Mary Ainsworth was born in Glendale, Ohio in December of 1913. She was the oldest of three girls and both her parents graduated from Dickinson College. When Ainsworth was five her family relocated to Canada after her father was transferred at a manufacturing firm. Ainsworth’s parents placed a high emphasis on education and weekly trips to the library were a regular event for her family. When Ainsworth was fifteen she became inspired to become a psychologist after reading the book Character and the Conduct of Life by William McDougall.
Ainsworth began college in 1929 at the University of Toronto. She enrolled in the honors psychology program and completed her Bachelor’s degree in 1935, her Master’s degree in 1936, and a PhD in developmental psychology in 1939; all her degrees were from the University of Toronto.
After completing her PhD, Ainsworth taught at the University of Toronto until joining the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942. During her time in the Army she received the rank of major and administered tests, interviews, and conducted counseling. After returning from the Army, Ainsworth continued to teach at the University of Toronto where she met her husband Leonard Ainsworth, they married in 1950.
After she was married Ainsworth and her husband moved to England so he could finish his graduate degree at University College. Ainsworth joined the research team at Tavistock Clinic in England this is where she began her research along with John Bowlby on mother-child relationships. Ainsworth continued her research on mother-child relationships while living in Uganda after her husband accepted a job at the East African Institute of Social Research.
After spending two years in Uganda Ainsworth moved to Baltimore, Maryland after her husband accepted a job as a forensic psychologist. Ainsworth taught at Johns Hopkins and provided psychological service at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. Ainsworth and her husband divorced in 1960 but she continued to teach at Johns Hopkins until 1975. After 1975, Ainsworth relocated to Virginia and began to teach at the University of Virginia until her retirement in 1984. She died in Charlottesville, Virginia on March 21, 1999 at the age of 86.
Mary Ainsworth is best known for her work regarding the mother-child bond. While in Uganda she conducted a longitudinal field study on the mother-child bond and their subsequent interactions. She observed that while most mother-child bonds made children feel comforted and secure, she also observed mother-child relationships that were strained and conflicted.
With this observation she then developed the “Strange Situation.” During the Strange Situation the researcher takes the mother and the child of about a year of age into a room filled with toys. At first the mother and the child are alone in the room but then the researcher enters the room and after a few minutes the mother leaves the room. After a few more minutes with just the researcher in the room with the child, the mother is allowed to re-enter the room. The researcher then observes the child’s reaction to their mother upon her return into the room.
Ainsworth concluded that there are three different attachment styles between mother and child. One attachment style is the anxious/avoidant style where the child may not show signs of distress when the mother leaves the room, and avoids her upon her return. The second attachment style is the secure attachment where the child will be distressed when she leaves the room but will seek comfort from her upon her return. The final attachment style is the anxious/resistant where the child stays close to the mother before her departure, becomes highly distressed when she leaves but upon her return rejects the comfort of their mother. Ainsworth determined that the attachment style each child has with their mother could be a determinant of their future behavior. Children with anxious attachment styles are more likely to develop maladaptive behaviors later on in life than children with secure attachment styles.
Application to Psychology of Women:
The work of Mary Ainsworth is relevant to our class because she was one of the first people to examine mother-child relationships. She was the first woman to attempt to explain how the mother-child bond could affect their children later in life and defined what a secure bond is between a mother and child as well as various negative attachment styles. Although Ainsworth said that her work could be depicted as encouraging mothers to stay at home during children’s early years to ensure secure attachment to their child, she was sure that alternative arrangements to stay at home mothering could also create secure bonds with children as well.