Helene Deutsch, “Adoptive Mothers,” 1945

Source: fembio.org/frauen-biographie/helene-deutsch.shtml

Helene Deutsch, an emigré psychoanalyst known for her theories of feminine psychology

Source: Paul Roazen, Helene Deutsch:  A Psychoanalyst's Life (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1985).

Helene Deutsch in 1967

When a woman’s longing to be a mother is not gratified by children of her own, and when she seeks a substitute by the most natural method, namely, adoption, the question arises as to why she has no children of her own. In the course of our discussion we have met various types of women who long for children but are unable to gratify this longing directly, owing to unresolved psychic conflicts. We have seen the midwife who out of fear of the biological functions was obliged to content herself with presiding over the delivery of other women’s children, and Unamuno’s Aunt Tula, who despised sexuality to such an extent that she could gratify her ardent motherliness only by exploiting the sexual service of other women. We have seen the androgynous woman who withdraws from female reproductive tasks and yet wants to create and shape a human being after her own image, and the woman whose eroticism has remained fixed in homosexuality and whose yearning for a child derives from the profound source of her own mother relationship. Many such women renounce men, but gratify the wish for a child by adoption. . . .

The largest proportion of adoptive parents, however, is recruited from among sterile married couples. Here the psychology of the adoptive mother is largely determined by the psychologic motives for sterility (if any) and by the woman’s reaction to her renunciation. Has her fear of the reproductive function proved stronger than her wish to be a mother? Is she still so much a child that she cannot emotionally and consciously decide to assume the responsible role of mother? Is she so much absorbed emotionally in other life tasks that she fears motherhood? . . . Does a deeply unconscious curse of heredity burden all her motherly wish fantasies? And, above all, has the sterile woman overcome the narcissistic mortification of her inferiority as a woman to such an extent that she is willing to give the child, as object, full maternal love? . . . .

We must not forget that in such cases adoption constitutes an attempt to remedy a severe trauma, and that this trauma must be overcome before motherliness with its gratifications can fully develop. What kind of trauma it is, and the woman’s reaction to the necessary renunciation of the hope of giving birth to a child, depend very much, as we have seen, upon the cause of sterility. The emotional difficulties of adoption may originate in the very conditions that have led to sterility, and the ghosts that were supposed to be banished by the renunciation of the reproductive function can under different circumstances re-emerge in the adoptive mother in a new form. The fear “I cannot have a child” will, for instance, assume the form. . .“The child will be taken from me.” The adopted child can become the bearer of all the problems that have led to sterility, as well as of those that normally pertain to a child of one’s own. The only difference is that here the conflicts have a more real background. . . .

There are women—I might call them female Pied Pipers—who use the bait of a cozy home and motherly care to lure children out of social institutions without regard for their nature, driven by a strong psychic urge to help children, to foster fledglings in their nests, and to hear the name “Mother” uttered by as many mouths as possible. . . . A masked kidnaperism may often lead a kind and reasonable woman to undertake the grandiose social task of becoming a replacing mother of the abandoned or neglected children of many mothers. I have heard such an addict of adoption speak with the greatest energy against social assistance to children: a child—every child—needs one mother, the mother. And she offered herself as such a mother to society. . . .

It is certain that similar individual motives, which remain completely unconscious, operate in adoptions.


Source: Helene Deutsch, “Adoptive Mothers,” in The Psychology of Women (New York: Grune & Stratton, 1945): 395, 397,420-421, 422, 423.
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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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