Open Book
Light Bulb

the crucial career

Erica Komisar is a Jewish psychoanalyst who practices on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That location accurately stereotypes her as a political liberal. But she’s become “a bit of a pariah” on the left because of her book, Being There: Why the First Three Years of Motherhood Matters.

Christian radio stations “interviewed me and loved me,” she says.
The host of Fox & Friends said, “Your book is the best thing since the invention of the refrigerator.” But Ms Komisar reports “I couldn’t get on NPR,” and “I was rejected wholesale—particularly in New York—by the liberal press.” She did appear on Good Morning America; seconds before going live the interviewer told her, “I don’t believe in the premise of your book at all. I don’t like your book.”

Ms Komisar’s book is supported by research in psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics.

Mothers are biologically essential for babies, and not only pregnancy and birth. “Babies are more neurologically fragile than we’ve ever understood.” Columbia University professor Dr Tottenham agrees, “Babies are born without a central nervous system” and “mothers are the central nervous system to babies,” especially during baby’s first nine months.

Every time mother comforts her baby she’s actually regulating baby’s emotions from the outside in. After three years, the baby internalizes that ability, but not until then. For that reason, mothers need to be present as much as possible, both physically and emotionally, for children in the first 1,000 days.

Why? Oxytocin, which buffers against stress. Mothers produce oxytocin during birth, and while nurturing children. The more oxytocin the mother produces, the more she nurtures it in the baby via eye contact, touch and gentle talk. The baby’s brain in turn develops oxytocin receptors, which allow for self-regulation at a later age. Women produce more oxytocin than men do; answering the obvious question of why fathers aren’t as well-suited for empathetic nurturing.

Ms Komisar’s book arose from three decades’ treating families. “I was seeing an increase in children with ADHD and an increase in aggression in children, particularly in little boys, and an increase in depression in little girls.” More youngsters are having difficulty relating to other children, and with empathy. She theorized that the absence of mothers in children’s daily lives was one trigger for these disorders. Scientific literature supported her intuition.

Ms. Komisar emphasizes mothering is not about perfection. Staying at home isn’t right for all new mothers: Some lack the wherewithal to take time off work; some are not emotionally present. When the mother can’t be present, the best alternative is a single surrogate caregiver. “I dislike day care. It’s not appropriate for children under age three,” because it’s overstimulating given their neurological underdevelopment. “Babies are just waking up from birth after six weeks, and even at three months they are incredibly vulnerable and not necessarily bonded with their mothers.”

Ms. Komisar recalls hosting a charity gathering where a young woman asked what her book was about. “I told her, and she got angry and said, ‘You are going to set women back 50 years.’ I said, ‘Gosh, I wouldn’t want to that.’ We don’t want the 1950’s back.”

But she does believe the needs of children have gotten lost. “What we do want is to be a child-centric society.” To that end, she offers a solution conservatives dislike: government mandated maternity benefits. “All mothers and babies should have the right to be together the first year,” and the flexibility to be together as much as possible for the next two years.

Motherhood is the crucial career in every culture. Former President Obama challenged America to follow the science. Apparently that remains too much to ask when the science contradicts a society that expects women serve the corporate culture first. Ms Komisar believes women can do everything in life, they just can’t do it all at the same time. ~

Dan Nygaard