition in infancy within many species to obtain physical proximity with a parent in the event of danger, which ultimately provided for the survival of the species.

Infants develop attachments to adults who have been consistent care givers from approximately 6 months to 2 years of age. Secure attachments are created when the adult is perceived by the infant to be sensitive and responsive in social interactions, especially when the infant is distressed. Insecure attachments are created when the adult is perceived by the infant to be unavailable or unresponsive, or is inconsistently responsive, to the infant’s needs. Infants need to have secure relationships with adult caregivers, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur. When events interfere with attachment, such as an abrupt separation of a child from a significant caregiver, most often the mother, there are short-term and sometimes long-term negative effects on the child’s emotional, relational, and cognitive life.

Nearly 7 million U.S. children, about a third of all children with a nonresident parent, live apart from a biological mother.

 

Psychological Process of Separation

Bowlby describes the psychological process an infant goes through when he or she is deprived of, or separated from, his or her primary caregiver in terms of a framework of reactions to separation—where protest upon separation leads to despair and then detachment. Protest begins with the infant perceiving a threat of separation, and then upon separation, an urgent effort to recover the lost parent. Protest lasts as long as a week and intensifies at night, and it is marked by crying, anger, attempts at escaping, and searching for the parent. On occasion, the infant has feelings of hope and an expectation that the parent will return. Despair follows protest and involves apathy, diminished movement, intermittent crying, sadness, withdrawal from contact, and an increased likelihood of hostility toward another child or a favorite object brought from home. A phase of mourning for the loss of the attachment figure seems to take place. The final phase of detachment is characterized by a return to sociability, where attempts by other adults to offer care are no longer spurned. Interestingly, the infant who reaches this stage will behave in a remarkably abnormal way upon reunion with the primary caregiver, such as appearing to ignore or not recognize the parent, or alternating between crying and appearing expressionless. The detachment period can persist to some extent following reunion with the expression of clingy behavior suggesting a fear of further abandonment.

In older children who are beyond infancy (0–3 years), the process of grief related to separation and loss is more complex. Every person’s experience with grief will be different; however, people’s mourning responses tend to fall into three basic categories: early grief, acute grief, and subsiding grief. In early grief, there is a shocking, numbing alarm, denial, and disbelief. Acute grief typically involves longing, yearning and pining, searching, disorganization, and despair. Subsiding grief is characterized by integration of loss and grief, one in which a child is able to invest in a new life that takes the loss into account but is not preoccupied with it.

The effects of separation from a primary caregiver on children can be severe, lasting well into adult life if the grief is not resolved. However, studies suggest that children who have sufficient and positive information about the circumstances leading up to maternal separation and family reorganization manage better, irrespective of maternal absence.

—Denise Vallance

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