This is part two of my review of Erica Komisar’s book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. You can find part one here.
I want to make my point clear from the start, because I think it’s so important (… & sometimes I get long-winded & my arguments get lost…): The reason I think a project like Komisar’s is so dangerous is that it robs working mothers of quality time with their children. The guilt is insidious, like a parasite roaming your thoughts at the least opportune times. The result is not presence (Komisar’s claimed goal), but anxiety. Instead of enjoying the protected time we have with our young children, the danger is that we start analyzing every interaction.
Don’t just take my word for it. In an article aimed at a particularly “intensive” interpretation of attachment parenting, Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist, writes on her blog:
This all might sound daunting for a new parent, who could still be tempted to overdo the focus on the infant and how the connection is going—potentially leading to the same kinds of stress and guilt that the attachment parenting movement creates.
The same could be said of Komisar’s brand of focused mothering, which is demanding & all-consuming (not least because “outcomes” & the resultant pressure to be “present” fall solely on the mother, as opposed to being shared equally with a partner or other caregiver… even if other caregivers are allowed in Komisar’s model, it is clear that she is advocating a model in which mothers alone bear true responsibility for the well-being of the child).
My wish is for mothers to feel empowered to learn to understand their children so that they can in turn trust their gut to know when something is amiss & adjust course. You can get there. And Komisar is right on one thing: Presence is the key to nurturing a relationship with your child that becomes a feedback loop. I just don’t think you get more mothers to that sweet spot by inducing guilt in working mothers or criticizing women for being “ambitious.”
In the rest of this post, I am going to present the three concrete reasons why I think that Komisar’s overall argument is wrong:
1. Science may sparkle, but it’s not always gold.
Science! How it dazzles & impresses. Yet, in this book, Komisar engages in a pattern of relying of scientific studies that do not actually support her overall argument. She often (a) cites to scientific studies that do not say what she says they say, or (b) cites to a scientific study & then draws an additional conclusion that is not supported by the study cited.
For instance, right there on page one of the main text:
A new study released by the Stanford University School of Medicine showed that a child’s brain responds more strongly to her mother’s voice than the voice of strangers; the brain regions engaged are involved not just with auditory processing but also with emotion and social function, among others. (At p. 3. Emphasis mine.)
Interesting. But what is the possible take-away? For optimal brain development, do not leave your child with the nice lady you meet at the park. Or, possibly more applicable, talk to your baby when your with her & don’t just plop her in front of the radio, which is full of the voices of strangers.
In the context of Komisar’s argument (which is that birth mothers specifically must be present physically & emotionally during the first three years to avoid children falling into the bottomless pit of terrible outcomes…), this study is not only meaningless but likely deployed to induce guilt in mothers. Because here is what the study does not say: That a mother’s voice is the only voice to activate these areas of the brain.
When Stanford (or any other reputable research institution) does a study comparing a child’s reaction to a mother’s voice versus that of her father’s or consistent caregiver’s voice, then I might pay attention.
I would love to hook my infant-toddler daughter up to some science-y technology & see that her brain does not light up when she hears her father’s voice. Her brother’s voice. … Voices she has known since she was womb-side.
But the study actually cited does not support Komisar’s argument.
Because a stranger is not equivalent to another parent or caregiver. Period.
(Also, chalk this up to yet another study confirming the perfectly obvious… Of course a child’s mother—or, likely, other primary caregiver—is going to get more of a reaction than a perfect stranger… Yawn…)
I am grateful that I’m in tune with my children & don’t need science to give me the answer. I see the twinkle in the baby’s eyes when she senses her dad is near, when she hears his voice approaching. And when she hears her brother’s voice… cover your ears because the delighted squeal she’s about to emit is loud.
There is, as far as I am aware, simply no “scientific” proof that a birth mother is the only proper parent for a young child. Probably because that’s just not true.
So, here is the study that Komisar’s book lacks, because it doesn’t exist: outcomes for young children raised by two or more “primary” caregivers, all of whom are responsive to a child’s emotional & physical needs, present most of the time, attuned to baby, & providing a sense of safety & security.
Even the studies she cites to for the proposition that mothers, alone, are responsible for their young children’s long-term outcomes, lack enough important details to make me strongly doubt that caregiving by other-mothers is even remotely responsible for the rates of mental illness we are seeing today.
For example, Komisar also cites to a study that
[…] noted that children of full-time working mothers were more likely to show signs of behavior problems and insecurity than the children of mothers who were not employed during their first three years.
However, this “finding” is not a conclusion at all & simply prompts more questions than it answers. Were the children studied receiving care from a single or small group of consistent caregivers? Were they attached to their other caregivers? How much time did the full-time working mothers have for bonding after childbirth? What were their economic & work situations like?
In other words, for such a finding to truly mean something, we’d need to know how secure the living & caregiving situation was for each group compared to the other, and whether there were opportunities for attachment with primary caregivers.
To ask these types of specific, probing questions, I think, would get us closer to reality & to the best possible outcomes for children: identification of the precise needs of young children (which are actually already pretty well-documented in the best parenting literature out there) & ideas for achieving those needs, whether that’s through real, paid leave, higher standards for childcare centers & paid caregivers, compassionate parent education, or some combination of all the above. But Komisar’s doesn’t go there… Instead, it’s all foisted on you, mama!
But suggesting that women are damaging their children by working is both disingenuous & ignores the fact that women have always worked. The myth of the ubiquitous stay-at-home mother is just that, a myth.
And then there are the non sequiturs. Komisar’s writes:
We would like to believe that our children are “just fine” when we leave them, so we can hurry back to our careers and social lives as quickly as possible. The truth is not always this simple. In an article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers James F. Leckman and J. S. March were emphatic on this point: “All children are not ‘resilient’ and there is now compelling evidence that adverse developmental and biological disruptions occurring in the early years of life are rapidly increasing, as is their consequences in the declining mental health of our children.” As we struggle to explain the increase in the numbers of children diagnosed with conditions on the autism spectrum, ADHD, and other social and developmental disorders, we have to consider that this rise may be directly related to increased maternal stress and the lack of consistent, intimate engagement of mothers (and other caregivers) with children.
So, you want a social life or a career, which leads to some sort of “adverse developmental and biological disruption” in your child, which may be your partner’s disengagement (‘cause, you know, you’re out socializing…), and that is to blame when your child is later diagnosed with a social disorder. “Simple,” right?
There is so much to unpack in that paragraph, but it’s all nonsense, so I’m not going to bother. But since I’m primarily critiquing Komisar’s use of research, I’ll just point out that without defining “adverse developmental and biological disruptions” the citation to the fancy sounding “article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry” is completely meaningless.
But Komisar is relying on your tendency towards guilt for you to connect those adverse events to your leaving your child with some other caregiver. After all, mere pages before, she discusses research about how infants “mourn” their mothers’ “absence.” (So you’re primed for the guilt…) But there again, she engages in this discussion without defining key terms like “absence” (are we talking about babies separated permanently from their mothers at birth or a solo run to the grocery store?) & “mourning” (how are we measuring what it means for an infant to mourn? and who are these mourning infants left with?).
I could go on, but I hope it’s clear enough that Komisar’s use of research & “science” does not advance her argument.
2. Gender essentialism is essentially lame (even if moms have boobs & dads don’t).
The fallacy of gender essentialism as it pertains to parenting is apparent by the fact that this book exists. If mothering were so instinctual (a simple function of hormones), women wouldn’t need books on how to be a proper mother!
The fact that Komisar believes that fathers need lessons (or even drugs!) to “mother” (aka, nurture) is ironic considering the fact that she has written a manual for women on how to do the same.
And, seriously, Komisar actually advocates drugs for dads, writing that “in the future, a single father, or a two-father family may be prescribed intranasal oxytocin to improve their sensitive nurturing.” (At p. 39.) (Unsurprisingly, this is the point at which I finally stopped taking this book seriously…)
But there is no there there. Nothing I have read about attachment suggests that oxytocin is necessary for the creation of a secure attachment. In fact, Meredith Small, in her excellent book Our Babies, Ourselves, deftly debunks the myth or hypothesis that oxytocin (or a cocktail of birthing hormones) is the necessary ingredient for human adult-infant attachment. Small recognizes that attachment is possible (even necessary for human survival given historically high rates of maternal death in childbearing) between an infant and an adult who is not the child’s birth mother.
The truth is that we all have within us the instinct to bond. We simply need to foster that instinct & allow it space to develop.
Further, if we want to play the game of isolating hormones & chemicals, why not offer “intranasal oxytocin” to c-section mothers, adoptive mothers or the like, since those mothers don’t experience the rush of oxytocin that laboring mothers get during the course of a vaginal birth? If oxytocin is necessary for facilitating bonding in those first moments after birth & for mothering later, don’t we have to determine if these mothers are also lacking in the optimal amounts of the hormone? (Of course, I’m not serious … just taking Komisar’s suggestion to its ridiculous extreme.)
I’m not saying oxytocin doesn’t serve a real purpose. I’ve experienced its effects first hand. I’m also not saying that a woman’s experience of birthing & mothering isn’t unique or special.
My ability to nurse my children has provided me with a very special relationship with them. Obviously, that’s not something my male partner can enjoy. I don’t think there is anything like the experience of nourishing your child from your own body, staring into each others’ eyes. But do I think that experience makes me a better mother? A better parent than my partner? No. It is one opportunity for attachment among many.
For someone who puts so much stock in “choice,” Komisar seems awfully willing to accept that human behavior is simply driven by hormones. I, for one, do not want to be defined by my hormones, even though I am happy to accept that they provide a strong influence in my life.
And I’ve known some truly sensitive & nurturing dads, so there’s no way I’m buying into the “dads need drugs” argument. My partner is amazingly patient & “mothers” beautifully. My own father had always been sensitive & loving. More publicly, check out Scott Noelle, an advocate for gentle parenting & unconditional love, or the men (& fathers) who wrote Raising a Secure Child, a fantastic new book on nurturing your child’s secure attachment.
(A bit of unsolicited advice on “training” dads… No mother trying to engage her partner should attempt to train him to parent in a particular way. That tactic is sure to backfire. Every parent deserves to be empowered & supported in their parenting journey. Don’t treat men as if they can’t be gentle parents when their truest & most earnest parenting is fostered. Dad’s have paternal instincts, too. Give men space to find themselves as parents.)
3. The “strange situation” is strange… Do not let it into your home!
In another gross misuse of scientific research, Komisar imports the “strange situation” experiment into your home. Again, she does this to create fear & guilt in working mothers.
The “strange situation” is a lab experiment used in attachment theory work to classify different attachment styles. It is not a diagnostic tool, though a researcher’s observations of a particular iteration of the experiment might lead to classifying a child’s attachment type in relation to a particular caregiver.
You can read a great description in this New York Times article (fascinating in its own right). But, in short, the experiment involves bringing a young child (the age range possibly doesn’t go later than 18 months) with a caregiver, usually his or her mother, into a lab. They play a bit, then a stranger enters. The caregiver leaves after just a few minutes & the stranger tries to interact with the child for a brief time. The caregiver returns & is reunited with the child. Then the whole thing plays out one more time.
The thrust of the experiment is the child’s reunion with the caregiver. The researcher classifies the child’s attachment type based on this reaction. There are, generally, four accepted attachment styles, but there’s only one golden ticket & that’s the secure attachment type.
Some argue, pretty convincingly (as in the Times article linked above), that attachment at this young age has a big influence on future relationships & learning & all sorts of important stuff.
But while attachment is important, using the strange situation protocol as a DIY, on-the-fly test for your child’s attachment to you, as Komisar suggests in her book, is actually a really bad idea. Not only will doing so do nothing but wrack you with worry & guilt, it will lead you further afield from your instinctual feedback loop with your child. It’s also probably not going to be all that accurate.
Here’s why: Usually, I’m sure, your baby or child is going to be happy to see you when you come home from or pick up your child after work. Seems like the normal, baseline reaction to seeing mom or dad after a day apart.
But sometimes, you walk in the door & big brother is tickling your baby. Or your toddler is deep into an activity with his daycare teacher. Or your nanny is feeding your child delicious (& very messy) blueberries.
Guess what? In those moments, your child may react to your sudden appearance as an intrusion. She might give you a look of a teenager (“Oh, hey, Mom…”) & get back to giggling. Or, he might be upset when his nanny or teacher says goodbye.
Komisar says that these reactions would be cause for concern. Possible signs your child is not securely attached, even!
I call bullshit.
Komisar’s importing of the “strange situation” into your daily routine is specious at best & reeks of fearmongering. That experiment was designed in a lab, with strangers. Perhaps if you were asking a complete stranger off the street every day to watch you child while you worked (not a good childcare strategy, by the way!) the “strange situation” experiment would have something to say about your after-work reunion with your child. But, hopefully your child’s caregiver is not a stranger. Hopefully, you’ve gently transitioned to a loving, engaged caregiving situation. In which case, the “strange situation” has nothing to do with picking up your child after work.
Komisar cites to no research to back up her claim that you should worry if your child displays certain reactions at that transitional moment when you return to your child after work. Not even the “strange situation” research. That’s probably because there isn’t any research to support her incindiary fear mongering!
Your child loves you & is most likely securely attached. He or she comes to expect your return each day. That return, therefore, will sometimes be a non-event for your child. That’s ok.
Do I have any fancy study to back me up? No. (I have a pretty serious day job & lovely children, so the time I can spend slaying terrible parenting advice is quite limited.)
I can say that I have experienced the non-reaction & even the very occasional adverse reaction (as in, my child briefly preferring a nanny or grandma… if baby prefers my partner, that’s not an adverse reaction). My children are securely attached. My oldest is a confident child & he still loves me. My baby-toddler seems to think I’m ok, too.
So there you have it. Three concrete reasons why you should pay this book no mind. Enjoy your child. Learn her language & needs. But chuck the guilt. You don’t need it & you deserve a better shot at enjoying motherhood!