A report in Mathrubhumi, published on October 1, details how Kerala is facing a “major challenge” from four diseases in children that were commonly only found in developed countries. The four diseases are obesity, diabetes, pulmonary issues and “maternal deprivation syndrome”.
While it reports no facts or figures to support the claim of the rise in such cases, the report does state that nuclear families are responsible for “maternal deprivation syndrome” and that “it is observed that children who lack care from mothers are suffering from maternal deprivation syndrome and will fall ill frequently”. It goes on to say that “motherly care is the only medicine for this disease”.
But what exactly is maternal deprivation syndrome? Is “motherly care” the only cure for it and most importantly, here’s why we need to tread very carefully around using such a term.
The term ‘maternal deprivation syndrome’ has its roots in research published way back in 1951, by a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst named John Bowlby. His research on the effects of separation of infants and young children from their mothers was published in a monograph titled Maternal Care and Mental Health. The monograph aroused immediate controversy when it was published, because it was quickly leveraged for political purposes in order to discourage women from working at that time.
S Vandhana, a child psychologist working in Chennai, clarifies some details about ‘maternal deprivation syndrome’, its symptoms, causes and cures. “This is not a new syndrome, but we can say it is on the rise because of factors like nuclear families, both parents working, or single-parenting. It leads to detachment-related issues in children, which is the preliminary ground for further psychological issues like depression and anxiety. In children today, the attachment factor is very essential for personality development, especially parent-attachment, because that’s when their personality is groomed right. Children feel lonely, dejected, or have masked depression, where they project externally that everything is fine, but internally they might feel lonely. It depends on the age group, in very young children there could be biological symptoms like excessive or less crying, or a change in appetite. It usually affects children between the age of zero to five years.”
But she tells us very clearly that “motherly care” is not the only cure for such a syndrome, and that this certainly does not mean that women should leave their jobs or be discouraged from working. “To overcome this, children need to be in a socialising environment. When both parents work, or due to other issues like single-parenting, it’s better to keep children in a properly and safely supervised group where they can develop and socialise, which in turn leads to further cognitive development. But the solution is certainly not women sitting at home. We need to look for alternatives: it’s not about the quantity of time spent, it’s about increasing the meaningful emotional quality of time spent with the child.”
Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health researcher and doctor, elucidates the fallacy of calling such a syndrome ‘maternal deprivation’, and suggests an alternative, more suitable name for it. “There is in fact a syndrome currently called maternal deprivation syndrome, but it’s not so much to do with physical separation, but emotional separation. For example, if there’s a working mother who’s able to spend time and is invested in the child, it’s not like that’s more risky for the child. Such a concept [of ‘maternal deprivation’] would be used against the mother working, and the onus [of childcare] is put on the mother. But there are situations, like in unwanted pregnancies, or there’s a single parent, or when the father is not participating in childcare, where there are instances of deprivation. But I don’t think it should be called maternal deprivation, it can be called ‘emotional deprivation’.”
She goes on to say, “Calling it ‘maternal deprivation’ can become a tool of further burdening the mother and controlling her. You see these symptoms in children who are completely, totally neglected. If the father is there, if grandparents are there, if the mother is working and also spending time with the children, this doesn’t arise. [This syndrome] shouldn’t become a tool to blame the mother. Right now if children don’t do well in studies, or show normal bad behaviour, or normal ups and downs, or have some minor injuries, it is blamed on the mother and they are told to sit at home, or told it happened because they’re busy with their career and don’t care about their kids. I don’t think [the cure for the symptoms of so-called ‘maternal deprivation’] is about maternal love, or motherly care. It’s about all children needing some interactions, people around them, and love and care. I think anyone can give that, not only mothers. The danger is calling it ‘maternal’ deprivation.”
Of course, medical nomenclature is not set in stone. The name for a disease or set of symptoms can change with growing research and understanding, and often does reflect the biases of the times. AIDS, for example, until the mid-80s, was medically termed GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) until doctors were able to fully understand that it was not a disease that merely affected gay men and members of the gay community, a view that reflected the gross misconceptions around homosexuality at that time.
Pallabi Roy, a sociologist and researcher working on reproduction and motherhood in Germany, points out the enormous burden such problematic nomenclature as ‘maternal deprivation syndrome’ puts on women, and the sexist bias encoded in such a term. “Obviously this is a very politicised issue. Clearly there is nothing called ‘paternal deprivation syndrome’. Such a term merely reinforces and feeds into the idea that without the presence of the mother, or in the absence of the mother in the home environment, it causes the child this psychological distress, and the way to resolve it is for the mother to give up her career. Now that is fine as long as it’s a personal choice, if the mother wants to stay at home that’s fine. But if the stress is being medicalised and we’re told that the mother needs to be at home, otherwise the child is psychologically unfit, it’s just another form of blaming and shaming the mother.”
She goes on to point out two important negative side-effects of such nomenclature and medicalisation. “The moment it becomes medicalised in this way, the obvious result is that women will be blamed and shamed, and face pressure to leave their jobs and stay at home. This leads to financial problems. Nowadays, it’s mandatory for two people to work in order to have a good standard of living for themselves and the child. Women leaving their jobs can cause strains in relationships, financial problems, and women can get frustrated. How is this good for the child? How is it better? The second effect is that this will give pharmaceutical companies another reason to market some pills. They’ll say, if you give this to your child, they will feel better. The medicalisation and pharmaceutical side of it go in tandem: classifying something as a disease or a syndrome notches it up, saying we need some kind of medication for it.”
Dr Bijoya Roy, a researcher studying women’s health at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, says, “Maternal deprivation syndrome of course has a kind of a negative and definitely gendered connotations. Nowhere are we trying to understand if the father or partner will have a role in the upbringing of the child. There’s a real need for creche setups, which is missing in our context. There used to be the anganwadi setup, which has now become exceedingly class-based. There’s also the question of childcare facilities in institutions: we need creches and childcare facilities not only in institutions where women are working, but where men and women are working. It’s not like men don’t have children or need such services.”
She reflects Pallabi’s views that the medicalisation of such a syndrome needs to scrutinised very carefully. When asked if this is actually a real disease that people need to be concerned about, as opposed to the medical field falling into age-old traps of sexism in its nomenclature, she says, “We need to see who is marketing this syndrome. These kinds of services, is it the private sector, the private psychiatry or mental health industry that is promoting these kinds of issues? That also needs to be looked at.”
So it seems that while children may indeed face emotional and psychological problems as a result of society moving towards nuclear family setups and a socio-economic climate where it is essential and desirable for both parents to work, these problems faced by children are not a direct consequence of ‘maternal deprivation’. Rather, they are possibly symptoms of ‘emotional deprivation’ that can be addressed in a variety of ways. It can be addressed through socialisation of children in safe day care centres, other support structures like extended families and creches in offices, and through spending quality time, rather than quantity time, with children. The solution to such problems faced by children, despite what a name like ‘maternal deprivation syndrome’ may indicate, does not lie in guilting mothers into leaving their jobs or spending all their time at home. The way ahead instead lies in shifting and re-assigning the burden of childcare correctly and equitably to both parents and finding ways to emotionally stimulate children in a changing global scenario without falling into sexist modes of thinking about women’s role in the family.