The Maternalists: Psychoanalysis, Motherhood and the British Welfare State 
by Shaul Bar-Haim.
Pennsylvania, 352 pp., £60, August 2021, 978 0 8122 5315 3
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Out​ of every hundred working-class men considered for military service at the end of the 19th century, 33 were rejected. The poor health of soldiers fighting in the Boer War made the state of the nation’s young men a matter of public concern. The blame wasn’t put on urban poverty, however, but on ‘ignorance on the part of mothers of the necessary conditions of bringing up healthy children’, as Major General Sir Frederick Maurice put it. Declining birth rates, rising infant mortality and anxieties about securing the empire focused government attention on the new ‘science’ of mothercraft.

The early decades of the 20th century saw the rise of a culture of expertise around child health and development. Feeding and Care of Baby (1913) by Frederic Truby King, a New Zealand-born doctor, was reprinted several times in Britain after he visited the country in 1917. He worried about the ‘injudicious handling’ of the ‘babies of the Empire’; good habits, he said, came from the strict allowance of mother’s milk, ‘the only perfect food – the baby’s birthright’. ‘The power of a mother, consciously exerted’ was Marie Stopes’s answer to imperial decline in Radiant Motherhood (1920). Child welfare policy wasn’t new: between 1870 and 1893 Parliament passed a number of education acts aimed at getting children out of work and into schools; early registration of births and health inspections of schools and (mainly working-class) homes were introduced in 1907. But the specialisation of knowledge around ‘the child’ led to new official discourses about childhood and the maternal role. ‘Is it not monstrous,’ Truby King wrote, quoting the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, ‘that the fate of a new generation should be left to the chances of unreasoning custom, impulse, fancy?’ State and science, he added, should override ‘the prejudiced counsel of grandmothers’.

Psychological Care for Infant and Child (1928) by the American behaviourist John Watson (a follower of Truby King) found enthusiastic readers in interwar Britain. Behaviourist thinking separated the adult and the child into discrete categories. The child is the ‘shadow’ cast by the adult citizen, more animal than human: ‘If you expected a dog to grow up and be useful as a watchdog,’ Watson wrote, ‘useful for anything except a lapdog, you wouldn’t dare treat it the way you treat your child.’ He allowed parents, ‘if you must’, to ‘kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.’ The imperative to rear a robust ‘watchdog’ continued into the Second World War and beyond (Watson’s ‘lapdog’ figures as the future neurotic or homosexual).

The emergence of child psychoanalysis in the 1920s marked a shift in emphasis from the management of children’s bodily needs and conduct to the conflicts in their minds. Doctors compared the symptoms of war trauma in adults to infantile modes of psychic functioning: observing regressive episodes in shellshock victims, the psychoanalyst Karl Abraham was reminded of ‘a terrified little child’. Perhaps the line between adulthood and childhood, the ‘authoritarian gap’ as Melanie Klein called it, was not so clear cut. Following visits to Polish orphanages after the Armistice, the child psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld wrote that ‘the black misery of prisoners of war is very like the depressions of infancy.’ The study of the adult mind disordered by war helped encourage a fuller elaboration of the psychic life of the child, which itself seemed to be characterised by disturbance and the impulse to destroy. In the years after the First World War, Klein, who moved to London in 1926, began to conceptualise, initially through analyses of her own children, the depressive anxieties and sadistic wishes of infants as expressed through play.

In the introduction to a study of juvenile delinquency published in 1925, Freud wrote that ‘children have become the main subject of psychoanalytic research and have thus replaced in importance the neurotics on whom its studies began.’ (Freud himself didn’t directly analyse children – his famous study of ‘Little Hans’ was conducted by instructing Hans’s father.) Childcare literature in the early 20th century was dogged by notions of working-class deviance, but the category of the deviant depended on the production of the norm. When the Tavistock Clinic opened in 1920 its first patient was a child. Klein gave a paper on ‘Criminal Tendencies in Normal Children’ in 1927. In 1928, Lowenfeld established the Clinic for the Treatment and Study of Nervous and Difficult Children in Notting Hill. The child didn’t replace the neurotic; the neurotic re-emerged within the child.

Klein’s model of the mind disorganised the difference between childhood and adulthood. Her eventual understanding of the mental positions between which we continually move, composed of anxiety, impulses and object-relations, made clear that our psychic state depends not on our age but on our confrontation in the present with the world and objects around us. We never fully inhabit ‘adult’ maturity for long. Klein’s stress on unconscious phantasy (mental representations of instinct and experience) and the intransigence of the infant’s inner world shifted attention from the emphasis on the father of the Oedipal scenario to the pre-Oedipal world of mother and baby as foundational for mental health.

This ‘maternal turn’ in interwar psychoanalytic discourse in Britain, which was at the same time a turn from Freud to Klein, and its impact on postwar welfare policy, is the subject of Shaul Bar-Haim’s new book. He argues that progressive ‘maternalistic’ thinkers from the interwar period involved in education, anthropology and the ‘psy’ professions connected new psychoanalytic ideas of motherhood to an ideal of the state as a maternal entity. The ‘maternal ethics’ of the period were a response to the horrors of the First World War and the emergence of fascism on the continent. In this figuration, motherhood is less a lived experience than a site of collective imaginings, a meeting point between private and public spaces. As Bar-Haim argues, women and mothers were the main intermediaries between the family and the state in its newly interventionist mode, through their encounters with GPs, social workers, psychotherapists and teachers.

‘The nursery world is part of the larger world of social life,’ Susan Isaacs wrote in 1929. Isaacs, a Lancashire-born psychoanalyst and progressive educationalist, was key to the dissemination of Kleinian vocabulary in interwar Britain. In contrast to the behaviourist accounts of Truby King and Watson, Isaacs saw children as individuals whose powerful internal worlds adults had a duty to interpret. Properly informed parenting and education would create mature and reciprocal family relations, which would in turn shape democratic selfhood. At the experimental Malting House School in Cambridge – Klein lived in the city and visited the school in 1925 – Isaacs encouraged curiosity and self-expression, characteristics she believed were clouded by adults’ confusion of moral and causal categories (a confusion they later attributed to the ‘primitive’ minds of children). When the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget told a child he must always put the letter ‘d’ in the word grand, the child asked: ‘Why, what would happen if you didn’t?’ The teachers at Malting House, whom Bar-Haim describes as more like observers or non-interventionist analysts, spoke to children in the conditional mood: ‘If you hit John with the spade, I shall take it away.’ Scolding increased the anxiety at the root of acting out whereas ‘unequivocal signs of love’ and mutuality could bring into existence the ‘independent moral beings’ essential for democracy. When a boy spat in Isaacs’s face, she simply asked him to apologise.

Isaacs attempted to see the world from the child’s perspective and, in her agony aunt columns for middle-class mothers and nurses, advised parents to do the same. From 1929 to 1936 she wrote for Nursery World under the pen name Ursula Wise (‘Jane Strong’, the first name the magazine’s editors suggested, was rejected by Isaacs as too authoritarian). Her columns had titles such as ‘Unkindness and Greed’ and ‘Two-Year-Olds Are Often Cruel’. The letters sent to the column show a readership receptive to psychoanalysis and the search for symbolic meaning. Caregivers wrote about ‘unconscious jealousy’ between siblings or the risks of a ‘complex’ developing in children scared of Bible stories or trips to the dentist; of the cause of nervous habits and phobias that lay, Isaacs said, ‘far below the surface of the child’s mind’. Isaacs combined common-sense reassurance with psychological expertise, making use particularly of Kleinian ideas of unconscious phantasy and innate aggression. In 1935, ‘Puzzled’ wrote in about her daughter’s distress whenever the piano was played. Isaacs agreed that piano keys were indeed like the teeth of a child. Was the pain of teething being projected onto a piano, which then became menacing? One girl, anxious about untidiness, was ‘afraid of her own destructive tendencies, which of course every child has’.

We might wonder to what extent the unbearable anxieties of adults in the aftermath of war were being projected onto the nation’s children. Implied in the 20th-century turn to the child is a wish on the part of adults to break with the traumatic recent past. At the same time, the destructive impulses of families and cultures are lodged in their children. One mother is keen to emphasise her lack of violence – ‘I never punish him, of course’ – while another is ‘so anxious that [her son] should have “nerves”’. Isaacs encouraged faith in psychoanalysis as a utopian educational tool, but she also acted as a container for parents’ anxieties about their own futures. Adults, too, have nightmares. In late 1929, one father wrote in to ask how children could be taught to be ‘leaders rather than followers’: was it really, or only, children he was thinking of? (Analysts weren’t exempt from the collective unease created by war: the historian Michael Roper has pointed to the absence of references to war in John Bowlby’s work with psychotic patients at the Maudsley between 1933 and 1934, and to Isaacs’s lack of interest in veterans’ children.)

Not talking about fathers was a way of talking about them, just as talking about mothers and children tells us something about the adult couple. Isaacs moved in progressive and anti-colonialist circles in Cambridge and London, among people critical of the analogy between the Western child or neurotic and the ‘primitive’ other. Her arguments with developmental psychologists such as Piaget read as a challenge to colonial imaginings of the ‘savage’ as the child of man. Debates about the education of children and ‘the infancy of the race’ were shadowed by discussions about the best way to ‘rationalise’ colonised peoples across the empire. ‘So much revealed as unconscious wishes and modes of thinking among individual Europeans,’ Isaacs noted in the 1930s, ‘reminds irresistibly of myths, magic, taboo and ritual of simpler peoples.’

Anthropologists such as Bronisław Malinowski and Géza Róheim who took up the questions posed by psychoanalysis were attempting to test colonial categories and the universality of Freudian notions. Róheim examined the Oedipus complex through ethnographic observation in ‘fatherless’ matrilineal regions of Papua New Guinea. ‘Savages,’ he wrote, ‘are not nearly so savage as the anthropologists; or, in other words, that they aren’t nearly so mysterious as one would think.’ Malinowski’s mentor at the LSE was Charles Gabriel Seligman, who studied the dreams of indigenous people in different parts of the empire, and gave Malinowski a copy of W.H.R. Rivers’s 1918 article ‘Dreams and Primitive Culture’ (‘for every feature and process of the dream I have found an analogy in primitive culture’). Between 1915 and 1918 Malinowski travelled twice to the Trobriand Islands east of New Guinea. ‘Nervous tics, compulsory actions or obsessive ideas were not to be found’ there because Trobriander children were raised by their mothers and an uncle; the castrating father was instead an ‘affectionate friend and helper’ who just happened to be ‘the man married to the mother’. In contrast, communities on the neighbouring Amphlett Islands were subject to a sexually censorious paternal order and as a result were a ‘community of neurasthenics’.

Róheim was a psychoanalyst with the Budapest school as well as an anthropologist. He linked the pre-Oedipal life of the infant – bonded primarily with the mother and, as Klein was arguing in contrast to the Freudians, already in possession of a rudimentary superego – with an idealised ‘primitive’ motherhood associated with abundance and the absence of Oedipal neuroses. Unlike the children of modern European patriarchy, whose ego-strivings must be sublimated in the triumph of civilisation over nature (if only to return as neurotic symptoms), Róheim believed that ‘the child in the bush will never introject a sadistic superego and never enjoy the game of punishing or being punished.’ The central Australian mother ‘gives and never grudges’; her child ‘always gets the nipple’ (making him an ‘oral optimist’ for life). He ‘is never weaned until he weans himself’, and so circumvents separation, frustration and mourning for the maternal breast. This was in contrast to the ‘anal character formation’ of European children, who must give up too soon the belief that they alone possess the maternal object (the belief, that is, in unambivalent experience).

Central Australian children didn’t sublimate the sexual content of their play or engage in sadistic games, Róheim wrote, unless they had come into contact with the European mission. As for Hitler and Mussolini, Bar-Haim quotes the artist and analyst Grace Pailthorpe pointing out, they ‘would never have become insanely dictatorial had they had, as children, ample opportunity to vent their infantile rages and to lessen the emotional tension imposed by fears and frustrations’. Arguments for lost maternal plenitude can however reproduce a totalising politics – weaning, after all, is also about the passage to difference. Psychoanalytic epistemologies helped the interwar anthropologists shift the terms of colonial encounter by positing that the ‘other’ resides most fundamentally within the self, and because they took seriously, at least to some extent, the complex lives of aboriginal peoples. But psychoanalysis also exposed new avenues of colonial expropriation through the removal, starting in 1911, of aboriginal children from mothers deemed unfit by the Australian authorities.

The Scottish psychiatrist Ian D. Suttie is another of Bar-Haim’s ‘male maternalist thinkers’ who promoted psycho-political fantasies of recapitulation in response to the crisis in Europe. Suttie was interested in the primacy of social need for the infant and the natural predisposition of humans to be nurtured. ‘To my mind the source of love now appeared to be the need for food etc, and not sexual desires … and of course the original object of love (as also of reverence) now appeared to be the mother and not the father.’ Suttie rejected Freud’s notion of primary narcissism in the infant who, he believed (following Klein), is always and already relating to an object – the mother. Violence and covetousness come not from Oedipal confrontation with the ‘jealous father’ but from ‘love privation’ in early relation to the mother (again, she is to blame). The cure for regressive social phenomena such as patriarchy and fascism was itself regression to the mother-infant bond. Love and forgiveness within clinical treatment, and the re-enactment of trauma, as encouraged by Sándor Ferenczi, would help restore regressed individuals to their natural capacity for communion. For Suttie and other early object relationists, the social contract came from the act of breastfeeding rather than the killing of the primal father theorised by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1913). Love, not guilt.

The rise of object relations theory from the late 1920s furthered the relegation of the father and of Freud himself as ‘father’ of the discipline – though Freud had also been thinking about the way ‘the shadow of the object’ falls on the ego, as he wrote in Mourning and Melancholia (1917). The final chapters of The Maternalists show how prominent figures associated with the object relations movement helped channel the maternalism of the interwar years beyond a rhetorical romanticism. The postwar welfare state, with its implicit recognition of human need, produced public domains and clinical spaces in which the state was cast as maternal surrogate to a population of child citizens. If Nazism had demonstrated the triumph of the superego’s capacity to punish, with ‘Hitler daddy’ as the authoritarian father, only a maternal approach could avert future catastrophe. GPs and ‘psy’ professionals, emissaries of the newly interventionist state (and so, in Kleinian terms, closer to the giving breast), would provide good mothering to the masses.

Women​ and children were incorporated into national healthcare with the introduction of the NHS in 1948 (the 1911 National Insurance Schemes had covered the working population, meaning mostly men and some unmarried women). But even if the status of mothers had changed, women’s essential function hadn’t. Their contribution as keepers of home and hearth was taken for granted in new welfarist programmes. Psychoanalysts such as D.W. Winnicott and Bowlby, whose ideas centred on domestic bonds and the quality of the infant’s attachment to the mother, reflected and contributed to the period’s reactionary tendencies. From 1943 to 1966, Winnicott addressed ‘ordinary devoted’ mothers in ‘good enough’ middle-class homes in his regular BBC radio talks on infancy and parenting – ‘enjoy letting other people look after the world while you are producing a new one of its members,’ he told them – even as ‘radio storytellers’ and programmes such as Listen with Mother functioned as maternal stand-ins. According to the BBC producer Olive Shapley, they gave ‘even quite small children a feeling of being important and cared for’ and ‘a feeling of security’.

Winnicott was the first paediatrician to train as an analyst, qualifying in 1934. Sally Alexander describes him shuffling between training analysts like an unwanted son: first James Strachey in 1923 (James and his wife, Alix, describe him in their letters as an inhibited man with trouble dreaming), before Strachey complained that he didn’t know about children and sent ‘Winnie’ to Klein, who eventually sent him to her follower and friend Joan Riviere, who had been analysed by Freud; Klein supervised some of Winnicott’s cases in the 1930s and Winnicott analysed Klein’s son Erich (we can only imagine the transference). For Winnicott, ‘good enough’ mothering meant mediating the messy aggressive impulses of babies in order to produce non-violent citizens. Women should stay at home caring for children, but a good home and well-cared-for children were the starting point of democracy. Arguing parents, psychiatric patients and single women were ‘not ordinary good parents’ (the last category also threatened cheap labour). In this view, there are no babies, there are only mothers and babies.

All the same, the ‘facilitating environment’ represented by the mother expanded to include schools and teachers, the visiting nurse, the doctor in the clinic – and to a lesser extent, to include fathers, who for Bar-Haim exist as ‘shadow figures’ in the records of postwar child patients referred through Winnicott to the London Clinic of Psychoanalysis (‘What about Father?’ was the title of one of Winnicott’s radio talks). The true Winnicottian ‘mother’ isn’t the empty signifier of ‘the maternal’ but the working-class mothers of Paddington Green and Hackney who queued up to consult Winnicott the paediatrician from the early 1920s. His detailed ‘history-taking’ relied on women’s memories and anxieties about their families. It was these experiences that led him to theorise that symptom and illness were part of a social process, not fully conscious, in which the organic, emotional and imaginary overlapped: ‘The pace is set by the mother. [Her] memories are now thoroughly awakened, and the details of onset of illness can be asked for.’ The ‘child is watched coming into the room’ and ‘in many little ways the child gives clues’ as to what is wrong. Like Klein, Winnicott kept toys in his consulting room. Through ‘understanding intuitively’ – by becoming motherly – a doctor ‘can often help a mother over difficult periods and so indirectly benefit the child’. But only if, again like a mother or psychoanalyst, one’s own anxieties can be hushed: ‘Understanding management of an anxious child … usually means inactive observation without anxiety on the part of the doctor.’ The clinic becomes a transitional space (not unlike a womb) or a forum for the return of the repressed between doctor and patient. The encounter, however, worked both ways. When Enid and Michael Balint set up the peer-led ‘Balint groups’ in the 1950s so that GPs could understand the psychological aspects of their contact with patients better, they often found that ‘the real “case studies”’ were the doctors themselves.

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