The primal importance of a child's bond to its mother has always been recognised, and is a topic that has fascinated people for thousands of years. Playwrights from Sophocles to the modern day have explored this, and in more recent times psychologists have devoted much research and conjecture to understanding it. Among psychologists, there is much debate about exactly how important this attachment is, and why.
At the turn of the century, the treatment of new-born babies was regarded as having little significance for later life, as babies were thought to be immune to influence. This idea, like many others prevalent at that time, was attacked by Sigmund Freud. He believed (see Freud, 1933 for a synopsis, but this theory was put forward considerably earlier) that the relationship a child has with its mother is a prototype on which all future relationships are based.
Freud's theory held that the child becomes attached to its mother because she is its source of food, hence she gratifies its most basic needs. Slightly later in childhood, the drive for food is supplemented by another basic drive - the need for sexual pleasure. According to Freud's theory, the mother, who is already an object of love because of her role in satisfying the first need, becomes an object of desire with whom the child wants to gratify its sexual desire (this is with reference to boys - an equivalent mechanism was proposed for girls, but much criticised, and Freud eventually admitted to not understanding female sexuality). In the normal course of growing up, the child comes to accept that this can not be, and sets out to become an adult, and find another figure with whom to satisfy this need. It follows that if future relationships are a substitute for the mother-child bond, then they will also be modelled on it.
Many people have questioned this cynical view of infants, including John Bowlby (1969, 1973). He disregarded what he called Freud's "cupboard love" theory of attachment, believing instead that a child is born biologically pre-disposed to become attached to its mother for two important reasons. These are the need for comfort, and the fear of the unknown, both of which are characteristics that can be observed in all children. Thus the bond with the mother is formed for less crass reasons than simply that she is the provider of sustenance.
Bowlby's conjecture has been supported experimentally by Harlow (1958). He studied rhesus monkeys, one of the primate species most closely related to humans. In his study, new-born monkeys were raised without their mothers, instead of which they were provided with two 'mother substitutes'. One was a wire 'mother' equipped with a nipple that provided food, whereas the other was a 'mother doll' made of terry-cloth. While the monkeys soon learned which was the source of food, and went to the "wire mother" to feed, they became attached to the "cloth mother," which was their source of comfort when frightened. This shows that infants need their mother for something other than food, and this comfort can only be provided by an appropriate figure - the cloth mother is a better substitute because it more closely resembles the monkeys' real mothers.
Though he disputed Freud's explanation of the child's love for its mother, Bowlby agreed that the attachment a child forms to its mother is crucially important for the rest of its life. That a primary attachment is important is generally accepted, but the contention that it must necessarily be with the child's mother has also been debated. In the late 20th Century, more and more mothers are having to work while their children are still very young, and yet this social change does not seem to be creating a mentally unhealthy generation. Clarke-Stewart (1989) studied children who had "had extensive...