When a New York, Jewish psychoanalyst who is, predictably, a political liberal, has her book shunned by the mainstream media, there has to be something very wrong with it. And you can see what the problem is just by reading the title: Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters.
That the author, Erica Komisar, even thinks there is a state called “motherhood” marks her straight off as an old-fashioned binary sex-role thinker. As for “prioritising” being a mother for three years – she must be mad. How are women to maintain their jobs and careers? Has she never heard of gender equality in the family? Does she not know that men can do child care just as well as women if they really try?
These are the kind of sentiments (not my own) that must have driven an interviewer for Good Morning America to tell Ms Komisar, seconds before the camera went live, “I don’t believe in the premise of your book at all. I don’t like your book.”
And that, according to The Wall Street Journal, was about the only air time she got with a major outlet apart from Fox & Friends, which liked her book a lot.
But let’s cut to the chase. Erica Komisar knows a thing or two. Unlike most gender theorists she has clocked up three decades of clinical practice, first as a social worker and then as an analyst. She has raised three children, and put off writing her book for 12 years to be “emotionally and physically present” to them. Presumably she kept her professional practice going for some of that time.
It was her professional experience, however, that made the book necessary. She told WSJ:
“What I was seeing was an increase in children being diagnosed with ADHD and an increase in aggression in children, particularly in little boys, and an increase in depression in little girls.” More youngsters were also being diagnosed with “social disorders” whose symptoms resembled those of autism – “having difficulty relating to other children, having difficulty with empathy.”
Komisar came to the conclusion that it was “the absence of mothers in children’s lives on a daily basis was … one of the triggers for these mental disorders.”
Researching the scientific literature reinforced her intuition: “mothers are biologically necessary for babies.” From Columbia University neuroscientist Nim Tottenham she learned “that babies are born without a central nervous system” and that “mothers are the central nervous system to babies,” especially for the first nine months after birth.
(Actually, “babies are born without a central nervous system” seems to over-simplify the situation, as this paper on the question of fetal pain indicates, but the newborn’s nervous system is certainly immature.)
In her WSJ interview Komisar explains:
“Every time a mother comforts a baby in distress, she’s actually regulating the baby’s emotions from the outside in. After three years, the baby internalizes that ability to regulate their emotions, but not until then.” For that reason, mothers “need to be there as much as possible, both physically and emotionally, for children in the first 1000 days.”
Why does it have to be the mother, and not the dad or some other female caregiver?
Answer: oxytocin, the “love hormone”, a buffer against stress. Mothers produce it when they give birth, breastfeed or otherwise nurture their children. The more she produces, the more she produces it in the baby – through eye contact, touch and gentle talk. Meanwhile baby’s brain develops oxytocin receptors, which allow for self regulation at a later age.
Women produce more oxytocin than men do. Fathers produce their own nurturing hormone, vasopressin, the “protective, aggressive hormone.” WSJ reports:
Whereas a mother of a crying baby will lean into the pain and say, ‘Oh honey!’’ a father is more apt to tell the child: “C’mon, you’re OK. Brush yourself off; let’s go back to play. Children, especially boys, need that paternal nurturing to learn to control their aggression and become self-sufficient. But during the first stages of childhood, motherly love is more vital.
Daycare workers, of course, are not going to have the oxytocin, or the one-on-one time and focussed attention, or – let’s face it – the love that a mother can bring to nurturing her baby. Komisar “dislikes” daycare for children younger than 3 because the stranger element produces stress in the baby. Attachment theory explains why (if you need an explanation), and scientists have found high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in daycare babies.
In the case of a mother who can’t stay home — and Komisar recognises that some cannot — the next best thing is “a single surrogate caregiver,” optimally a relative, she says.
All this, founded though it is on scientific evidence as well as common sense, is bound to annoy a lot of people. Not only feminist egalitarians, but those who believe there is “no difference” between mom and dad parenting and same-sex parenting. “Two moms” might work all right where one is the birth mother, but “two dads” who acquire a baby through surrogacy lack something fundamental for its nurturing if Komisar is right.
Komisar, although she rejects accusations that she wants to send women back to the 1950s, is not backing down on her central point: the needs of children are getting lost in the new world of women and work, and we need to become (again) “a child-centric society”. Apparent epidemics of ADHD and autism suggest she is right.
The thing that made literary agents as well as conference organisers run for cover when she approached them was their fear that her views would make women feel guilty. Well, says Komisar, guilt is not always a bad thing. As a sign of inner conflict, it can drive people to make better choices.
But she recognises that there is more to creating a “child-centric society” than individual choice. She suggests that the government mandate that employers provide generous maternity benefits: a year on full pay, and then the ability to work flexibly or part-time for the next two.
Now there’s an idea to put economic conservatives to flight, but if they want an effective workforce down the track, perhaps they had better consider it.