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October, 1991
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A psychosocial analysis explores some fantasies underpinning sexual asymmetry with emphasis on female childrearing and denial of maternal subjectivity. It is suggested that whereas in the past gender-role distinction between the sexes was rooted in procreativity, recent technological innovations have liberalized definitions in the West, offering greater choice and self-determination as we now can discriminate between sexuality, reproduction and childrearing. Nevertheless, underlying unconscious paradigms (such as the mother as postnatal placenta, the baby as benign or parasitic dependent fetal being and idealized interuterine 'fusion'), continue to inform and restrict parenting modes. A model composed of four prevalent parental orientations is presented-Facilitator and Regulator mothers; Participator and Renouncer fatherswith an alternative orientation based on intersubjective acknowledgement of self, partner and baby as separate, different yet emotionally similar individuals. The latter approach, upholds multiple cross-gender identifications and adult interdependence rather than the ethos of independence. Intersubjectivity is seen to be capable of diminishing conceptual distance in intrapsychic and interpersonal configurations, both between infant and adult, and between male and female parents as discrete categories.


1. Most societies have excluded men from the birthchamber (Mead & Newton, 1967). However, ethological studies have shown that exposure to newborns creates maternal behavior in virgin female and male rats (Shaw & Darling, 1984). Since Western fathers have been welcomed in delivery rooms, and mothers have been offered early contact with their newborns, a change has been seen to occur in their bonding patterns with their infants. Paternal 'engrossment' is a recognized phenomenon (Greenberg, 1984) heightened by early exclusive contact, such as that following caesarean birth. In a triadic situation, fathers with early extensive exposure hold their infant twice as much as the mother, vocalize and touch the infant more, but smile less than the mother (Parke, 1979). Mothers and fathers show distinctive 'species specific' sequences of first tactile contact with their newborn [finger-tip touch of extremities to stroking palm-contact with trunk] (Klaus & Kennell, 1983), maintain eye contact, pitch their voices high and are equally proficient at discriminating crying and responding to infant cues, although differing somewhat in the specific response. Clearly, as these two paediatric experts suggest, a 'fail safe' overdetermined 'cascade of interactions' operate in unison to ensure mother-baby bonding, [all of which can be seen to equally apply to fathers] including cutaneous and proprioceptive olfactory, visual, vocal stimulation, and increased secretion of maternal hormones, oxytocin and prolactin (Klaus & Kennell, 1983). The later, prolactin, appears in high concentrations during pregnancy, increases dramatically with early postpartum nipple stimulation and decreases rapidly after breastfeeding begins. Through prolactin, milk production can be induced in non-pregnant women and adoptive mothers. However, it also circulates in low levels in males and can be inadvertently activated by some interventions, such as administration of phenothiazines, a high dose of which can induce lactation in men. It is not too difficult to make the imaginative leap to futuristic paternal nursing. This flight of fancy pales beside the remarkable statement made by J.Z. Young, Emeritus Professor of Anatomy at University College London, that 'the differentiation of mankind into physically and psychologically different groups with specialized functions is becoming less marked. Even the secondary sex characteristics are minimized (men with long hair, women with small breasts). One can imagine that if extogenesis ever became practicable mankind might cease to differentiate into two sexes at all' (Young, 1971, p. 575, my italics).

2. Recent neurological research cites organizing influences on the brain exerted by sexspecific hormones and/or neurotransmitters influencing structural variation (Dorner, 1989), and psychosocial research into expressive actions of neonates suggests that early characteristic differences are apparent between the sexes, with male babies being 'more vigorous and assertive' and females 'more observant of the mother and making more prespeech and more delicate gestures' (Trevarthen, 1979, p. 551).

3. Located in the norm of the times, namely mother-dominated families within a patriarchal society, early psychoanalytic theories stressed achievement of same-sex gender identification (related to hetero/homosexual choice of partner) while neglecting the wealth of possible dual or multiple same or cross-sex identifications with capacities. Nevertheless, all are consistent with an assumption that initially, inherent bisexuality enables both little girls and little boys to form a symbiotic-identification with their primary-care person, invariably a woman (Freud, 1925; Jacobson, 1964; Mahler, 1975). Thus both sexes identify with and wish to emulate the 'omnipotent' nurturing mother on whom they are dependent. With growing differentiation, both boys and girls are seen to try to detach themselves from the archaic mother and the fearful attraction of relapsing back into primary identification and fusion with her. The Patriarchal boy separates off through increasing awareness of his phallic difference. Granted ideological supremacy both in the family and in public because of the very elusiveness of his role, father's unavailability means that until recently, the boy has defined and constructed his masculinity in negative terms, by denigrating all things feminine (Chodorow, 1978). Thus, the patriarchal son repudiates his core of feminine creativity, emphatic relatedness and capacity to nurture. This closing off of early female experience may be envisaged as analogous to the 'masculinization' of the gonads in the female embryo and closing of the penile tract. Under optimal conditions, although acquiring his masculinity the boy need not lose his feminine nurturing/empathic capacities. To put it another way, if he is able to retain a sense of containing an internalized image of his mother's good breast as well as the good penis of his father, through identification, his own penis may acquire 'reparative and creative qualities' (Klein, 1945, p. 412). However, where the father is himself unconsciously dissatisfied with maleness, cruelly competitive or exaggeratedly 'masculine,' or where the enveloping mother is contemptuous of or unable to facilitate the boy's identification with the father, primitive envy of female fecundity and primary identification with mother may prevail undiluted within the learned masculine identity of social ascription of sex beginning at birth.

Conversely, the little girl, who also has to differentiate from her first love object the pre-oedipal all-embracing moon-mother, has nothing intrinsically different with which to liberate herself from dependency and boundary confusion (at times fostered by the mother for her own emotional needs). Ideally, if she has been valued as a unique individual by a fulfilled mother confident in her own female 'personhood,' has access to a caring father-figure, and has a sense of her own inner creativity, she may have the secure base from which to develop her own female identity from within. However, generally, the little girl in patriarchal society has been faced with a daunting task: socially, she has been expected to identify with her domestically powerful yet publicly demeaned self-effacing mother, whom she senses is subtly despised for her very gender. Her own gender often exposes her to double threats of devaluation and sexualization from males even within the 'emotional hothouse' (Homey, 1939) of the family circle. Her father, a mother's son grown up, may impose on her his own expectations, the 'nurturing imperative' of his own male belief in entitlement to her unconditional devotion (Westkott, 1986). Physically, she has no external organs to indicate her future female capacity to bear and suckle a baby. Psychologically she may be plagued by having no evidence that her mother, retaliating for spoiling envy (Klein, 1945), has not robbed her daughter's body of its good contents and future fertility. Finally, the girl is also aware of lacking the psychosocially idealized organ that will enable her to placate or restore the avenging mother' (Heimann, 1951, p. 31) arouse her erotic interest or to be the phallus her mother desires (Lacan, 1958). Little wonder then, that penis envy was found to prevail. Many girls resolve the conflict by splitting-either growing into women who disavowed identification with their early mother's awesome/denigrated maternality, while accepting identification with her active agency and/or basic female sexuality or vice versa.

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Joan Raphael-Leff, M.D., MIPA

The author, member of the British Psycho-Analytic Society and the International Psycho-Analytical Association, has a clinical practice specializing in problems of reproductivity. Also a social psychologist, she has conducted studies and surveys on parenting. She teaches on various training programmes for psychoanalytic psychotherapists in London, and is a member of the Steering Committee of the Royal Society of Medicine's Forum on Maternity and the Newborn and member of the Executive Board of the International Society for Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine. Between 1985-1991: Deputy Editor of the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Author of Psychological Process of Childbearing, 1991, Chapman & Hall, (London); Routledge, (New York). Address correspondence to 1 South Hill Park Gardens, London NW3, 2TD, England.