Attached to her work: Ursula Bowlby and motherhood

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By | The Researcher’s View

How much did Ursula Bowlby’s personal experience of motherhood contribute to her research on the relationship between infants and mothers, and to the development of her husband’s work on attachment theory? These are questions that Dr Katherine Holden explores in Ursula’s personal papers and correspondence in the John Bowlby archive.

Ursula Bowlby (1916 – 2000) has been characterised by biographers of her husband, the noted psychologist John Bowlby, as a devoted wife whose main contribution was to support him and bring up their four children. However, papers deposited in the Wellcome Library suggest that she played a more active though largely unacknowledged role in the genesis of the theory that the mother should be a child’s main carer. Her views were based not simply on her husband’s research on attachment theory, but also on her own experiences both as a child growing up with nannies and as a young mother who had more limited help with childcare.

John Bowlby research

Dr. Bowlby observing a child at play. Wellcome Images reference: L0039184.

My research in the Bowlby archive (PP/BOW) formed part of a bigger project on the history of nannies, now published as Nanny Knows Best: the history of  the British nanny. I discovered that a key feature of John’s upbringing was similar to Ursula’s: both lost a nanny or nurse maid at the age of four or five. These experiences clearly affected their views on the importance of continuity of early care.

Experiences of childhood

Ursula describes her nanny’s departure and other events in her childhood in often harrowing detail in an unpublished autobiography Ursula’s World, written in 1962 and edited in 1991 after John’s death. She remembered her “deep grief” as mostly “blotted out” of her mind as too painful but recalls the event vividly: “The car and the chauffeur waited outside the front door to carry her away and someone put into my hand (to give her because I was her special one) a gold link bracelet with a golden heart suspended from it, as a parting present.”

she was not allowed to grieve

She wept until her older sister told her “it was selfish to cry because it would make it worse for nanny”.  And because she “was not allowed to grieve” Ursula believed the tears she should have shed at five and a half would resurface often for no apparent reason. This habit earned her the nickname ‘Cry baby’ from the much hated governess who replaced her nanny.

Experiences of motherhood

Ursula was determined not to repeat this experience with her own children. She had her first child in 1939 at the time when John was often away from home and already issuing warnings about the effects of evacuation on children. In the first few years of motherhood Ursula exchanged frequent letters with her husband and wrote a journal recording her own reactions to her baby.  She berated the strict regimes imposed by the trained nurse “who had never had a child of her own” and later described her 18 month old daughter’s reaction to being parted from her.

An extract from Ursula’s journal, “recording her first impressions as a mother”. Wellcome Library reference: PP/BOW/P/3.

An extract from Ursula’s journal, “recording her first impressions as a mother”. Wellcome Library reference: PP/BOW/P/3.

Ursula’s views on nurses were influenced partly by her experience of the nurses who attended her own and her sister’s confinements (staying with the family until the child was a month old), who would not allow them to pick up the babies when they cried. They were also shaped by her experience of going into hospital not long after the birth of her second child.  Parted from her own children for several weeks, she expressed her fears to John about the way the nurses treated the babies in their care:

“The whole trouble is that no child is looked after by one nurse. 6 nurses at least attend each child in the 24 hours’ and also that they do leave the babies to cry. I hear them saying so, and the babies cry for hours on end… the nurses never stay in the baby’s room. They just pop in and out with a few bright screams (sic) which are more upsetting than nothing”.

John’s response to this letter was that to leave his children in hospital alone would be “quite unthinkable”.  However it was another decade before the plight of young children separated from parents in hospital was exposed to professionals and a wider public in a film by Bowlby’s colleague John Robertson, A Two year old goes to Hospital.

The woman behind the man?

Lynda Ross recently argued that Ursula’s experience of motherhood had little influence on her husband’s theoretical writings, which he developed into attachment theory. I am less sure this was the case. Certainly she found a receptive audience in the readers of the childcare magazine Nursery World. During the early 1940s, writing as a ‘doctor’s wife’ she published letters on subjects such as the value of dummies and the merits of breast and demand feeding.

In the late 1940s she also co-wrote with her husband an unpublished book, Happy Infancy, giving advice to mothers in which she urged mothers “to trust their own instincts”. Correspondence with John (PP/BOW/B.4) makes it clear that she was responsible for writing many of the chapters, drawing on several recent psychological studies to support her views of the importance of the mother-child relationship. These sources contradict Jeremy Holmes’s description of Ursula as having no knowledge of psychology.

Ursula and John Bowlby

A snapshot of Ursula, pregnant, and John in their garden, Summer 1939. The note on the back says: “The testy professor and his know-all secretary”. Wellcome Library reference: PP/BOW/P/17.

John Bowlby’s competitive nature, which he openly acknowledged in interviews, led him to ignore or underestimate his wife’s views. In a memoir to John, written after his death, she maintained that whenever she had a good idea he would joke:

“’You can’t have thought that Bimbo! I must have thought it up and transferred it to you by telepathy’. But there were occasions when my solution was shot down and forgotten – and later John ‘thought of it himself’ and it was a super idea.”

The working mother

Despite Ursula’s determination as a mother to be her “own head nurse”, she did not always find motherhood easy and had fewer possibilities for fulfilling work than her own mother who became a Justice of the Peace and a Poor-Law guardian.

Ursula’s children had a much freer upbringing than the strict routines imposed by governesses and nannies but it came at a price. Although she did have some paid help with her children, in an interview I did with one of her sisters I was told that Ursula “was often seen running at top speed with a book under her arm, locking the doors behind her with the children in hot pursuit.  She wanted much more time to herself”. This is a powerful image that must be familiar to many mothers in the post- war years who tried but often could not to live up to the doctrine that has come to be known as ‘Bowlbyism’.

Author: Dr Katherine Holden is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of the West of England.

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