UCL Anthropology


How Infants Grow Mothers in North London

Daniel Miller


The paper uses an ethnography of shopping and child care in North London to extend a joke about psychoanalysis having more to do with the development of parents than that of infants. Focusing upon a group of mothers who belong to the National Childbirth Trust it examines the birth of the mother and her experience of the infant as good and bad `breast'. It then follows a sequence by which parents battle to prevent their children having access to a variety of objects, but are always defeated. This is argued to assist the parent in separating from the infant and coming to terms with their childrens' autonomy. Clothes, food, Barbie dolls and shopping are all found to play a part in this development of mature relationships between parents and infants.


As a middle class Jewish academic living in North-West London it is not surprising to note that I have several friends who are involved in psychoanalysis, either professionally, or as clients or simply through a deep interest. I have reacted largely with a scepticism based on an attraction to certain traits in anthropology that are antithetical to psychoanalysis. I regard psychoanalytical theory on the one hand as too universalising with a strong essentialising tendency in the more vulgar forms, and on the other as too focused upon individuals when compared to anthropological approaches to social relations.

Based on the little reading I have done in the area, mainly papers by Melanie Klein, I have come up with a joke which I have aimed at my various friends working in this field (in most cases at least twice!). I suggested to them that psychoanalysis is really a huge act of projection. The stages of development described by Klein are not really about infants at all. Instead they describe the various stages which a parent goes through in order to develop as a mature parent. This is the result of collective repression in which the psychoanalysts all had such problems coming to terms with parenting that they shunted all the key problems on to the infant.

So, for example, I would suggest that what is called the paranoid-schizoid position (Klein 1975: 1-24) occurs when relatively new parents cannot resolve their sense of the infant as both utterly wonderful and completely appalling, while the depressive position marks a stage wherein the parents start to understand how these can both be aspects of the same object-relation. Since many of my friends are also parents, this `joke' usually gets some sort of laugh. I would not pretend to be knowledgable about psychoanalysis. I have read little and understood less, though when I started reading the biography of Klein (e.g. Grosskurth 1985) and other key analysts, this seemed to reinforce, or at least make the joke more poignant.

In this paper I want to take my joke a little more seriously and consider the stages by which the development of the mother[ii] is revealed through her child care and shopping. Indeed it does seem to me that one fault in much of the literature I have gone through is that there is surprisingly little serious attention given in psychoanalysis to the stages of `mother' development as opposed to infant development. My inspiration is derived from Strathern's (1988) marvellous use of Melanesian ethnography to question Western assumptions about gender. According to her account, in Mount Hagen (Highland New Guinea) it is understood that in some sense the child grows the mother (ibid: 250, 252). My aim is not then a serious review of psychoanalysis, for which I am not qualified. It is rather to use this joke to explore through ethnography possible stages in the development of mothers, within a particular class and region[iii]

The paper presents a generalised trajectory in order to make theoretical points. These points do not apply to all of my informants, and indeed are least appropriate to two of my main informants. Almost all the discussions and observations were held with women, which accounts for the relative absence of male voices in this paper. The analytical structure used here is clearly imposed by myself, but the ideas of what should or should not be done by mothers and the concepts of maturity, gender, and guilt which constitute the evidence for my argument derive from conversations with and observations of mothers during the fieldwork.

The recent literature on mothering seems to be heading in the direction of a concern with difference. Woolett and Phoenix (1991) note that there is increasing emphasis in psychology on differing styles of mothering and differing degrees of child-centredness (see also Glenn, Chang and Forcey, Eds 1994, van Mens-Verhulst, Schreurs and Woertman Eds. 1993). I find Chodorow the most congenial of the accounts that I have read since her use of object-relations theory is more sensitive to social and contextual environments than most psychoanalysis and in her recent work she has argued for an anthropological sensitivity to local differences in mother-infant relations (1995). Some recent work has taken a more ethnographic turn and included a concern with middle-class mothers that seems similar to that expressed in this paper (Everingham 1994, Ribbens 1994). Everingham includes in her study a group she calls the `alternative' mothers who appear similar to the NCT (National Childbirth Trust) group presented here, and she focuses upon the ways in which mothers interpret their sense of the needs and desires of infants.

My own ethnography forms part of a larger research project on the topic of shopping and identity[iv]. It is based largely on a single street in North London, and within that the material for this paper comes from the more clearly middle-class informants. Almost the only group within this street that in any way approximates to the idea of a community is formed by mothers who belong to the NCT. In particular there is a group of ten mothers who have children of around two years old and have been with the NCT for those two years. They meet together every week and a number of them also meet a second time in an associated toddler group. My information on the topic of mother-infant relations comes both from members of this group, and from other parents in the area who have belonged to other NCT groups. The paper also reflects on my own parenting and that of my friends, since many of my informants come from a similar social milieu as myself.


Although the letters NCT stand for National Childbirth Trust it could more appropriately have been called the Natural Childbirth Trust since its most active members and literature often express an almost obsessive concern with the concept of nature where applied to childbirth and childcare. At the most extreme its members are attracted to semi-cultic practices such as re-birthing where the mother is expected to relive the experience of her own birth (though such practices are formally outside of the NCT). More generally its members tend to favour various other manifestations of a concern with nature such as re-cycling household rubbish or homeopathic medicine. With respect to the birth itself, NCT members are encouraged in their local magazine to avoid any kinds of assistance in the birth process such as painkillers or doctors. These are described as `interventions' and are considered to intrude into the natural course of the birth which is axiomatically preferable for both child and mother. It is clear, however, that this advice is not intended to be taken where it might constitute any risk to either mother or infant. Not all NCT groups and certainly not all members share such views, but I have certainly encountered mothers who have for various reasons found it necessary to have a caesarean section and who clearly feel half guilty and half deprived by the sense that they thereby missed out on a natural birth[v]. There is evidence, however, for some decline in this degree of enthusiasm and zeal for natural births in the last few years.

Becoming an NCT mother commonly involves months of preparation, including attendance at classes, reading relevant magazines or books and listening to many comparative stories about other people's experience of giving birth. It would be quite surprising if such a weight of emphasis during this period did not have consequences for the subsequent relationship between the mother and the newly born infant. One effect is to highlight the specific experience of childbirth, and to dwell upon it both before and after the event. Since such mothers are less likely to use painkillers, they are more directly exposed to the extreme pain and intense focusing upon one's own body that is associated with traditional childbirth. This may assist in the creation of childbirth as a kind of rite, whose subject is not merely the birth of a new infant, but in equal measure the birth of a new form of adult - the mother. She has performed a most literal `rite of passage', which is often associated with pain (Van Gennep 1960). As will be argued below, most of those involved had hitherto devoted themselves in large measure to escaping from the constraints of biology and family. It may well be that this sudden negation of their previous values, requires a kind of ritual purifying through pain. In effect these women are engaged in an act of recycling themselves to return to the world as natural.

If this appears to describe a process more akin to a religious rite then this may well be appropriate. The intensity of devotion which follows the birth of the infant, also appears to create a new figure of the mother as `born-again' analogous with re-entry into religious devotion. Indeed it may well be that the virtual cult of the infant that will be described here has for some people replaced religion as the main experience in life within which the sense of transcendence of one's individuality is felt and avowed.


According to Klein (1975: 1-24) the paranoid-schizoid position is one in which the infant is profoundly incapable of reconciling its experience of the `good' and `bad' breast. These represent two entirely opposed senses of the mother as the source of all positive and all negative feelings. I would argue that is an entirely apt description of these newly born mothers. The experience of being a member of the NCT contributes directly to the construction of the infant as a `good' breast. The period of idealisation is shared amongst other women. Some of these mothers only join the NCT after the birth as a means of finding a community of women who are also having to be at home looking after infants. This adds to familial and other pressures which ensure the idealisation of the infant. The goodness of the infant is intimately associated with its complete dependency upon the mother. It is regarded as helpless and without anything more than rudimentary agency. It is the pure product of a natural birth.

One of the key gestures of such births is that the new born baby is placed immediately at the breast, preferably still covered in blood and other natural surrounds, substances that at all other times are considered dirty or to be avoided. Thus as little distance as possible is put between the mother as natural feeder of the embryo prior to birth and the infant after the birth. The stress is on the infant as the biological extension of the mother. Furthermore the NCT probably places almost as much emphasis on natural breast feeding as on natural birth. All assistance is given to the mother who is prepared to breast feed, and who avoids substitutes for as long as possible. For example, the NCT will supply pumps that allow babies to be fed on the milk expressed by their absent mothers.

At this stage then the mother has given birth to an infant that is perceived as largely an extension of her own biology. The main difference being its absolute purity and innocence. It represents a version of the mother that has all that she feels is bad about herself filtered out. New mothers will typically spend considerable amounts of time gazing both privately and publicly with an adoring expression at a being that objectifies[vi] the very quintessence of goodness. This is moreover a goodness that at the same time presents a narcissistic image of herself as refined and purified.

This identification has a specific social and historical context, and I do not wish to imply that it is the case for all mothering. To describe these people as middle-class represents less their current income levels than the level of their parents' income and their educational expectations. While some are too young to be called the 60's generation, they were all affected by the impact of feminism in the 1970's. In general they were brought up with a strong sense of their personal potential and of the importance of their autonomous development as individual women. Key moments in this development include their time as university students, but also a period of employment. In most cases their present sense of style or `taste' developed in one or other of these stages. Those more influenced by their student days tend to a more `ethnic' and eastern look, using shops such as Monsoon for their clothes, while those whose sense of style matured while in early employment are more likely to express themselves in the kind of interior decoration found in journals such as Marie Claire and Elle Decoration. As students their individuality was mainly expressed in the formation of left-of-centre political opinions, but as their incomes rose with employment, emphasis turned to developing themselves as consumers and into people with taste.

In Britain women with university education tend to have children relatively late and some years may elapse between the formation of relationships with partners and having children. The nature of their relationships to partners varies considerably, but unlike expectations in earlier times and in other class fractions, living with a man may not be viewed as particularly limiting to developing a skill for self-objectification through commodities. Both the males and females tend to have a high regard for feminist thinking and are quite self-conscious about the importance of continued autonomy for female self-development. What partners may often represent is a marked increase in household income. Buying clothes is joined by house decoration and eating out as important areas of consumption. As noted by the local hairdresser reflecting on the dominant conversations that take place in the salon: for these professional women the main concern up to this point is that the men they meet do not seem either mature enough or competent enough to assume the equal partnership roles these women desire. They feel that their abilities and success frighten off eligible males, who prefer the deference associated with younger and less qualified women.

This is the context into which the infant is born, and it is not surprising that the skills of consumption form part of the process of positive identification. Several mothers noted that almost instantly the sense of pleasure that they had developed in buying clothes and items for themselves is transferred directly onto the infant[vii], at least for a period. There is considerable concern that the material culture associated with the infant should represent the stylistic aspirations of the parent. While in other communities mothers are concerned to get back their figures and clothing style lost in pregnancy, these mothers tend to channel all their knowledge and ability as consumers into the task of shopping for the baby. For example one mother noted that:-

`When I was working I was buying myself clothes a lot more often and I think clothes were probably my greatest indulgence.... Since I stopped working, I have transferred it to her so that if anybody gets indulged its her. [Me - Does it matter that she can't appreciate them ?]. I suppose buying clothes for her is as much my indulgence as hers.'

In Klein's work, however, some of the most commonly ascribed attributes to the new infant are rage, jealousy and above all a kind of primitive guilt. I believe (see also Parker 1995) these are equally applicable to these same mothers' attitudes to these infants. The construction of the infant as bad breast takes on a particular form which reflects the social background and typical social trajectory of these mothers.

The important distinction between this group and most British mothers is their comparatively high degree of individual autonomy. For most women in Britain a struggle for autonomy in late teenage life is developed in relation to their own parents, but this is then negated in the early formation of their own families. Within this group, by contrast, the quest for freedom represented by being a teenager is able to mature into a more sustained and fully fledged self-construction. Rather than being ended by settling down with a home and partner, the impact of feminism has allowed them to build on this earlier struggle for autonomy. These mothers often see their generation as the first which is able to compete with males. They may feel they have a moral duty to strive to fulfil the new potential that history has given them, and their ambitions for their own careers are usually clear and explicit.

Although I have noted the importance of consumption in the lives of these women prior to becoming mothers, my studies and theories of consumption (see Miller 1987, 1995 1-57, forthcoming) suggest that consumption is more often an expression of relationships than of some mindless materialism. I do not want to suggest or imply that these women are particularly individualistic or selfish or superficial. Quite the opposite, they are characterised by a high degree of empathy with others and a strong sense of responsibility. But they also have a powerful experience of the modernist concept of freedom, where responsibility is felt to be an outcome of their own agency rather than merely an obligation. Arising out of teenage and student rebellion against assumed and prescribed obligations, they have tended to insist that if they act as dutiful children to their parents, or if they give their time to a worthwhile cause, it is their personal decision, rather than merely a duty or unreflective compliance. Similarly they give their love to their partners, making clear that this cannot be taken for granted, rather than `falling in love' as though inevitably succumbing to fate and destiny.

What is astonishing is the degree to which these same mothers allow the infant to represent the complete negation of their previous life project. The infant's constant demands are accepted as essential priorities and at no point should the mother's own desires prevent them being attended to. Particularly in the case of the first child this goes far beyond the practise of most mothers in Britain. If the infant was understood as a separate entity or opposed agency to herself, this would represent an act of complete self-repudiation. All her skills of self-construction through agency become negated. This negation is acceptable because the baby is not viewed as an other, but part of this newly re-cycled dual persona of mother-infant. This may be related to Freud's observation that `Parental love, which is so moving and at bottom so childish, is nothing but the parents' narcissism born again, which, transformed into object-love, unmistakably reveals its former nature' (Freud 1984: 85).

At the very first stage then the mother (projected as the infant in psychoanalytical theory) has little conception of any separation between herself and this new environment in which she is re-born. Rather she has merely extruded a perfect objectification of her own ideal and pure nature in an act of narcissism. The infant as an object becomes the sign of her imminent goodness. But this infant as good breast is soon accompanied by the infant as bad breast. The degree of constraint upon the mother's freedom becomes quickly apparent. These mothers were all aware that changes would occur and often made provision in their career or educational trajectory to make space for the birth. But in most cases the reality of this constraint was far more severe than they foresaw.

This negation is exacerbated by the focus upon the infant's natural development. The understanding is that the infant should be allowed to pass through natural stages with minimal parental `intervention'. The ideology follows from regarding medical authorities as interventions in the birth process. Infants often start life by waking up their parents several times a night, but for many of these parents it is important that they grow out of this naturally and are not disciplined by some contrivance (e.g. allowing them to cry themselves back to sleep). There are many versions of this devotion to the natural. Some may see daily routine as unnatural and are concerned that feeding, sleeping and other activities are entirely dictated by the apparent mood of the infant. Others who believe that a routine is in some sense natural, may become obsessed that this is never varied, since the welfare of the infant is seen to depend upon the maintenance of the order they have become used to. Either of these strategies may be used to constrain the action of the mother, who is also likely to continue breastfeeding for as long as possible, which becomes a primary mechanism for transforming the desires of the infant into constraints upon her freedom.

In many religions the most effective way of establishing a relationship that is ontologically privileged (that is which transcends the separation of the two entities) is through acts of sacrifice. Here too mothers will construct acts of self-sacrifice. For example, women who frequently went out at night for entertainment, may refuse to go out even once for more than a year after the infant's birth. Even though they may have male partners who are more willing than most British males to participate in childrearing, the emphasis upon the biological and natural relationship between mother and infant, in some ways reconstructs them as gendered in a sense that they have so far struggled to oppose. There are just some instances of the way becoming a mother is based upon the systematic negation of the mother's previous self.

Eversham (1994) noted that for the `alternative' play group she studied, a dominant belief is that the mother should never intervene in the natural development of the child. All infant demands express their purity as nature, which should be immediately met. This is evident in the idea of the breast which is never refused, and in the response to crying which is regarded as never occurring without good reason. Later on, however, the parent is confronted by areas in which the need for intervention seems undeniable such as when her infant bashes another infant in the playground. At this stage the negativity that has been channelled into the experience of self-sacrifice develops into a powerful sense of guilt. Every time the parents acts directly to discipline the child they experience this as their own loss of self-control. They will publicly berate themselves and tell other parents of their own viciousness. Instead of trying to understand the infant and the contradictions of their relationship, the tendency is to refer the infant's agency back to themselves and their own inadequacies. This guilt can be reinforced by any subsequent infant misdemeanour, since the failure of the infant to be perfect can be related back to the imperfection of the mother in having disciplined the child. All of this may be reinforced by reference to a popular literature on childrearing, (books by Penelope Leach, Hugh Jolly and others, see also Urwin 1985) with their vulgarised `Winnicotian' emphasis upon the mother, and a general tendency to assume there is always a good reason for the actions of infants (such as crying). These have reinforced the dependency of the mother on the omnipotent infant. Several of the mothers criticised these books for having fostered their guilt, through promoting a particular ideology of child-care.

The combination of immediate constraint, such as being woken up several times a night, and the long term constraint upon her ambitions, together provide the foundation for projecting the infant as the bad breast; that is an entirely negative force that should be the subject of rage and jealousy. Given the prior objectification of the infant as good breast, the mother may be said to be passing through the paranoid-schizoid position. At such a time it is extremely difficult for her to consider that this source of such benign and such negative emotions can really be the same object. First sacrifice and then guilt are important as mechanisms for preventing this contradiction in coming to the fore, since they allow her to project all the negativity represented by the child back onto herself. Alternatively she may deflect her anger by projecting it onto her partner or her own parents. The birth of a grandchild/grandmother is often seen as grounds for re-entry into the nuclear family by the older generation, and may remind the mother of her own struggles for separation. As such her mother or mother-in-law are often first in the firing line as the source of badness.

This may also help explain the extreme reluctance to discipline the child. Not only does discipline represent an `intervention' in the natural development of the child, but it may well expose the adult to some sense of their own rage and jealousy of the child. It is not surprising therefore that the mother is extremely fearful of allowing such emotions to surface, since this might lead to an acknowledgment of the child as `bad breast'. If the child must be punished it should always be done as a highly controlled rational and pre-mediated action. The worst punishment is viewed as one done in the spirit of anger at the child's actions, such as would lead to an admission of the presence of this anger in the mother (Parker 1995: 83-99).


According to Klein the movement from the Paranoid-Schizoid position develops into the Depressive position when the infant learns to confront the realisation that what previously had been clearer separated into the good and the bad, are actually both attributes of the same object, that is the mother. If we regard this as a stage of mother development then it clearly represents the start of a process of separation, in that as Winnicott notes this represents for the child (and for us the mother) a new clarity with regard to what is part of and what lies outside the infant (mother), and a new capacity for object relations (Winnicott 1980: 153). Although Klein used the observation of child's play as a technique, Winnicott argues that she does not explore the full potential of playing itself as a subject of study (ibid: 46). Winnicott's interest in the activity of play with toys helps provide a bridge with the topic which I employ here to study the depressive position in mother development, which is that of shopping.

Shopping, the main topic of my research, plays a relatively small role in this initial phase of mother development, apart from transferring some of the mother's passion for self-construction through clothing to her infant. Most of these children have a variety of cuddly animals of which one may be singled out by the parent. At this stage, however, the infant may exhibit relatively little concern for this animal and it is the mother who appears frantic at the idea that it may be lost. It is possible that this particular toy becomes her `transitional object' (ibid: 1-30) representing a vicarious vision of the infant and playing an important part in allowing her to emerge with a stronger sense of the infant as other[viii].

Once shopping returns as a major activity, the development of mother-infant separation takes on a very particular form. There begins an unceasing struggle between what is regarded as nature and what is seen as the artificial world of commodity materialism. During this struggle the mother-infant relationship passes through a series of battles which the mother must always lose. This culminates in a final battle in which she attempts to don the armour of her opponent, through `buying back her children' (see below). It is essential to the mature development of what would be regarded as normal relations that she should once again lose this battle. I will restrict my argument to observations about fighting over commodities, but an alternative source of evidence would have been my observations of the embattled relationship between mothers and infants while they are together in the shops.

The first battle relates to the substances which the infant is allowed to ingest. There is no problem at first since the infants are entirely breast-fed, and initial foods are usually home-made pulp from vegetables. Soon, however, a villain appears in the form of sugar against which the mother strives to protect her child. The problem of sugar seems to be taken from images of decay, as in the constantly quoted case of the tooth which decays in a glass of Coca-Cola. Since infants have no teeth, this must be generalised into the sense that sugar is one of a class of additives which will result in some less defined pollution to the child as a whole.

I have seen mothers react to their toddlers reaching for a biscuit as one might respond if the infant were about to stick its fingers into the socket of a plug. Jewish parents (of which there were several either in this group or observed elsewhere) were sometimes the most fastidious. Drawing on a tradition of searching out non-Kosher ingredients, they are here able to secularise this training through comparable scrutiny of ingredients for artificial additives. Of course I am not suggesting that the avoidance of sugar represents an unreasonable concern. Indeed I doubt if this whole edifice could have developed if each aspect of it could not be legitimated by the parent as reasonable. However, inevitably the battle ends in defeat as sooner or later the infant acquires considerable access to a wide range of biscuits, sweets, chocolates and similar substances. The problem is generalised where the baby is viewed as losing its `organic' status through the ingestion of artificial substances. So the defeat over sugar is compounded later on as the child resists the taste of home-made and `healthy' foods pushed by the mother and resorts to a diet of fishfingers and baked beans or, if sufficiently victorious, burgers and pizzas.

Parents do not give up without a struggle, within which their concept of biology plays a major role. It is very common for such parents to insist that their infants have an allergy to anything artificial. It is as though the infants' bodies have antennae attuned to the mothers' ideology of nature. Infants are said to come out in spots as soon as they ingest any kind of additive or the wrong E-number. If the children do not oblige (with spots) then the parents may claim that these additives cause behavioural problems, which is a harder claim to contest. This cosmology of nature has already been formulated in regard to the parents understanding of their own health. A generation ago we regarded death and disease as natural phenomena to be combatted by artificial drugs and medication. Today such mothers are attracted to a variety of alternative health schemes, where the symbolism is reversed. Sticking needles into parts of their body or emphasising particular colours and smells are seen as more `natural' than formal medicine which is regarded as often dangerous. As Coward has argued (1989) good health has become regarded as our natural state to be retained through a proper balance of elements. Disease and death are no longer regarded as forces of nature, but as unnatural affronts to our proper state of being.

Some of the mothers recognise that the restrictions they impose are specifically middle-class. For example, a childminder may be blamed as the source of early corruption, since they are held to be unable to resist giving the children sweets despite being requested not to do so. The parent may also resort to subterfuge in this struggle. One mother referring to an NCT meeting, noted:- `there was definitely a time when mothers would say "here's your biscuits I brought them with you" and produce a rice cake[ix] or something like that'. The defeat when it comes may be poignant as recorded by a mother in a different NCT group:-

`There was that kind of incident a couple of weeks ago. We went to the first 3rd birthday party of the little group of children, and it was done by one of the mothers who probably has the same attitude as me - they love Smarties, it's a party, give them Smarties. I was sitting next to my friend whose child has not had sweets and she said "This is the end of my beautiful pure upbred, pure things for my daughter", and I said "Yes it is, it is. You have to accept she's going to come to these birthdays. You can't, you know, you can't not", and so we were laughing at the whole thing and she agreed that that was the end really and I said "Look you've given her a good start she'll just have to learn that there are limitations that go" '.

The next defeat of the parent comes with the eruption of gender as an attribute of the child. Gender, in particular, masculinity, comes as a defeat to the feminist mother. She believes in natural equality and that gendered behaviour is a cultural construction rather than a biological given. This is complicated by a contradiction in her own position, which makes daughters a slightly more `natural' extension of themselves than sons. As Burman (1995) notes, the quintessential infant in Britain is a girl, while the stereotypical youth is a boy, and the transition between the two is perhaps one of the means by which we objectify the problem of separation. Some mothers claim a kind of semi-conscious empathy and understanding between themselves and their daughters that takes on a mystical aura.

This is not evident at first since the baby is largely de-gendered, which helps in incorporating the male child within a generic naturally feminine baby. These parents resent, rather than welcome, cards and gifts in pale pink and blue. If anything, as members of the NCT their children are green: the embodiments of natural childbirth and rearing. As the infant develops its own agency, parents may expend considerable effort in trying to prevent any association with gendered toys. This includes trying to prevent girls from becoming particularly interested in dolls, but the greater effort is usually expended on avoiding guns, swords and other weapons. In conversation parents may tell with pride of their young sons' enjoyment of dolls.

The first major defeat in this area is almost always phrased in the same way. The mother tells how there was finally no point in preventing her son having access to toy guns, since he was found to be using every household object from pens to coathangers as gun substitutes, happily shooting adults and siblings. A typical comment was:- `Yes, we've not had guns, but they've got swords and bows and arrows, which I'm not terribly happy about, but I sort of gave in, because they were making guns out of pieces of wooden things. It's very difficult'. In generalising from such statements one does not need to suppose that sons are somehow naturally given to violence or daughters to dressing up dolls. What infants may well pick up on from quite an early stage is that there are key normative possibilities open to them through which they can most effectively assert their autonomy. The seizure of gender within a feminist household may be just as effective a symbol of autonomy as the refusal of gender has been for children brought up in families with a strong gender ideology. At this point the parent, (since it is often the father) may intervene and buy less harmful examples of the genre. Parents will usually also attempt to reason with the child. For example, one mother noted with respect to the influence of Power Rangers:- `Yes, he loves it and I do give him lectures about you mustn't, because he does start doing the kicks and things immediately afterwards and I have talked to him about how dangerous it is and that children have ended up in hospital and he does listen'.

The situation is usually less straightforward with a second child, and there seems to be considerable diversity of practice with respect to subsequent children. Some parents are at least as adamant in their battles with the second child as they were with the first, seeming to see this as a second chance to gain victory for their values. More common are parents who see the corrupting influence of the first child as so powerful that such battles have become pointless. Their struggles are clearly more half-hearted the second time around.

The term Depressive Position may be applied to mothers who have come to terms with the simultaneously good and bad qualities of their infant. While there is more acknowledgment of the infant as a separate entity, the mother retains a desire to remain the primary source of all potential gratification for the infant. She in turn develops an ambivalence which may have a number of effects. For example, in seeking to retain the sense of the infant as a projection of her own qualities she begins to play with several possible version of this relationships. This may be illustrated by reference to the kinds of clothes bought for daughters by mothers. Depending upon the mother there may or may not be status competition involved in such dressing. I have encountered groups that clearly do value designer `Oshkosh' and other labels as part of status competition between sets of parents, but there are also many mothers who are genuinely neither interested nor involved in such competition. The child may, however, still be understood as the narcissistic projection of the better (or idealised) aspect of the mother. As one mother noted:-

`The difference is she has got a fantastic little figure and I have put on weight since having kids, and the honest thing is that I don't get so much pleasure, as I need to lose about 2 stone, that's the reason. Everything I look at I don't like myself in any more, but everything on her looks fantastic, so it is such a pleasure. I enjoy having a little girl for that reason'.

More revealing are the dominant styles used to dress daughters. These represent the first moves towards the construction of style as infant girl rather than female baby. One mother delineated the two major possibilities for dressing the infant for NCT meetings:- `its very popular to have them in the smock type dresses on the one sort of school, but its also quite trendy for them to be in leggings and tops'. These styles are of considerable interest when taken in relation to clothes worn by the mothers. There is no adult equivalent to the cotton dresses with lace colours and smocked chests, often ornamented with flowers or folk designs. The emphasis is on hand-smocked, or at least machine made to look like hand-smocked. They represent a generic `folk' look which in turn evokes a sense of natural persons based on the land and on tradition.

These dresses are in direct contrast to outfits based on leggings which are more likely to include artificial fibres, such as various plastics and be stretchy, with day-glo colours and lustrous textures. This style has more direct bearing on an adult equivalent which was mostly associated with a generation somewhat younger than these particular mothers, who by national standards had come to mothering relatively late. The two styles then project two images of the mother through the infant. The smocked dresses show more continuity with the narcissistic projection of the infant as the purified and authentic goodness of the mother. The other style expresses the mother's desire to be a younger, fitter and more street-wise version of herself. This opens up a new potential for the infant which gradually increases in importance, as the infant comes to be seen as a substitute younger sister that might, as she grows up, become a means of rejuvenation for the mother through a sharing of youth.

The child may start to represent an independent presence here, taking on one or other style in opposition to her mother. A common situation is represented by the following quote:- `I would prefer her in shorts and leggings and things like that. She will wear dresses any day of the week. If I let her loose on choosing her own dresses she would come up with, I would think the most awful things, full of ribbons and bows and flounces which isn't me at all.' It is this conflict which leads to the next stage in the development of the mother.


Having come to terms with the opposed good and bad ideals represented by the infant, the next stage towards maturity is represented by the mother's acceptance of key external influences upon her child. This involves a further series of defeats. In the case of daughters one of the most common trophies of battle is the Barbie doll. I have been struck by the observation that mothers, who previously had maintained strict control over the images available for the child's self-representation (dominated by anthropomorphic animals), find themselves, much against their will, buying not merely one Barbie doll, but sometimes a dozen or fifteen Barbie type dolls.

The particular significance of Barbie (or Sindy) is evident given what has already been said about feminism and the passionate commitment to nature and the natural. The mothers do not object in principle to their infant dressing an anthropomorphic toy. This is seen as a learning and nurturing practice. But their preference would be for a figure that was both reasonably naturalistic and in many cases androgynous, such as to be suitable for both sons and daughters. Barbie, by contrast, is aggressively feminine and seems deliberately invented to anger such mothers. Not only does she represent the pre-feminist image of woman as sexualized bimbo - she can't even stand up. This is a crushing defeat for parents who swore that their children would never succumb to such sexual stereotyping. A typical negative comment, in this case, from a father was:- `my partner feels quite strongly about Barbie dolls, we're quite firm about dolls really. She doesn't have dolls very much'. (Me - What's the objection to dolls?). `Stereotyping I think, yeah, and with Barbie the absolutely unrealistic figure that she's got. I think she's very keen that she shouldn't be stereotyped into being a traditional little girl and of course that's all she wants to be'. As a mother noted `Judy always wants Barbie dolls and any old trash she sees on the tele really - my little ponies, my little rhinoceroses. If she sees it, she'll want it. Barbie dolls is one. She would love a Barbie doll.'

There are likely to have been precedents. An earlier battle may have been fought over the equally aggressively artificial My Little Pony, but at least in that case parents feel there is an innocence attached to the love of brushing hair and ponies. This is sinful but forgivable. Barbie, by contrast, comes across as unmitigated negation to the narcissistic projection of the infant as purified mother. The capacity of children to establish radically opposed counter-cultures objectified in toys as vengeful insistence upon their autonomy is already well documented. Alison James' (1979) analysis of children's sweets showed how these represent a systematic objectification of the adult's category of the inedible. In the time elapsed since James wrote her paper, this process has evolved still further. Any visit to the local sweetshop will reveal new versions of pocket-money sweets as snot, poo, corpses and similar transgressive forms. Psychoanalysts most likely have their own ideas about the implications of the symbolism involved in these sweets and toys. For the anthropologist, who eschews universalistic symbolism, the concern is with the specific oppositional social relations that are being enacted.

In the case of sweets we can understand the victory of the child as reflecting the early use of pocket money as an independent resource. While such sweets are very cheap, Barbie dolls and their outfits are expensive and become relevant at an earlier age than these sweets. It is the mother who is purchasing the objects she detests. Why should she acquiesce so fully in this tragic defeat for her own desires ?

In conversations with many mothers it becomes clear that they regard materialism as the major pollutant for the older infant. The fear of commerce is evident even prior to the birth. Hirsch (1993: 67-95) in his analysis of adults' discussions of new reproductive technologies found that these echoed more general attempts to forge a morality of value. In reading press coverage of the issues involved, one of the things potential parents abhorred were practices such as renting out the womb or anything that might be regarded as `shopping' for babies. Intimate social relations are themselves defined by their opposition to the world of commerce. In crossing over this boundary to invade the infant world, commerce becomes viewed, not so much as evil, but as an inappropriate presence which is thereby in Douglas's (1966) terms - polluting.

Many mothers claim it is television advertising and similar external influences which turn the natural infant into a machine desiring quantities of artificial commodities. As a result the infant becomes entranced by a world whose values are diametrically opposed to those intended by the parent. This is a world where foods are bright colours and full of artificial ingredients and additives, and where toys are equally garish, non-educational and non-functional. The toy shop as `Early Learning Centre' is soon replaced by the toy shop as TOY shop. The single most loathed outlet is without doubt Toys R Us (see Seiter 1993: 205-213). There seems to be no other shop that evokes so much revulsion amongst so many shoppers. This might at first appear to be a rejection of the modern warehouse-sized anonymous shop, but similar size shops selling other products do not create the same reaction. In some cases the scale and anonymity are welcomed. The problem with Toys R Us is that it represents a move both to TOY shop, to and toy SHOP, where there is no escape from the sense of toys as mass commodities reeking of materialism. It is this that fills so many shoppers with almost physical nausea.

These battles over foods and gender are often viewed by mothers as evidence of the natural infant-mother bond becoming overwhelmed by capitalism. While most of these women reject the idea that they would be much influenced by television advertisements, they see their children's desires as almost entirely emanating from this source. Typically they will state `She is very influenced by the TV. She gave me a lecture on washing powder straight from the adverts'. The child's expression of agency in the form of desire for different objects from those preferred by the mother can thereby be understood as the corruption of the child by an external force acting against its own welfare.

By this stage the sense of defeat is palpable. Its poignancy derives from the fact that the corruption of the child by materialism directly invokes what the mothers see as their own major defeat in life. They recall their student life brimming with ideals and a certain purity forged out of their rejection of their own parents' values. This was followed by their decline into more materialistic concerns of home-making and self-styling prior to their re-birthing as mothers. Mothering may have been intended to replace consumption as a superior form of self-construction through a new social relationship.

That it is the mother herself who buys the fifteen Barbies and the multitude of other toys that she had previously forsworn, may be evidence that she has not changed her goal so much as developed a new strategy. Up to this time the mother has been seen as the major and the natural source of all that goes into the making of the infant. It may be that when faced with an opponent that threatens to overwhelm her, her response is to attempt to introject this enemy and make herself once again the primary source of pleasure for her child. Since she has had plenty of experience at constructing herself through commodities, it is not difficult for her to re-instate her role as the means through which the desires of the child may be gratified, this time through the supply of commodities.

This development in mother-child relations is likely to be redolent with contradictions. This was suggested when observing one mother shopping at the local Woolworths. She had just complained to me that her daughter wanted a Barbie for her birthday, but that her daughter already had about 50 Barbies (a large exaggeration). After looking around for some time she chose a Barbie using a dustbuster. Two minutes later she remarked that she doesn't have a dustbuster herself but wants one. Just after paying she noted that she regrets buying this since it would have been better if the child's grandmother (her own mother) had bought it.

These Barbies represent the moment of reversal when the child is almost overwhelmed by finding that its constant demands for objects, which where originally formulated in opposition to its mother, are now satisfied liberally by its mother. In effect then, the mother is attempting to collude with her erstwhile enemy and buy back her child. As they develop, the children may themselves express some ambivalence about the parents' attempt to seize control over commodities as a source of gratification. This becomes clearer when the evidence is extended to later developments. Interviewing ten and eleven year old children in a local primary schools, revealed a number who see their parents as ready to purchase whatever they demanded. For example:-

`People just let you do what you want to do. If you say that one. Say wants to buy for me this jumper, and I don't want. I want this, she says this one more warmer. I say but I don't want that, I want this one. She goes ok then. She just goes and pays for it. (Me - Why is that bad, and not just a nice thing?) Because I am just spoilt too much, like they just buy me everything I want'.

Ribbens has recently shown that similar mothers are highly concerned with the kind of balancing act between budgeting, spending and caring within which the concept of `spoiling' tends to fall (1994:168).

The sequence that has been described here forms part of a much larger and slower transformation in values and moral attitudes that go well beyond the particular issues of this paper. In my larger project on shopping I have described a polarity between thrift and expenditure that has more to do with the construction of value systems and cosmology than with purely economic considerations. Using an analogy with traditional sacrificial ritual, I argue that this forms part of an attempt by most shoppers to create others as desiring subjects. This would be the case of parent-child relations but also for a much wider variety of household and other relationships. As such contemporary shopping is better understood as a means for maintaining but also restructuring social relations than as either hedonistic or materialistic activity (for details see Miller forthcoming).


I have suggested a normative pattern within this community where the practice of parenting is experienced as a series of inevitable defeats. Parenting becomes a form of tragic practice, in which - as when infants vainly attempt to stem the tide with sandcastles - parents obsessively attempt to build dams and repair breaches through which pour the growing agency and autonomy of their infants. This sequence often continues into a much more explicit series of conflicts as the child grows into teenage life. The battleground moves to areas such as computer games and videos. Later still there may be fraught conflicts over sexuality, drugs, parties and other genres of teenage life. In many of these cases there will be a similar tension in parental strategy between direct opposition or the attempt to buy back children through becoming the primary source of commodity purchase.

Just as the Kleinian tradition is prepared to regard the stages Klein outlined as necessary steps towards the development of the mature infant, I would wish[x] to view these stages of parenting as the foundation for the construction of a mature parenthood that has learnt to deal with problems of separation that are intrinsic to a relationship that starts with such a powerful bond of identity and is supposed to end in autonomy.

This conclusion may be illustrated by observation of these same mothers' relationship to their own parents. There may be some initial hostility to grandparents' involvement with the new born baby where this is seen as rivalry for the parents' exclusive control over their infants. But once the relative position of the generations is established there may develop a period in which the new parents, to some extent self-consciously, reconstruct their views in line with their own upbringing. For example, they may return to some of their childhood religious practices `for the sake of the children'. By this means they re-position themselves within a larger line of descent through the generations, as indicated by a new interest in family history and origins. This also gives them an authority over their children derived from what can be represented as the continuity of an inherited tradition[xi].

Quite often shopping remains one of the most important mediums through which this parent-child relationship may be expressed and negotiated. It is possible that this strategy of buying back one's children will be sustained for a considerable period. This is suggested if we turn from the parent child relationship to that of the parent grandparent relationship.

The new parents often speak about their shopping experiences with their own mothers, who are relatively common as shopping companions. In professional households grandparents may enjoy still higher incomes than their children. Even where this is not the case grandparents prefer to retain a sense of themselves as the buyers of gifts rather than accept gifts from their own children. But the older generation no longer flaunt their generosity but are subtle in a manner that shows their respect for their daughters. When shopping, the grandparents will give advice but only when this is asked for, and they are otherwise quiet but supportive. A typical comment from a new mother is that:-

`See my mum, and dad as well, don't tend to buy me things unless they know specifically what I want. Because they know their taste is different from mine'.

This ideal here is described in terms of the sensitivity of the older generation. These have now come to recognise that they cannot enforce their own taste, and should be content merely to provide resources and allow their children freedom to choose their own style and image. This is regarded as a mature period of mutual respect. Any attempt to exert greater authority may now be rebuffed, for example, by restricting access to the grandchild. The grandmother may be viewed as having come to terms with the issue of separation, which given its narcissistic roots is partly a relinquishing of control over her own fate. The new parent, who has in many senses become her own mother, now dwells upon the degree to which the person who previously held that position is subservient to her in relation to the infant.

This ideal may be contrasted by parents with the image of the pathological grandparents who have failed to develop to this stage precisely because they were unable properly to separate from their own infants. Such a grandparent continues to project upon her child. She has failed to accept her series of `defeats' and reacted with bitterness and resentment, projecting her sacrifice and guilt to all around her. She is condemned as the mother who continues to use her finances to attempt to retain control, and impose her taste, and for whom nothing the daughter ever does quite matches her expectations.


I hope it is evident that I am not trying to oppose or denigrate these stages, which are based, at least in part, on my own experiences as a parent. As far as I can tell similar trajectories may result in mature relationships as long as the constant defeats are accepted. The process is a dialectic in which a form of what might be called a `healthy' narcissism is gradually negated, and separation therefore recognised. The sequence is also epigenetic (in the Piagetian sense), leading to growing profundity as each stage is exposed as contradiction and negated in order to create the foundation for the next stage.

The methodology of anthropological research, based on participant observation, is likely to lead to a focus upon the external environment, here shopping and social groups. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, tends to focus upon the patient's introspection and the internal dilemma of individuals. I believe that the main factor which lies behind what I have observed is the cultural development of a normative category - `the mother' amongst a particular class fraction. This in turn derives from emerging cosmological models of nature and materialism. Although these parents' own childhoods are clearly relevant, I suspect individuals with a wide variety of childhood experience may nevertheless undergo this re-birthing process which reflects more general contemporary ideology. Beck and Beck Gernsheim (1995: 37, 76, 102-139) have recently attempted, using evidence from within Germany, to situate this development of obsessive child-centredness within more general social trends. Movements such as feminism have helped transform this into the last relationship and opportunity for love, that is not subject to radical doubt. Their observations may in turn be situated within the larger history of changing objects of love and devotion (see Miller forthcoming).

This suggests that although such a movement from identification to autonomy may well be commonplace, the particular structure and features noted here are specific. I do not intend to present these developments as intrinsic to mothering per, se. The mothers described here are very different from the working-class mothers living on the other side of the street which I am studying. The latter do not have the same concept of nature and do not so radically negate a feminist project of autonomy in mothering. This concern with nature can be mapped against ideological and consumption shifts within particular fractions of an evolving British middle class in the 1980's and 1990's (Savage, et. al. 1992: 99-131).

Similarly these practices may change with time. Indeed they almost invert the typical middle-class parenting of the first half of this century. The concept of spoiling and the spoilt child which was used to legitimate constant punishment, held that the natural child embodies many evil inclinations and it is the responsibility of the parent to protect the child from the main source of badness which lies within the child itself. As such parenting was a civilising process. The NCT mother, by contrast, has constructed a sense of the child that is naturally good and repressed her hatred of her own infant. The goodness of the child is a biological projection of her own original nature and goodness, and is only corrupted when outside materialistic forces come and wrest the child away from its biological roots. I do not know how far it is psychoanalysis itself which has helped to develop this cosmology, but it does seem as though Rousseau has finally become the standard bearer of middle class socialisation.



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[i].. I should like to acknowledge the help of my co-workers on the shopping project, especially Alison Clarke. Stephen Frosh has been my friendly guide to psychoanalysis for many years, though he should take no blame for what is expressed in this paper. Thanks also to Erica Burman for ideas on mother-child relations, and to all those who contributed comments when the paper was presented at seminars in Lund, Sweden (Dept. of European Ethnology) and at Manchester, Great Britain (Dept. of Anthropology). I am also very grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers of this paper who provided detailed criticisms of both the content and the style in which it was originally submitted.

[ii].. From here on I will refer mainly to mothers. Much (though perhaps not all) of what I report could apply to males but although I have come across cases of near equal parenting, the material upon which this paper is based derives mainly from observations of cases where it is females who occupy this social role.

[iii].. Since writing this paper Stephen Frosh introduced me to the excellent book Torn in Two by Rozika Parker (1995). Parker parallels my argument that the maturity of mothering may develop through coming to terms with ambivalence towards the infant. In her case, however, the argument is both more serious and constructed within a sympathetic stance to psychoanalysis in general and Klein in particular. I would suggest that for some readers her book may provide a powerful antidote to my own paper.

[iv].. This is an ESRC funded project (Ref No. R000234443). It includes two geographers - Nigel Thrift (Bristol) and Peter Jackson (Sheffield), and two anthropologists - myself and Michael Rowlands (University College, London) and a research fellow Beverly Holbrook (UCL) who specialises in research methodology. The ethnography is being conducted jointly with Alison Clarke a lecturer in history of design at Brighton University.

[v].. I should make it clear at this point that I write as a member of the group described in this paper. I attended an NCT like class with my partner. Both our children were born without `interventions' such as painkillers and if we were to have another child, and my partner was so inclined, I would follow this route and ascribe to these values.

[vi]. The term objectify is used throughout this paper in the sense given in Miller 1987: 19-82

[vii].. I have not attempted to address here a major complication. Because of their staunch anti-materialism many of these women would not, in an interview context, admit to such pleasures which are viewed as illicit. It doesn't take long, however, within the ethnographic study of what people actually do, to discern this contradiction.

[viii].. I discovered during my research that I had not been the only parent to have purchased and stored `reserve' copies of my favourite cuddly toy, out of fear that original might be lost, before realising that the passion was mine rather than that of my infant.

[ix]. Rice cakes are made without sugar and usually purchased at health food shops. They do not taste remotely like biscuits.

[x].. The phrase `I would wish' refers partly to my desire to construct this argument in order to account for my observations. It also represents my personal desire for this argument to be the case in as much as I regard myself as an example of the type of parent that I have been discussing.

[xi].. This use of the child to re-enact their own history may be related to Steedman's recent suggestion that childhood as a category has been used to help construct both the concept of history and of the self as objectified through interiority (1995).