Monday, April 5, 2010

"Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America"

Rebecca Jo Plant is associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America, and reported the following:
Does page 99 of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America capture the “quality of the whole?” It certainly reveals my basic method as an historian, which is to present primary sources in sufficient detail to illustrate how people in the past thought and expressed themselves. On this page, I discuss two different sources, drawn from two different professional journals (Mental Hygiene and The New England Journal of Medicine). Both articles address the issue of neuropsychiatric disturbances among U.S. servicemen during World War II. The first analyzes a number of cases, including the one I cite, which concerned a young soldier who broke down in training due to his intense attachment to his mother. The second article alleged, more broadly, that pathological mothering was the underlying factor in the majority of cases involving “combat fatigue.” I use passages from these articles to show how medical authorities during World War II perceived a certain type of American mother—one who was overly dependent on her children and emotionally demanding—as harmful to the national cause. On this particular page, however, I am simply laying out evidence in support of the interpretation that I am building; one cannot really derive a sense of the book’s overall argument, or even the chapter’s main argument, from this page alone.

The chapter as a whole demonstrates how highly sentimental and prolonged mother-child bonds (especially between mothers and sons) became stigmatized over the course of the twentieth century. I argue that affective styles and ways of interacting that would have been viewed positively in the previous century came to be perceived with deep suspicion by the 1940s. For Victorian Americans, a grown son’s intense attachment to his mother signified virtuous manhood; for Cold War Americans, such a bond often evoked effeminacy and homosexuality. Elsewhere in the book, I draw on letters written by middle-class mothers to show how they internalized the cultural dictates concerning “momism” and “smother love” and sought to modulate their feelings of attachment to their children.

My discussion of “mother love” is just one component of a larger argument. By exploring a range of other issues—including the decline of maternalist politics and changing views and practices surrounding childbirth—I trace a major shift in the meaning of the motherhood within mainstream American culture. Particularly after World War II, I argue, motherhood ceased to be represented as an all-encompassing identity rooted in notions of self-sacrifice and physical suffering, and infused with powerful social and political meaning. Instead, motherhood came to be conceived as a fundamentally private, familial identity and a single component of a more multifaceted self—a role that women could voluntarily either embrace or reject.

Thus, while Page 99, with its tight focus on the concerns that medical authorities during World War II voiced about intense maternal attachment, may reflect the “quality of the whole,” it does not afford the reader a synopsis of the whole.

For instance, a 1943 article in Mental Hygiene detailed the case of “Private L.,” an eighteen-year-old soldier, still in training, who appeared “emotionally distressed” and “cried frequently.” A psychiatric interview revealed that he had never previously been away from home and remained “excessively attached” to his ailing mother, who wrote to him almost daily, “complaining of her ‘sufferings’ and of her difficulty in adjusting to his absence.” In psychotherapy, Private L. gained “insight into the neurotic nature of his relationship to his mother.” The psychiatrist also sent “a sympathetic, but frank” letter to the private’s mother, “eliciting and securing her cooperation.” By redirecting Private L.’s emotional attachment toward his company, while restraining his emotionally demanding mother, the psychiatrist and company adviser together strove to transform Private L. into a “‘good soldier,’ as well as a mature man.”

Similarly, after studying two hundred neuropsychiatric patients at an Army hospital in the South Pacific, medical officers J. L. Henderson and Merrill Moore concluded that war neuroses were “‘made in America’”—particularly by the nation’s mothers. In their 1944 study, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, they argued that the single most important factor predisposing servicemen to psychological breakdown was not traumatic combat experience, but rather “distorted” familial relations. “In nearly every case, a mutually dependent neurotic relation existed between mother and child,” they claimed, sketching the typical background of a psychoneurotic soldier:
The mother was found to stand out. She was usually a “nervous woman” and had often had a nervous breakdown but was rarely hospitalized for it…. She tended to worry, particularly about her children, and to be overly concerned about them. For example, most of the mothers had waited up for their boys to come in at night up to the time that they entered the service. The father seemed to be in the background…. From these observations the following interpretation is made: The mother is an immature person who feels herself insecure and in her marriage tends to establish a childish, dependent relation to her husband.
Significantly, Henderson and Moore traced the problem of neuropsychiatric breakdown to maternal weakness: if the mother herself remained “childish” and “dependent,” her son could not develop into a mature and capable adult.

Other psychiatrists interpreted the very symptoms that predominated among neuropsychiatric casualties as evidence that too many American men could not control their dependent longings.
Learn more about Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue