The Law & society

That serious psychological disturbance could result from early experience seemed clear. In particular, such disturbances seemed to interfere with the capacity to form meaningful relationships with others, even at times resulting in 'affectionless psychopathy'. There were, however, three major criticisms of the monotropy theory. The first of these was whether these consequences really arose from disruption of the mother-infant bond.

Rutter (1981) showed that other factors were always involved as well, such as physical and emotional neglect in general, the lack of any positive relationships with others and/or the more general-ised deprivation resulting from institutional life. To attribute it strictly to disturbed mother-infant attachments was to go beyond the data. The second issue was whether such outcomes were permanent.

Tizard and Hodges (1978) showed that late-adopted children could develop positive relationships with others despite early deprivation, and Clarke and Clarke (1976) presented a number of case studies showing how careful therapy could ameliorate the effects of even very severe privation. The third criticism was whether only the first few years of life mattered. As a psychoanalyst, Bowlby had assumed that these were the formative years of person-ality, and had therefore expected lasting effects from early deprivation.

But Rutter (1979) showed that the delinquency attri-buted to early experience by Bowlby was more likely due to stress in the family home; and Power et al. (1974) showed that recidivism was linked to continually stressful home circumstances, whereas single offences were more closely associated with a period of temporary disturbance occurring in the family at that time.

The conclusion is that although early experience could certainly cause damage, as Nicky Hayes states in Foundations of Psychology, (Routledge 1994), there is little evidence for such damage being irreversible, and even less for maternal deprivation as such being its cause. That maternal deprivation had become such an issue may be attributed more to the socio-political context of the debate than to the scientific evidence. As a result of Bowlby's theory of monotropy, the way in which attachments are formed in human infants rapidly became the subject of extensive psychological research.

In 1964, a paper by Schaffer and Emerson produced new evidence for the attachment process. Rather than using clinical interviews and retrospective data from hospital and school records, as Bowlby had done, Schaffer and Emerson performed ethological observations of mothers with their young babies, in this case, observations of how mothers and infants interacted in their own homes. Schaffer and Emerson found that attachments did not automatically result from the mother simply being with the baby and looking after it, as Bowlby had thought.

Instead, they seemed to develop as a result of the quality of the interaction which the baby and mother engaged in. This meant that in some circumstances, an infant might form a relationship with someone who was not their primary caretaker (the person who looked after them most of the time) In some cases too the infants formed multiple attachments, developing relationships with more than one person. These findings seriously challenged Bowlby's idea of monotropy, since an important feature of it was that there could be only one special relationship for any one child.

Perhaps because of the political nature of the maternal deprivation debate, the findings by Schaffer and Emerson did not receive much attention in the popular media. They were, however, very influential in opening up a wide range of research. What Schaffer and Emerson's research had shown was that babies are sociable. They respond best to those people who interact with them, not just to the people who take care of their physical needs. Newson (1974) also argued that mothering skills are not in any way innate or instinctive.

Instead, they are skills, which are acquired through practice in communicating with that particular individual baby. As you get to know a baby, and see it as having human sensibilities and a 'personality', you also become more able to detect and understand that baby's responses. Babies, on their part, learn very fast, and respond more to those people who are sensitive to their actions. They are also, as Schaffer and Emerson showed, more likely to form attachments with people who respond sensitively to them.

The implication here is that interacting with babies is a learned skill; and that fathers can acquire these skills just as mothers do, given motivation and opportunity. It has long been known that fathers and infants often develop very positive attachments. The early study by Schaffer and Emerson showed that infants could develop multiple attachments – several of the infants in their study were as attached to their fathers as to their mothers. Some, too, had developed an attachment to the father but not to the mother, even though it was the mother who was looking after them most of the time.

In such cases, always, it was the father who responded most sensitively to the child. Parke and O'Leary (1976) observed mothers and fathers in a maternity ward. What they found was that, contrary to the popular stereotypes, fathers tended to be very keen on interacting with their infants, and were neither inept or uninterested in what their newborn children were like. Instead, they were often as sensitive in interacting with their infants as the mothers were.

Parke and Swain (1980) observed mothers and fathers each feeding their 3-month-old infants. They also found that the fathers responded just as sensitively to infant cues as the mothers did, responding in terms of both social interaction – conversational or gestural – and by adjusting the pace of feeding according to the signals being put out by the child. However, they did find that fathers tended to hand the responsibility for caretaking to their wives rather than adopting that responsibility themselves.

The skills that fathers had in parenting became apparent only when they were asked to demonstrate how they would go about inter-acting with their children for the investigators: much of the time they did not seem to exercise these skills at home. In 1998 there were 40 thousand children under the age of five in families of couples that divorced. Children are sociable and not damaged by multiple attachments. There is no cogent reason the courts should not treat mothers and fathers the same in relation to the upbringing of their children.