Chodorow on the Motive to Mother
The most sophisticated and sustained attempt to grapple seriously with the question of why women would want to mother is Nancy Chodorow's book on the subject, The Reproduction of Mothering. In order to explain the replication in each generation of women's motive to mother and the relative lack of this motive in men, Chodorow uses psychoanalytic theory, especially as interpreted by the object relations school. Chodorow compares her analysis of the reproduction of mothering within the nuclear family to Talcott Parsons's analysis of the relationship between middle-class family structure and children's achievement motivation, and to Max Horkheimer's analysis of the German authoritarian family and compliance motivation. Whereas these theorists were largely concerned with male motivation, Chodorow is concerned primarily
with the internalization of gender differentiation and especially the motivation of women.
Chodorow disagrees with social learning theorists who claim in effect that girls are made into mothers by parents who give them dolls instead of trucks and expect them to help with child care, by texts that depict women mainly as mothers, and by schools that teach girls home economics instead of shop. Although agreeing that reinforcement and modeling do play a part, Chodorow feels that only psychoanalysis that focuses on motivation more than behavior and more on early learning than late can explain so basic and pervasive a phenomenon as women's propensity to mother.
Chodorow's central idea is to link women's mothering to women's more relational personality. She argues that the feminine personality includes a fundamental tendency to define self in terms of relationship and that the masculine personality defines self in terms of denial of relationship. This meshes precisely with the conclusions from our research based on self-report described in Chapter 3. Rather than defining women as those who are lacking (according to Freud, the central fact about women was that they lack a penis and principles), Chodorow implies that it is men who lack. Women mother and are relational; men do not mother and are less relational. Chodorow offers an explanation.
Although some feminists argue that women are not more relational than men, it is much harder to argue that women do not mother more than men. Chodorow's closely connecting the two strengthens the argument for women's greater relational orientation by making it as universal as women's mothering. Clearly, there is some circularity here, because Chodorow proceeds to explain women's mothering by women's greater relational orientation. She seeks to avoid circularity, however, by positing a specific mechanism by which women's more relational personality is produced. According to Chodorow, gender-differentiated personalities are reproduced because mothers themselves experience, and hence, respond to girls differently from boys, even in earliest infancy. Although mothers have a sense of oneness and continuity with both genders, Chodorow contends that this sense of relatedness is stronger and lasts longer with daughters than with sons because of the mother's own female gender identity. The mother projects her own sense of self onto her female infants and tends to experience them as less
separate from herself. Chodorow also brings in a presumption of the mother's heterosexuality into her argument about why mothers bond more closely with their daughters than their sons. She argues that mothers respond to male infants as male "opposites" and begin to sexualize the relationship. These processes then serve to separate the son from her and to bind the daughter to her. Along with other psychoanalytically oriented writers, Chodorow tends to link heterosexuality with gender identity. I question this connection.
To support her argument empirically, Chodorow relies largely on clinical accounts of pathological mothers who presumably manifest normal tendencies in exaggerated form. Because more cases are reported of pathological mothers who deny separateness to their daughters and refuse to allow them to individuate than are reported of mothers who do the same with sons, Chodorow concludes that all mothers tend to deny separateness to their daughters more than to their sons. Furthermore, she finds that, even though clinicians may not point it out, the cases involving sons indicate that the mother reacts to the son as a sexual other rather than as an extension of herself.
Thus, Chodorow feels that it is women's differential feelings for and treatment of infants that cause females to have greater feelings of primary identification and primary love, to maintain less clear boundaries between self and other, to experience themselves in relationship to others, and to be more concerned with relational issues than are men. Although she also argues that it is easier for the boy to differentiate himself from the mother because he sooner or later recognizes his anatomical difference from the mother, Chodorow's emphasis is on the mother's own attitude and her own response to physical difference, not on the child's response. Chodorow does not take a strong version of the merging-with-the-mother position discussed in the last chapter. Her analysis is considerably more parsimonious in this respect than Benjamin's or Keller's.
According to Chodorow, girls' tendencies to be attached to their mother do not basically change in the oedipal period, when sexual preference is thought to be established. Even as girls turn to the father (for aid in the process of differentiating self from mother) and finally become, as Chodorow puts it, "genitally heterosexual," they do not give up their primary attachment to the mother. Chodorow agrees with Freud's contention that girls retain their involvement
with both parents, whereas boys escape more completely from the mother by identifying with the father.