Conceptualizing Gender (8)

No to Exclusive Mothering by Women


Conceptualizing Gender (8)
by Azadeh Azad

Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Key words: Object, Modern nuclear family, Mothering by women, Oedipus complex, Dependency, Emotional independence, Misogyny, Aggression

Object Relations Gender Theory

Many approaches to personality development acknowledge some of Freud's fundamental premises, while discarding others. One such approach has been the object relations theories, which were developed by several specialists. However, it is Melanie Klein (1882 – 1960), Austrian-British psychoanalyst, who is generally recognized as the originator of the modern theory, wherein the mother is the main object.

In object relations theory, the term “object” indicates a part of a person (the breast, for instance) or a whole person (usually mother or father) that infants unconsciously merge into their own psychic structure (i.e., introjection), or incorporate into their psyche before projecting onto other individuals. In other words, the object relations theory analyses the connection between a subject and their internalized objects, together with external objects. Accordingly, infants establish a relationship both with an external mother and an internal one. The agreement between self and others facilitates the formation of infants’ sense of self and subjectivity. These agreements will be discussed over and over during lifetime regarding attachment and detachment.

Melanie Klein identifies the mother as the main parent in children’s developmental process and thus replaces the psychology of the boys’ relationship to the father with the psychology of the girls and boys relationship to the mother. In this perspective, children’s jealousy and paranoid fears incited by an imaginary matricide precedes their unconscious guilt associated with an imaginary patricide. Femininity and masculinity are formed in opposition to an extremely powerful mother image.

Object relations theory contrasts with Freudian theory in three major points: 1) it has much more to do with interpersonal relationships; 2) it focuses on the infant- mother relationship rather than the infant-father; 3) it proposes that individuals are mainly inspired by human contact rather than by sexual satisfaction; and 4) it identifies femininity with relationship and masculinity with autonomy. (1)

Exclusive Mothering by women

In Western societies, despite equal socialization of girls and boys, there are still countless gendered preferences among them. As a result, two feminist academics, Dorothy Dinnerstein (1923–1992), psychologist, and Nancy Chodorow (born 1944), psychoanalyst and sociologist, drawing on the works of Melanie Klein and Karen Horney, attempted to find out how gender configurations are unconsciously reproduced despite our conscious plans, and how female mothering influences individuals’ gender differences.

In her book The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976), published in the UK as The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World (1987), Dorothy Dinnerstein proposed that aggression, sexism and misogyny have their source in women’s monopoly over child-rearing. She claimed that women’s exclusive mothering and infants’ vacillating relationship with their mother, who is simultaneously nurturing and controlling, incites fear and hatred of women and of anything culturally marked as ‘feminine’ or ‘female’.

Psychoanalytic theory describes the "fundamental ambivalence" about women as "the fact that the early mother . . . is a source, like nature, of ultimate distress as well as ultimate joy. Like nature, she is both nourishing and unreliable. The infant loves her touch, warmth, shape, taste, sound, movement. . . . And it hates her because, like nature, she does not perfectly protect and provide for it" (2)

She also noticed that these problems underlying a child's encounter with its mother and separation from her occurred in combination with gender relations. Consequently, Dinnerstein suggested that women and men divide the childcare equally as a way to prevent and combat sexism, misogyny and “human malaise”. Notwithstanding her suggestion, Dinnerstein was quite cognizant of the strong resistance to transformation of traditional customs, as these forms of child rearing also provide defensive emotional conveniences.

Dinnerstein maintained that motherhood is not biological, but socially constructed; it is a consequence of sole mothering by women, which is both pointless and unwanted. The mother’s body is the first object, the first other, an infant comes to know. Therefore, as everyone is mothered by a woman, everyone learns to perceive woman as Other and woman’s body as an attractive but undependable source. She argues:

"So long as the first parent is a woman, women will inevitably be pressed into the dual role of indispensable quasi-human supporter and deadly quasi-human enemy of the human self" (3).

Regarding the title of her book as well as the implicit agreement of women and men to maintain the present gender arrangements, Dinnerstein provides the following explanation:

“The images of the mermaid and the minotaur … [are] meant to connote … that until we grow strong enough to renounce the pernicious prevailing form of collaboration between the sexes, both man and woman will remain semi-human, monstrous.” (4)

Nancy Chodorow’s ideas are very similar to Dinnerstein’s. In her book The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978), Chodorow uses object relations theory and sets a child’s innate libidinal and aggressive drives in the context of interpersonal relations. Instead of focusing on sexuality per se, she emphasizes intimacy and separation in the family, particularly between mother and child. The term "object relations" suggests the self-structure that an individual internalizes in early childhood, which becomes a template for forming and sustaining relationships in adulthood.

Gender identity in the child is created through a two-stage process: 1) the construction of a symbiotic relationship to the mother during the first three years of life, 2) the following termination of that relationship through separation (telling oneself apart from one's mother) and differentiation from the mother / independence / individuation (forming one's identity, own abilities and personal characteristics.) Because of the asymmetrical organization of parenting in nuclear family, i.e., because mothering is done almost exclusively by women, the pre-oedipal period leads to very distinct experiences between the sexes in oedipal object-relations and in the way these relations are psychologically internalized, leading to different relational abilities and gender identities for girls and boys.

When mothers are women, the boys form a sense of independent agency easily, by separating themselves from the emotional intimacy with the mother and by identifying with the agency of the father and imitating his independence and attention to the mother/wife. However, masculinity comes to be a problem in a sense that does not apply to femininity. A definite consequence of a boy being nurtured by a woman proves to turn masculinity into an issue. In a heterosexual setting, the mother’s gender identity makes her unlike her son. A boy makes a connection between these issues and his gender identification too. There is nothing masculine about his being attached to his mother, dependent on her, and his identifying with her. So, boys will have a more difficult time learning the masculine gender role than feminine. A boy has to reject dependence on mother and refuse to be attached to her and to identify with her. Because his father is devoid of feminine traits, the boy simultaneously represses inside himself attributes he considers to be feminine and, following the father’s attitude, disparages women and anything he deems to be feminine in the outside world. Therefore, boys perceive and construct their idea of masculinity basically in negative regards.

This process is different for the girls. The mother identifies more profoundly with her daughters, and the daughters’ emotional attachment is also more prone to be built on their feeling themselves as replicas or annexes of their mothers. So, when the girls try to make their father their new love object, this is blocked in their ego construction by the strong attachment to the mother. While boys experience love as a dyadic relationship, girls find themselves trapped in a libidinal triangle wherein the ego is divided between the love for the mother, the love of the father, and anxiety over the rapport of the mother to the father. So, girls are less capable to separate, more predisposed to boundary mix-up or clouding of the distinction between the object world and themselves. (5)

As a result of being mothered by a woman, girls’ pre-oedipal love for the mother and anxiety over pre-oedipal concerns persist in a sense that they do not for boys. Girls feel themselves as less defined and distinct than boys, as possessing leakier ego boundaries.

Furthermore, this absence of separation in women informs us why they become concerned with the same relational matters central to motherhood: affection and an absence of ego detachment. Women’s self is formed as a self-in-relation (in intimate relations with others), while men’s self, also because of their heterosexual masculinity, is a self-in-denial of relations and expressed by distance and separation. In the context of exclusive mothering by women in the male-dominated nuclear family, men don’t have the emotional abilities that women need to be satisfied in relationships. So, instead of resorting to men to satisfy their unconscious need for intimacy, they re-establish the early infant-mother bond by becoming mothers themselves. And because women continue to be the only providers of mothering and men continue to avoid intimacy as fathers, the vicious cycle is prolonged into another generation.

For both girls and boys, mothers represent symbiosis and lack of autonomy. Boys’ Oedipus complex and hostility towards their mothers is wholly linked to issues of masculinity, with the depreciation of women as its usual result. Girls’ Oedipus complex and hostility towards their mother continue to be linked to their close relationship to her or take the form of self-disapproval. However, its habitual consequence is identification with their mother and recognition of their own femininity.

The above patriarchal scenario does not have to be prolonged from generation to generation. Chodorow argues that maternal attributes are not inborn in women, but are acquired as outcome of mothering. "Women are prepared psychologically for mothering through the developmental situation in which they grow up, and in which women have mothered them" (6).

Chodorow offers the following solution: "Children could be dependent from the outset on people of both genders and establish an individuated sense of self in relation to both. In this way, masculinity would not become tied to denial of dependence and devaluation of women. Feminine personality would be less preoccupied with individuation, and children would not develop fears of maternal omnipotence and expectations of women’s unique self-sacrificing qualities" (7).

Many other feminists agree with this solution - that if infant and child rearing is done to the same extent by women and men, female and male children would have more similar mind-set and attitudes, and there would be less misogyny and more gender equality. They focus more on the praxis of mothering than the biology of motherhood, and believe that both genders can act as co-parents or main parent. The concept of male mothering (the term 'mothering' is being used as a role) bluntly questions and sheds light on the trusted, internalized and naturalized idea that the only people who are able to nurture and bring up children appropriately are mothers who do not question gender roles, gender identities and gender relations.

Following the Frankfurt School, Chodorow argues that the central strains in the occupational structure of the family is the asymmetrical relation of the mother and the father to children, which leads to the masculine urge to dominate women. She focuses on this masculine urge to dominate by examining it within the process of psychosexual development of children within the nuclear family. The fact that it is more difficult for girls to have emotional independence /individuation than the boys is a result of both girls and boys being brought up in families where women, who identify much more with girls than boys, are responsible for primary parenting tasks.

Given that mothering is the exclusive task of women, girls’ pre-oedipal phase becomes longer than that of boys, and women, more than men, become more receptive to and consumed by relational issues that enter mothering—sense of original attachment and identification, insufficient differentiation or individuation, body boundary and ego boundary difficulties and illusive primary love (infant’s pleasant relation to an environment indistinct from herself/himself).

Finally, in all patriarchal and class societies, exclusive mothering by women and the division of labour based on gender are structurally connected to all other social institutions. In capitalist societies, exclusive mothering by women is essential to the connections between gender organization, especially in the family, and economic system. The modern nuclear family creates a type of masculinity in boys that helps to reproduce a socio-economic system that is based on competition and male supremacy:

“Women's mothering in the isolated nuclear family of contemporary capitalist society creates specific personality characteristics in men that reproduce both an ideology and psychodynamic of male superiority and submission to the requirements of production. It prepares men for participation in a male-dominant family and society, for their lesser emotional participation in family life, and for their participation in the capitalist world of work.” (8)

Conclusion of social constructionist theories

Gender is dynamically created within social interactions. It is what an individual does, rather than what she/he is. Gender is an achievement in performing expected actions and behaviours. The enactment of gender varies according to historical time periods, countries and cultures, social relations, etc.

Although social constructionist theories of gender have been beneficial, they too contain shortcomings. In these theories, gender is simply a subject-position in discourse or a performance, sex and bodily activities disappear from the gender definition. Exclusively cultural and semiotic description of gender is as invalid as biological reductionism. The body-canvas on which cultural values are painted has its own attributes and is not fixed.

Bodies are relevant in the making of gender. There are bodily experiences and practices, such as giving birth, pleasure, sickness, producing, and aging that cannot be overlooked. For instance, men experience occupational health risks, bodily harms in sports or gang fights, loss of physical competence in manual occupations or sports, impotence and untimely death.

To be continued.


1. Klein, Melanie. 1997 (1932) The Psychoanalysis of Children. Random House: London, UK.

2. Dinnerstein, Dorothy. 1976. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. Harper and Row: New York. P.95

3. Ibid, P.113.

4. Ibid, P.5.

5. Chodorow, Nancy. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. U of California: Berkley. P.110.

6. Ibid, P.39.

7. Ibid, P. 218.

8. Ibid, PP.180-81.


~ Dr. A. Azad is a sociologist and an independent scholar.


more from Azadeh Azad