Growing up With an Absentee Mother: A Deep Dive Into the Impacts on the Child

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Article by: Venus Namu

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You are in a therapy session and your therapist asks, how was your childhood? Tell me about your relationship with your mother. 

You wonder how this relates to what you are going through. There are many reasons therapists ask these questions. One of them is to trace any childhood traumas, childhood neglect, and maternal deprivation/privation. Because these factors influence future behaviour and relationships.

John Bowlby was a British child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. In his works on privation, he said that one of the most important relationships is maternal attachment.

From infancy, every child needs the warmth, touch, nurture, attention, and love of a mother. But what happens to children who, for one reason or the other, have absentee mothers? What if they got separated either through death, divorce, migration, illnesses, or other irrefutable reasons? How about the case of the physically present but emotionally absent mum? What impact does this have on the child when they eventually become an adult? Can the effects be reversed or dealt with?

An absentee mother is a person who is supposed to be your mother but isn't either physically or emotionally present or both. The impact of this varies in consideration of the bond created with the child. Privation is when the attachment was never created and the toddler grew up not knowing what a mother's love is, or feels like. If, however, a child once formed an attachment with their mother and later on separated from them, that is known as maternal deprivation.

Bowlby's Evolutionary Theory of Attachment

John Bowlby explains maternal deprivation as the failure to form an attachment due to the separation of one’s mother or primary caregiver. According to Bowlby, the continual presence of a mother (or mother substitute) is needed for the normal psychological development of an infant. Maternal love is as important to an infant as is food. The most critical stage in a child’s emotional growth is between the ages of 2 – 3. This is the time the child learns and understands how their behaviour affects others and vice versa. Brief separation with a caregiver will not have long-lasting effects, however, extended separation will affect development.

Brief separation from the mother happens in 3 stages. (P.D.D)

  1. Protest – here, the child cries and screams when the mother leaves, and even tries to physically prevent her by holding on to her legs.
  2. Despair – the child's protests stop. He/she calms down, still upset, but appears calmer. They refuse other caregivers' attempts for comfort and appear withdrawn and uninterested.
  3. Detachment – if the separation continues, the child starts to engage with other people again, rejects their mother on return, and shows signs of anger.

This is what we see when working mothers go to work and their toddler is awake to see them leave.

Long-term effects of an absentee mother

Evidence was deduced from a 44-juvenile-thieves study; a classic study whereby the participants were from a group of 88 children seen in London Child Guidance Clinic in the 1930s, where John Bowlby worked and conducted this study. The children were referred to him for stealing, hence the name. He studied them alongside a control group of 44 children referred to the clinic for emotional problems but had not yet committed any crimes. After carrying out assessments and tests, he found that more than half of the juvenile thieves had absentee mothers for more than 6 months during their first 5 years in life whereas in the control group only 2 children had been separated from their mothers in such a period.

By the same token, he found that 14 of the juvenile thieves had Affectionless Psychopathy, a term that he coined. It means the lack of empathy; not being able to care or have feelings for others. This led to the conclusion of Bowlby's study that long-term maternal deprivation in a child’s early life led to permanent emotional damage.

In conclusion to the study, Bowlby theorised that maternal deprivation leads to;

  1. Affectionless psychopathy – the lack of emotional development as explained above, would additionally surface in their future adult relationships as emotional detachment, emotional dependency (clinginess), or a repetitive pattern that alternates between the two which arises from lack of emotional development.
  2. Juvenile delinquency – as evident from the children used in the study, children can be involved in minor crimes.
  3. Depression – this is linked to the loss of a mother during separation.
  4. Lower intellectual development.

Michael Rutter

Every theory ever made by man is countered with a critic. In the above theory, one critic worth noting would be Michael Rutter, a child psychiatrist.

Rutter argued that problems such as anti-social behaviour, affectionless psychopathy and disorders of language are not due solely to the lack of attachment to a mother figure, as Bowlby claimed, but to factors such as the lack of intellectual stimulation and social experiences which attachments normally provide. He backs up his argument by explaining that the effects of having an absentee mother can be overcome later in the child's development, with the right kind of care.

Effects of maternal deprivation can be reversed under good care

A mother cannot be replaced. Moreover, not all women were meant to be mothers. In cases where the separation happened in the willingness of the mother to leave their child due to their various reasons, the child may still have positive relationships with maternal replacements under the right emotional care and in a loving home.

Effects of an absentee mother are also reversible under good care. This is proven as adopted children make better development when they receive what they lacked from their previous homes. It also helps when adoptive parents want their adoptees to feel as loved as they would their own.