Cupboards, Refrigerators and a Baby’s Love

“The Master and his Emissary”, The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox”, “The Turning Point”, “The Emperor of All Maladies”, “When Breath Becomes Air”, “The Old Ways”, “The Mind’s Eye”, “The Past as Present” and also, my most favourite title ever, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”. These is just a handful of illustrations of how authors have utilised metaphors for book titles, guiding the reader to envision the content before picking up a book. There is also “The Vulture is a Patient Bird” that I read as a teenager, but that part of the library is no longer of any interest :).

Language permits playfulness, facilitatingthe reference of concepts and things by other things, not because they are thesame, but precisely because they are not. Yet under a given set ofcircumstances, their meanings are persuaded to converge by the author. Thelikeness can be obvious or oblique, but every time we use a metaphor, the humancapacity for poesis comes into play. Poesis, in its simplest sense, is thecreation of something new.

So why ‘Cupboards, Refrigerators and a Baby’slove? Let me explain why they come together in today’s Cutting Chai post.

Despite being in the field of ChildDevelopment for decades, I had never encountered the expression ‘Cupboard Love’until early this week. Although I am well-versed with Psychoanalysis, and itspreoccupation with the significance of primary needs during infancy, the use of‘cupboard love’ had missed my attention, either as a label for a child’s loveor as a regular idiom in English. My bad!

Cupboard Love and Refrigerator Mothers

The term is said to have originated in themid-1700s, deriving from the observation of the behaviour of cats! Morespecifically it refers to “the waya cat shows superficial love for aperson who feeds it, or for the cupboard that holds its food.” [Emphasis mine].How it travelled into the world of psychology is harder to locate, but my questshall continue.

In Freudian and related theories (MelanieKlein, Anna Freud) a child is believed to form a special and sustainedrelationship with its ‘mother’[1]on account of drive reduction, in this instance hunger, since the alleviationof hunger is a primary pre-occupation during infancy. Early infancy is alsomarked in Psychoanalysis as the ‘oral stage’ where activities around the mouthare a child’s primary focus. Piaget too recognised this tendency and followedup the ‘use of reflexes’ of the neonate with what he called ‘primary circularreactions’, the habitual use of these reflexes in later months that were builton fascinating observations of his own children’s development. There is enoughevidence of that in our ordinary observations of babies, everything goes intothe mouth for a while.

It is believed, therefore, that on accountof the mother’s role in fulfilling that need, a child forms a secondary‘drive’, namely, attachment. A similar argument was also extended by theoriesof behaviourism by claiming something similar, but via the dynamics ofclassical conditioning. A need arises, something satisfies it, the child beginsto link the experience of the thing with the satisfaction, simple. Pavlov demonstratedhow a dog would start salivating on hearing the bell that was linked with theappearance of food though a series of experimental interventions[2],making an association with an initially unrelated event.

We can agree that whether we align withpsychoanalysis, object-relations theory, classical conditioning or attachmenttheory, there is no doubt about the fact that babies find their carers special,and tend to follow them around. But utilising the feline tendency for ‘cupboardlove’ as a label appears from the outside (a different culture) is, as Iunderstand it, a rather unfavourable association. Do babies only love becausetheir hunger is alleviated? Is that the foundation of love between a mother andchild?

In one source, we are warned that thisexpression is “not to be confused with refrigerator mother”[3],from the time that autism spectrum disorders were uncharitably linked with‘cold mothering’. How deeply disturbing this association must have been for themany mothers who were labelled thus without sufficient reason. In addition tocaring for a child with difficulties in communication, they had to deal with thepressure of being burdened with the guilt of precipitating the condition. So,so sad. Anyway, the expression ‘cupboard love’ also (in my opinion) is aderogatory connotation, both for the person expressing the love, as well as theobject of her love. This is how the Cambridge dictionary defines it: “Love shown bysomeone, typically a child,in order toget something that they want,such as food”!

Idioms donot translate well

Translating‘cupboard love’ into Hindi would be quite odd, almost creepy: ‘Almari ka pyar’ or ‘Almari ke andar pyar’, but this is a futile task, since metaphorsare situated inside a network of associations peculiar to a culture and itslanguage. As Milan Kundera remarks in ‘Art of the Novel’, translated words canbe like ‘wild sheep’ running around disconnectedly, failing in their loyalty tothe original expression.

As aconcept too, thinking of love between a child and its carer as something thatemerges from drive-reduction, although that is an inescapable element in thedynamics, would be a strange way of putting it for an Indian. In a culturewhere the emotion of ‘mamta’dominates the discourse of a mother’s love in most Indian languages, ‘cupboardlove’ would not fit. There is no special term for a child’s admiration of orattachment to the mother or other carer, but the dynamics of mamta are believed to enfold childrenand their (several) mother-like carers in a sustained, special bond. In nextweek’s post, we plan to post a journal article that Pooja and I had writtenover a decade ago, based on a small study we did with mothers and others regardingtheir understanding and use of the word mamta.[4] Mamta is hard to translate into anotherlanguage.

Beyondidioms: Approaching Attachment Theory

When weexamine the mother-child bond, it is quite easy to understand why a child’sfeelings develop. After all, someone who makes you feel comfortable at a timewhen your world is so small, when there is very little outside of breathing,feeding and sleeping that occupies your tiny world, the person or persons who facilitatethe sense of comfort and well-being are likely to become the object ofemotional investment. Yet why cupboard love was used, is a mystery.

Itremains a matter of speculation why and how exactly infants form attachments,and what those attachments achieve and how they influence children in laterlife. Much work has been initiated after Bowlby critiqued the ‘cupboard love’approach for overemphasising a selected aspect of infant-mother relationships.The study of Attachment followed (notice the capital A) that was laterdeveloped into a popular model and method as a consequence of Mary Ainsworth’sresearch. Attachment Theory (AT) was well and truly established, and madeseveral significant advances in explaining children’s development and earlysocial relationships until such time as the idea became an industry (whenattachment became Attachment)! Soon, AT was being used to explain a variety ofphenomena like adult relationships, romantic encounters, and even (yes, thelatest discovery on New York Times) time-management, effectiveness and relationshipsat the workplace[5]!Here are some extracts from the article. Elizabeth Saunders writes that:

“Our subconscious programming — developedthrough our youth and on into adulthood — plays a huge role in how we surviveor thrive at work. Here’s how your “attachment style” may affect your officerelationships. Your better mind knows exactly how to manage your time better atwork but a primal, seemingly uncontrollable urge to do the opposite overtakesyou.”

The choice of the term PRIMAL instantly grabs the attention. I really thought we’d left that sort of talk behind a long time ago. Anyway, Saunders persists, promoting herself as a time-management coach:

“Attachment style discussions typicallyarise in relation to the bond between parents and children or romanticpartners, but in my work as a time management coach, I’ve seen that individualscan also “attach” differently in the workplace. Here’s how to identify yourattachment style, and take control of how you manage your time.” Are youanxious and preoccupied, dismissive and avoidant, fearful and avoidant orsecure! Each category derives from Ainsworth’s classification of babies, and incase you didn’t know, what you experience as a baby lives on in those fourtight categories when you deal with others, for the rest of your life! Theimplication is that one becomes cast in a mould from early childhood that youcannot escape unless of course, in this instance, you follow hertime-management course.

Cutting Chai overflows

Since Cutting Chai is intended as a brief essay, I will stop now, but not before introducing an idea about the development of theories in science, here with specific reference to the unrestrained expansion of Attachment Theory as a ‘catch-all’ model. I was reminded of this when I studied Mary Catherine Bateson’s article on the Edge[6], that my son sent me to read. Bateson is the daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, and herself a well-known Cultural Anthropologist and writer. In the article, Bateson debates recent trends in the field of cybernetics and argues that “One of the problems when you bring technology into a new area is that it forces you to oversimplify.”

I do believe that Attachment Theory made some important contributions to the field and took a fresh look at infant-adult relationships, even unshackling the emotion from the confines of need-reduction. Furthermore, cultural differences, multiple caregivers and other variations across communities were recognized, but when it came to creating an exhaustive measure for Attachment relationships worldwide, the ideas were boxed into a limited (and limiting) frame. For the sake of creating a measure (Secure, Resistant, Avoidant and Disorganised)[7], the nuanced complexity of infant-mother(s) relationships, recently released from its association with food, were packaged into four water-tight boxes for international consumption, and the point was lost…….the ideas became, in my opinion, refrigerated!

I guess the chai kept pouring in (out?) and we’ve almost reached the length of a full essay, but ‘cupboard love’ set off a whole range of references that I needed to get out of my system. Sorry if the cutting chai became a bit Kadak for you 😛. As always, thank you for reading, we would love to hear your comments on the issues highlighted above.

Picture credits: Reshu


[1] Here I use ‘mother’ asa generic term for carer or carers

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_conditioning

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupboard_love

[4] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/006996670604000303

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/smarter-living/attachment-styles-work-life-balance.html?fbclid=IwAR1ram6UxBgFct-mOKp77IfBcs_uVyUuEKhJP9F0rNpjRxyzU1OFelWKHO8

[6] https://www.edge.org/conversation/mary_catherine_bateson-how-to-be-a-systems-thinker

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2724160/

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