Anna Freud was the youngest child
of Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha.
As a young adult in 1918, she entered analysis with her father.
By 1922, she had become a full-fledged member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical
Society. She made her father’s profession her own and child
analysis her specialty. Anna Freud never married or had children.
She was her father’s constant companion, his colleague, and
his nurse during the final years of his life. After the Nazis invaded
Austria, the Freud family fled to England. Anna lived in the London
house she shared with her father until her own death more than four
decades later. Their home was then transformed into the Freud Museum.
Anna Freud’s impact on adoption originated in her wartime
studies of British children separated from their parents for their
safety during the Nazi blitz. Freud and her lifelong friend, Dorothy
Burlingham, observed babies and young children housed in three Hampstead
Nurseries, all supported by the American philanthropy, Foster Parents’
Plan for War Children. After the war ended, the nurseries were renamed
the Hampstead Child Therapy Training Course and Clinic. After Anna
Freud’s death, they were renamed again and are now known as
the Anna Freud Centre.
Freud and Burlingham summarized their war work in Infants Without
Families. They described young children who sucked their thumbs
obsessively, rocked mechanically, knocked their heads against floors
and cribs, and displayed all kinds of strange and alarming behaviors
in order to draw attention to themselves. According to Freud and
Burlingham, what they saw proved that emotional contact was a powerful,
natural drive and also that the “artificial families”
institutionalized children formed could never satisfy that drive.
The book reached two conclusions increasingly evident in the general
literature on development as well as in the specific field of adoption
science. First, residential institutions were bad because they
produced abnormal development in children. Second, attachment—especially
to the mother—was the wellspring of healthy emotional development.
Inability to attach spelled lifelong trouble.
The implication for children in need of adoption was not merely
that families were better places to grow up than orphanages. That
conclusion, after all, had been the force behind the longstanding
movement toward placing-out.
Freud and Burlingham began from the psychoanalytic premise that
the instinctual (or “libidinal”) satisfaction necessary
for all constructive human development took place within emotionally
intensive parent-child relationships, or what Freudians called “object
relations.” Consistent instinctual frustration—either
through repeated interruptions in parenting or environments that
were emotionally barren and devoid of parents—deprived children
of the single most important resource they needed to grow up well:
permanent emotional bonds. That was the theoretical reason why permanent
placement was desirable as early in life as possible.
American Freudians, such as René Spitz, a pioneer in the
field of infant psychiatry, offered even more evidence for the institutionally-caused
syndrome called “hospitalism,” which he claimed laid
the foundations for delinquency, feeble-mindedness,
psychoses, and other psychopathologies
during the first year of life. The studies Spitz conducted, and
his 1943 film, “Grief: A Peril in Infancy,” bolstered
the consensus that early attachment to the mother was a developmental
imperative, ignored at great peril.
But so did non-Freudian research. Psychologist Harry
Harlow’s famous experiments raising baby monkeys with
“surrogate mothers” proved that secure emotional attachment
to a mother-like figure was a pre-requisite for normal development
in non-human animals. The babies assigned to wire mesh mothers were
adequately fed, but their needs for psychological nurture and tactile
comfort were ignored, and they consequently displayed behaviors
resembling autism. Babies assigned to terry cloth mothers, in contrast,
appeared to develop far more normally. Why? Their psyches had been
nourished along with their bodies.
By midcentury, a chorus of developmentalists endorsed direct placements
of infants and newborns in their adoptive homes, agreed that permanent
damage could be done during critical periods of infancy and early
childhood, and championed the notion that mothering labor was primarily
psychological rather than physiological. If a terry cloth surrogate
offered more tactile and emotional nourishment to a baby monkey
than a wire mesh surrogate, then loving adoptive parents were surely
capable of bonding as completely with their children as birth
parents. Concerns about genetic influence on how children turned
out never disappeared entirely. But research that drew on both Freudian
and other paradigms gravitated sharply toward nurture rather than
nature by the middle of the twentieth century.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Anna Freud traveled frequently to the United
States, where she lectured on children and psychoanalysis. Courses
she offered at Yale Law School led to a collaboration with Joseph
Goldstein and Albert Solnit that was, in many ways, the culmination
of therapeutic trends in adoption and a manifesto for the party
of nurture. Beyond the Best
Interests of the Child (1973) also illustrated how profoundly
the psychology, law, and practice of child placement had changed
since the time when adoption was avoided at all costs and considered
particularly unwise for babies and young children.
In their book, Freud and her co-authors argued that children’s
fundamental need for ongoing and reliable emotional ties should
trump other considerations in adjudicating cases where child placement
and custody decisions were in conflict. They prioritized swift and
permanent decisions, for example, not only because delays were detrimental,
but out of respect for children’s own foreshortened sense
of time. Instead of suggesting that legal and social work professionals
try to create “ideal” families, they stressed humility.
Courts could not manage human relationships. Science could not predict
how children would turn out. Preventing harm, on the other hand,
was a reasonable goal. In adoption, as well as other placement and
custody cases, it was appropriate to “provide the least detrimental
available alternative for safeguarding the child’s growth
Above all, they called for protecting the continuity of primary
relationships in children’s lives, a guideline that stressed
the preservation of ties to the main source of nurture: the “psychological
parent.” This key term was defined as follows: “A psychological
parent is one who, on a continuing, day-to-day basis, through interaction,
companionship, interplay, and mutuality, fulfills the child’s
psychological needs for a parent, as well as the child’s physical
needs. The psychological parent may be a biological, adoptive, foster,
or common-law parent, or any other person. There is no presumption
in favor of any of these after the initial assignment at birth.”
The psychological child-parent relationship, they concluded, was
“the prototype of true human relationship.” At its core
was a child who was wanted as well as loved. No absent or deeply
ambivalent adult could function as a psychological parent, regardless
of genetic or legal relationship to the child.
The psychoanalytic tradition represented by Sigmund
Freud and Anna Freud decisively shaped modern adoption. Starting
with the complex relational hothouse in which human animals developed
into socialized individuals, psychoanalytically inclined professionals
and parents—as well as formally trained analysts—paid
close attention to unconscious motivations, the role of fantasy,
and the determining power of early attachment or its absence.
These left an indelible mark on adoption that is evident to this
day, even though Freudian theories can be (and have been) used to
prove that adoptive kinship is either psychologically suspect or