The Single Woman and Children
ALMOST ALL WOMEN display some form of affectionate interest in children. Observation tells us that this interest varies in nature and in scope as well as in its manifestations.
The most generally known form of womanly interest in children is maternal affection which is the deep, intense, and protecting love which a mother may have for her child. It is often assumed that all women have this form of affection for children and that it is one of the distinguishing marks of a womanly character. Observation proves that this is not the case, however, for maternal love appears to be a specialized form of womanly interest in children which is developed by the processes involved in bearing a child and in caring for him while he is young. A woman who has not married nor borne a child does not have this natural maternal development and her interest in children remains general and diffuse in nature. But maternal development seems to deepen and intensify a woman's capacity for affection and to focus it upon the child which she bears. Her general interest in children becomes a highly fixated form of devotion for her child and it manifests itself in her deep concern for him and her willingness to subordinate her interests to his welfare, even though the cost to her may be high. It is this fixated and excluding aspect of mother love which gives it its special personal and developmental value for the child. For he knows, and it means much to his feeling of security and personal importance, that he comes first with his mother and that all other children have a lesser value to her. And this assurance that he is of prime importance to her is necessary to the satisfaction of one of his basic emotional needs and to his normal development in childhood.
It is often assumed that having a child of her own deepens a woman's affection for all children and her capacity to understand them and work with them. This is seldom the case, however, and the contrary is often true. For a developed mother love is deep and absorbing in nature, and it tends to canalize a general interest in children into an intense love of the mother's own children. For a time, at least, it is so absorbing that it tends to displace a general concern for children in the interest of the mother's own children or those whom she is willing to regard as her own. A stepmother who has been very kind to her stepchildren may come to resent and dislike them when she has borne a child of her own. The belief prevalent in some quarters that women who have borne children of their own will be more effective as teachers or nurses or social workers is seldom borne out by actual experience. More often the contrary is true for their capacity for interest and affection is so absorbed by their own children that mothers have less to give in these relations than have single women. For the mother with young children who works with the other woman's children tends to deprive both them and her own children of the form of interest which is natural to each relationship. Her own children may come to doubt her prime concern with them when they see her concern for other children while the other children are bound to remark her! greater concern for her own children.
A social worker for an adoption society with a young child of her own was constantly heard to make comparisons between the merits and endowments of her own child and those of the society who were under her care. Her conclusions, which were unfailingly and enthusiastically favorable to her own child, seemed to lead to a gloomy and pessimistic conclusion with regard to the others and at times to a certain resentment that the necessity of work with them pre-vented her from giving ample time to her own. It may well be said that this attitude indicated the lack of a professional viewpoint on her part but it is clear also that a professional viewpoint which offers elements of competition with a mother's love for her own child may suffer somewhat in development. In another situation a "motherly" woman with a grown daughter of her own was chosen as dean of a girls' college on the assumption that her motherly development and understanding would contribute to her work in that position. The girl students complained, however, that her services were embarrassing and irritating to them. They did not care for her efforts to "mother" them since the average individual wants only one mother in his life and that one his own. They complained also that her efforts on their behalf appeared to them insincere since all of her interest was evidently centered on her own daughter whose praises she sang to them constantly and with whom she compared them to their disadvantage. They appeared to prefer the interest of the efficient but matter-of-fact single woman who had been retired from the deanship in order to make place for the motherly woman. In an-other situation the mothers of kindergarten children in a public school complained against the teacher to the principal on the grounds that she had lost interest in their children and neglected their welfare after she married and had a child of her own.
These errors in judgment about the social role of mother love appear to be made by persons who fail to gauge its true nature. Mother love is the form of" womanly interest which has deepest meaning in the life of most persons and for that reason they become sentimental about it. As a consequence they tend to extol "motherly" traits in many situations where only "womanly" or "feminine" traits of a general nature are required. For maternal love has a functional and social value in the home and in relation to a woman's own children but it is not the type of interest which is required in the school room or in the hospital. The mother who is of maximum value and esteem in the home becomes slightly ridiculous and actually harmful when she attempts to capitalize her motherliness in a wider social group where another type of relationship is required. The belief that their motherly traits are in such demand outside the home seems to influence some women to neglect their own children in an attempt to render service in a wider area. There are, of course, a few women who can maintain a proper balance between their motherly interests and their general interests and so function efficiently on both levels but it is evident that the double work involved and the constant shifting of emotional gears causes most women who try it to appear strained and overworked.