It’s the most polarising debate in parenting: should mothers go back to work or stay at home? Many of us have concluded that it’s possible to have a job and be a good mum, but a new book has reignited the issue – it argues that mothers are ‘biologically necessary for babies’ in the first years.
Psychoanalyst Erica Komisar used research in psychology and neuroscience to make the case that mothers ‘need to be there as much as possible, both physically and emotionally, for children in the first 1000 days’.
In Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood In The First Three Years Matters, Erica argues that babies are more neurologically fragile than we previously understood and that the oxytocin hormone produced by mothers helps babies regulate their emotions until they are able to do it themselves.
She says men produce a different nurturing hormone, vasopressin, but the two hormones prompt a different response.
While a mother of a crying baby will lean into the pain and say: ‘Oh honey’, a father is more likely tell a child: ‘C’mon, you’re OK. Brush yourself off – let’s go back to play.’
Erica also argues that the absence of mothers in children’s daily lives has led to an increase in social and mental disorders in children.
Her book was rejected by many publishers and she has faced strong responses on the publicity trail, but Erica says she is not trying to narrow women’s choices. ‘You can do everything in life, but you can’t do it all at the same time,’ she told the Wall Street Journal.
Quoting research into babies’ separation anxiety responses and tests of their cortisol levels, Erica argues that day care is too ‘overstimulating’ for young children.
‘It’s really not appropriate for children under the age of three,’ she says. So does Erica want to go back to the 1950s when women had little choice? Fortunately not. Rather, she is advocating a more ‘child-centric society’ with generous maternity leave provisions and greater flexibility for women to work part-time in the early years.
While Erica raises some provocative ideas and has been turned down from speaking engagements because she was told she’d make women feel bad, my greatest beef with her is that she doesn’t widely engage men as part of the solution. Her science may be sound, but surely all members of a family have to decide what works best for them?