Donate Child Support Calculator
Skip navigation

Dr Jennifer McIntosh and the the Neuroscience of Shared Parenting


Summary - In these articles Dr McIntosh tries to substantiate Dr John Bowby's theory of Maternal Deprivation with references to two experts in neuroscience. However whilst the clinical psychologist known as the 'American Bowlby' is happy to go along with this theory, the medically trained doctor and professor of psychiatry contradicts his work and says 'My understanding of attachment categories is that they are totally gender neutral'.

 SCRIPT - Dr Jennifer McIntosh and the the Neuroscience of Shared Parenting - Dr Allan Schore and Professor Daniel Siegel.

In divorce and separation 'attachment' is a concept frequently brought to bear in determining residence and contact disputes. In a 2011 Special Edition of Family Court Review on Attachment Theory, to forge coherent understandings for Family Law the Australian Clinical Psychologist Dr Jennifer McIntosh, targeted experts who had published original attachment research conducted in the Bowlby / Ainsworth tradition.

To find out whether neuroscience can tell us anything about children, high conflict divorce, parenting arrangements, and attachment Dr McIntosh turned to the clinical psychologist, and clinical neuropsychologist, Allan Schore, who she says has 'justifiably earned the nickname of America's Bowlby.'

It was in, 'Maternal Care and Mental Health' (1951), that Dr John Bowlby linked the act of mothering to the state of mental health in children, and even towards the end of his career, in 1986, he still saw the 'relationship of a young child to the mother as an important determinant of mental health'. Therefore it is not surprising that Allan Schore says,

First, by far, most of the studies in both attachment theory and neuroscience are on the impact of the mother on the baby's brain. And again, what they are showing is that her sensitivity and receptivity to stressful shifts in the infant's affective states allow her to function as a psychobiological regulator, and ultimately to impact the wiring of the child's developing right limbic system and HPA axis. Second, we know that there is a difference between the father and the mother even in the 1st year and that the father's play is more arousing and energetic, while the mother's is more calming. There are extensive differences between females and males in terms of the ability to process emotional information. Females show an enhanced capacity to more effectively read nonverbal communications and to empathically resonate with emotional states than men. When it comes to reading facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures, women are generally better than men. This is why, in all human societies, the very young and the very old are often attended to by females. Furthermore, the orbitofrontal cortex, the control center of attachment and the brain's major system of affect regulation, is in general larger in females, although there is variation in size and complexity, dependent on early attachment experiences.
Dr McIntosh goes on to ask, And the role of fathers? Are we talking about a sociologically based gender difference in rearing? on balance, are mothers predisposed in terms of their brain makeup to facilitate a certain aspect of infant development?

Now, Bowlby originally proposed that the infant first has experiences with a supportive mother and a little later, father. My read of the current research is that the child's first bond is to the primary caregiver's (the mother's) right brain. At a later point, the 2nd year, the child will bond to the father if he is also providing regular care. At this later point, separation from the father will also elicit a stress reaction from the baby, the same as it would with separation from the mother. The second attachment and separation reaction is thus occurring at a later point in time than it would for the mother. Expanding upon these ideas I've suggested that although the mother is essential to the infant's capacity for fear regulation in the first year, in the second the father becomes critically involved in both the male and female toddler's aggression regulation.
However a different perspective is given in another article for the Special Edition of family Court Review by Professor Daniel Siegel. He completed his medical degree, as opposed to a psychology degree, from Harvard Medical School and his post-graduate medical education at UCLA. His training is in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He is currently clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine where he Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Dr McIntosh asks him, Questions that arise often in the family law arena include these: Can you have two primary caregivers? Is there any evidence about the brains of mothers and fathers working any differently over the care-giving tasks?

Professor Siegel replies,

Others may say no, you do not have two primary attachment figures, but I think you can over time, within the same home. But those parents do different things. In divorce, having two primary attachment figures is probably different. I am not the person to ask about the gender question, because I have a peculiar aversion to gender-specific generalizations. I know there is neurobiological research that demonstrates differences. I just cannot get myself to take those findings seriously because of my own experience as a father, because of my own experience of my parents, because of my experience as a therapist. Both men and women have deep potentials for caring for infants.

However McIntosh is not happy with this reply and says to the professor, 'The gender issue is something I would like to dismiss too, but it is endemic to family law and it perpetually rears its head in court decisions and influences policy directions'.

Professor Siegel therefore replies,

My understanding of attachment categories is that they are totally gender neutral. I know people say women are more integrated because their corpus callosum is thicker. So what? That does not mean you cannot have a loving relationship as a male with an infant. Now, we do have these things called gender roles, where the male feels like he has to go out and earn money, and the female thinks that she has to be at home. But I think that is a sociologically reinforced, perhaps genetically induced tendency, but it does not have to be fixed at all. I've seen plenty of fathers be unbelievable primary caregivers, and the woman is out and about working. And the children do extremely well. Attachment categories are gender-neutral.

McIntosh realises that the professor is not going to budge and to changes the subject,

If we could hose down the gender debate about attachment, then we might actually get down to talking about the function of a primary caregiver: whether you are the mother or the father, what is it that a primary attachment figure does to support optimal development? I see that as the discussion that is most needed. Allan Schore talks about the importance of psychological gender and the ability to fulfill the functions of the primary caregiver role: being nurturing, responsive, and a secure base for comfort.

But once again Professor Siegel repeats his position and states,

Absolutely! I mean, if you outline the basics of a primary caregiver, you see how gender neutral it is. The primary caregiver is someone who is tuned in to the internal experience of the child, not just the child's behavior. That is the simplest way to say it. Males can do it, and females can do it. And some females cannot do it, and some males cannot do it. It is really a matter of seeing the internal world, not just managing behavior. And this reflective function can be taught: most can learn to have mindsight enabling us to perceive our own and others' internal worlds.

 It is clear from these responses that Professor Siegel does not regard the 'relationship of a young child to the mother' as the only 'important determinant of mental health'. He is adamant that attachment categories are 'totally gender neutral'. Despite prompting he is also sure that children cam have more than one primary care giver.

Despite the claims made by Dr McIntosh this does not make him part of the Bowlby / Ainsworth tradition.

Instead he has more in common with Professor Sir Michael Rutter who stated in his seminal work 'Maternal Deprivation; Reassessed, 1971 that,

i. Investigations have demonstrated the importance of a child's relationship with people other than his mother. 
ii.  Most important of all there has been repeated findings that many children are not damaged by deprivation. 
iii. The old issue of critical periods of development and the crucial importance of early years has been re-opened and re-examined. The evidence is unequivocal that experiences at all ages have an impact. 
iv. It may be the first few years do have a special importance for bond formation and social development.

Bowlby described Rutter as his 'erstwhile critic' but today he is sometimes referred to as the 'father of modern child psychiatry'.

In the summary of views for the Special Edition of Family Court Review Dr McIntosh suggests that there is a a general agreement about the need for a single primary care giver or to give it Bowlby's name the concept of 'monotropy' and goes on to link this concept with the gender of the primary parent and says, While being a woman is clearly not a prerequisite for being a primary caregiver, Schore suggests from current neuroscience that dominant mother care of infants is not just sociologically informed: in normal development, the female brain is specifically equipped for the largely nonverbal, affiliative, nurturant aspects of attachment formation with an infant.

But this is not the general view and Dr McIntosh has chosen to ignore Professor Siegel's contribution from the summary of views because it does not conform to her view of the Bowlby / Ainsworth tradition.

Because of his authority Professor Siegel 's inclusion lends weight to the Special Edition but in reality his contribution is only 'window dressing' because as the excerpt shows when he is prompted by Dr McIntosh to say that children cannot or should not have two primary care givers or that mothers make better parents than fathers he he contradicts her view and says,

I know there is neurobiological research that demonstrates differences. I just cannot get myself to take those findings seriously because of my own experience as a father, because of my own experience of my parents, because of my experience as a therapist. Both men and women have deep potentials for caring for infants.

What these two articles show is that Dr McIntosh is using her position as guest editor for this special edition of Family Court Review to promote her own gender political view as a source for her own guidelines about contact and access disputes regardless of the interests of the welfare of vulnerable children in family proceedings.


Last edit: by Kip

Kingsley Miller is the author of 'even Toddlers Need Fathers', a critique of the principle of 'Maternal Deprivation' as applied in family courts, which Professor Sir Michael Rutter described as an, 'interesting and informative guide'. He has also received a letter from Buckingham Palace stating, 'It was thoughtful of you to enclose a copy of your book 'even Toddlers Need Fathers' and Her Majesty has noted your concerns'.
1 guest and 0 members have just viewed this.

Recent Tweets