Alarming the Biological Clock

John Haber
in New York City

Nancy Chodorow: The Reproduction of Mothering

The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender probably remains the best contribution to a feminist psychology, at least outside the dense, perplexing literature of French post-structuralism. It can also be infuriating, its cool, balanced tone leading all too smoothly to some dangerously imbalanced stereotypes of men and women. Mary Cassatt's Mother and Child (National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection, c. 1905)

Nancy Chodorow's argument can be best appreciated if it is first separated into four threads:

  1. how women come to be heterosexual;
  2. why woman have the urge to mother;
  3. what personality traits are specific to women; and
  4. how the pattern of dominance implied by (2) and (3) might be changed.

Surprisingly, the first of these takes up the bulk of the chapters. The book's impetus may be the reproduction of mothering, but Chodorow argues that this second topic is an outcome of the first and intertwined with the third. Her final speculations are at once conclusion, afterthought, and, from a feminist's perspective, antidote.

I believe it is worth distinguishing Chodorow's four ideas. I am sympathetic to them all, but they become progressively less well substantiated. They may end up disguising some old gender stereotypes after all. I shall mention some of the larger variety of sources in feminism at the end of this essay.

The heterosexual object

Chodorow's revision of the Freudian model is for me the core of the book and what makes it so interesting. It traces a girl's gender development to her closeness to her mother. She lacks, and wants, two privileges a boy has: he can be loved even more by the mother as an object and yet also detach himself from the mother. The solution to the girl's dilemma is to translate her envy of male prerogatives into heterosexual desire.

This narrative sticks more closely to Freud's than do most revisionists, even keeping—in the transformation of desire and privilege I just described—as counterintuitive and potentially demeaning an idea as penis envy. Perhaps envy indeed underlies female heterosexuality, and I have no sure notion whether it does. If so, it might as well have some psychoanalytic ground, rather than remain a mere metaphor for the oppressed majority's envy of male social dominance. I see Jacques Lacan as wanting it both ways and ending up rather less than clear on this account—but also more fun as a guide to literature. Or is that just another paradox of desire?

Psychoanalysis has always differed from its cognitive interpretations in focusing on psychic and emotional investments in cognitive structures. That focus has given Freud's writings continued resonance—at least in the arts, in film, and in literary criticism, where subjective responses still matter. To those strengths of the Freudian tradition, Chodorow has brought enormous ingenuity and a careful, critical reading. One needs more of that, just as one needs more women in Modernism.

Indeed, unlike many a neo-Freudian, she can speak of Oedipal conflict without sexism. She also avoids Freud's circularity; he has to assume the point he is trying to prove when he claims that observation of phalluses leads to admiration rather than disgust, perplexity, and disapproval. And she notices something that Jane Gallop has clarified in discussing Juliet Mitchell, Freud's too great reliance on happenstance. The father has to be in exactly the right place at the right time, as do the naked bodies of both sexes.

We may respect Freud's almost Chomskian feeling for how we might be programmed to assimilate certain aspects of the world around us at certain times in life. Yet contingency rather than necessary mental structuring seems to rear its head. By turning Freud's gothic tale into the girl's awakening, be it sudden or gradual, to her all-too-real situation, Chodorow is more consistent and less arbitrary—while still leaving the whole process precarious enough to permit one to imagine homosexual desire or cross-dressing, not even necessarily with a gay artist such as George Tooker.

Yet for all Chodorow's insights here, they have a disturbing likeness to pure double-talk. A girl's desire for men is said to result from her firmer desire for her mother! Do I distort Chodorow's account even as I simplify it? Of course, this branch of study is, I fear, so peculiar to itself that one loses fluency in it almost as soon as one puts it down, but I cannot let her go quite that gracefully.

If I seem to be groping for definitions, even perpetually shifting ones, that is correct. Much as in economics, reproduction cannot exist, cannot even be imagined, without widely shared values. For mothering to be reproduced, it must be understood, and that understanding must be perpetually recreated in the act of reproduction. Motherhood must be desired—by the girl as subject, by others as an object—apart from womanhood, a child's gender identity, adult creativity, family identity, political activism, parenting, or birthing. Yet it must also be complex enough to include and to reproduce all these. We shall increasingly see that, despite her title, Chodorow fails sufficiently to put these terms and values into question until her epilogue, and by then it is too late.


The explanation of the heterosexual object choice is so full that I came up short when mothering reappeared. I had quite forgotten that it was this that the book is out to explain.

Chodorow has already argued that a girl's resolution of her Oedipal complex never really removes the traces of a long primary identification with the mother. That is the essence of the model we have just discussed. But the proof that the girl thus wants a child is a bit short for my taste. Her identification with the mother must be further differentiated to become various aspects of womanhood.

Chodorow herself notes a distinction between gender identity and adult object choice, for instance. If the girl does not become identical to her image of her mother, what features of that image does she adopt, and why? For her to become a nurturer rather than an equal partner in parenting, or just a biological mother, she must have a very specific image in mind. And that image may have little relation to either her infant desires or her mother's performance.

It may sound reasonable to say that she identifies with her mother as mother rather than with her mother the individual, and so she will want to mother. But the dynamics are rather hazy. I could imagine a girl's identifying so strongly with her mother that she would resent all possible offspring other than her very own self. Chodorow in fact has to take that possibility into account, as what she calls pseudo-empathy."

Consider further whether there is any brute fact to explain in the first place. Without any real data, I might well guess that many more women desire men than desire children. Is that to challenge familiar truths about motherhood and biological clocks? Those truisms may not adequately reflect the evidence either.

One thing that might make us distrust them is their all-too-smooth alignment with the ideology we claim to have outgrown, one in which motherhood is as American as apple pie and women are all either virgins or whores. Just when feminists had discovered the female sex drive, we are asked to subordinate it to the purer end of mothering. A comparable puritan streak should make us wary of the claims to radicalism of Women Against Pornography.

Further grounds for distrust of any universal urge to mother lie in the supposed timing of that urge. Women, we often hear, can postpone mothering throughout their twenties and even early thirties to make a career, but then they feel a powerful longing. It is as if we regularly passed the day without a thought of food and then woke up at two in the morning feeling deep hunger. Can mental longings be equally poorly managed? Indeed, if human mind is the outcome of evolution, can the perpetuation of the species rest so heavily on what happens to women after age 30?

Some other objections are factual and historical, in light of the book's, and society's, implied contrast between the female mothering instincts and the male sex drive. Even laying aside an unscientific survey of my male and female friends (most of whom do want children, the men in slightly higher proportion than the women), consider the cultures in which women were long treated as means toward a male heir.

Henry VIII was terrible in his power, and it is small comfort to recall that if his relationships never lasted long, at least he does not display our notion of a "flight from commitment" to family and children. In the old world, which is still far too nearly our own, women have sought men to ensure financial security, while men have sought women to obtain sex—and children.

Perhaps all this current talk of biological clocks has a social cause: women can no longer expect to rely on men for old kinds of security, and yet they are hardly free to demand power and sex for themselves. They might as well try mothering. Hey, it is so rich in associations with sex and security, even a kind of power.

Finally, an observer can hardly avoid being aware of just how effectively cultural indoctrination of motherhood works. No woman can avoid the circle of admiration about a new mother as a man safely can. Nearly universal changes in fashion make their rounds far more quickly than the hands of a biological clock and on far more diffuse impetus. No wonder baby boomers seem all to have discovered motherhood in the same year.

However, if I am right that a woman's need to mother is less consistent than her heterosexual object choice, that may actually take the bite out of my objection to Chodorow's account of it. I said that Chodorow's treatment might imply that mothering is only plausible, not necessarily inevitable. Perhaps the facts are on her side after all. We may have to see if enough lesbian couples wish to adopt children to tip the scales.


Chodorow goes on more briefly to assess the psychology of adult men and women. In particular, she says that women will be more empathic because the girl's ego boundaries are less firm. It is important to see that this is quite different from a claim that women want to mother. Chodorow describes the attitude of women to other adults here, not to children, and she gives this trait an origin different from, if related to, that of mothering.

She is also less convincing. Here are just five reasons!

Finally, for the reproduction of mothering also to perpetuate the subordination of women, as Chodorow argues, empathic women should be the most accepting of male dominance. While defenses of feminine difference may not be nearly so radical as they claim, at least they challenge the equation.

For all these reasons, empathy is not central to this book. If women turn out to be more narcissistic by some psychologist's standard, we should not hold it against Chodorow's central tenets.

The reduction of mothering

Chodorow concludes with a demand for changing patterns of family and society. If women's exclusive mothering perpetuates itself, the liberation of women demands consciously breaking the circle. It is hardly fair to criticize that conclusion at length. It is modestly presented, and a feminist can hardly object to demands for social activism, fuller male responsibility for child care, and women's emotional and economic freedom. Yet this epilogue does get dreamy.

One problem is again evidential. Surely sociologists will be debating the results of kibbutzim and single-parent households for a good long time. Nor do these phenomena exist in isolation from other social patterns. The kibbutz was motivated by a mix of ideals, including Biblical—and so patriarchal and tribal—notions of the Jewish people, as well as socialism. The stresses of a child of a single parent today have to do with a great deal more than the gender and number of its nurses. How well, say, can a woman with young children hope to survive, whether in Harlem or within corporate expectations?

A second problem relates more directly to Chodorow's main argument. She shows that the child is quite capable of assigning primary and secondary objects, regardless of the actual nurse. She at one point observes the child's pleasure in third parties, too. I can verify that myself, from my love for a friends' child.

If all this is so, and if the rigorous social indoctrination that Chodorow has assigned primarily to latency is to be overcome, a culture's commitment to women will need to go beyond getting men to help feed the baby. Only a poor revolution could flounder on my reluctance to gush over babies anyway.

Chodorow's hesitant epilogue says more than it intends about her book's central arguments. Earlier she has tried to untie the knot of depth psychology and culture. Now she wants to reconnect the strands.

A full re-creation of men, women, and the family means taking the knot as a piece from the start. It is not hard to imagine that we get this way because of how we are taught to play with guns or dolls, Morton Bartlett notwithstanding, but that too implies prior investment and mental structuring. Conversely, the strongest psychological urges are not just fostered by society: their expression and their meaning are necessarily mediated by culture and its codes of conduct and understanding.

If that is so, I see Chodorow as giving very good reasons for change, but ones of quite another sort from her epilogue's. In her account, parenting derives from a mother's most primitive humanity. As a means of creating desire through the otherness of an adult, it is also essentially humanizing. A newly interpreted nuclear family could therefore enrich both parent and child.

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The Reproduction of Mothering, by Nancy Chodorow, was published in 1978 by the University of California Press. Although I have just ripped into a good book, here is a terribly unannotated list of other books on feminism I especially admire.


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