Moms, you’re supposed to be with your babies, says licensed social worker and author Erica Komisar. Her new book, “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters,” has some hard truths that many working moms won’t want to hear.
Komisar goes through the science of why moms are the best caretakers for their children, not another relative, not a nanny and definitely not a daycare worker. And not just any mom. Not a mom on her cellphone, not a mom talking to another mom, not a mom who is checked out. Children need a mom that is really present, really tuned into her children.
Komisar will be in Austin on Monday at the Jewish Community Center talking about her book and signing copies.
That feeling of guilt that her book might induce in you, that’s a good thing, Komisar says. “Guilt is a signal feeling,” she says. It’s a signal to explore that feeling — that conflict to discover what you know is best for your child.
“Moms are under stress,” she says, and that stress is passed along to their children. Komisar points to natural reactions that happen when moms and their babies are separated. The hormone cortisol is released.
Cortisol is one of those fight-or-flight drugs that help you in a crisis. Komisar points to a study that took saliva samples from babies who had been separated from their mothers and found a higher presence of cortisol in those babies than when they were with their moms.
Komisar makes the case that those babies who are under stress because their mothers are absent grow up to be children with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other mental health issues.
Komisar talks a lot about the affect that bond between mom and baby has on the brain both on the mother’s brain and the baby’s. She looks at generations of mother as reasons why some moms struggle to be attentive mothers. If your mother wasn’t there for you, you might not have fully developed that right side of your brain where nurturing happens.
“If we have mothers who didn’t enjoy nurturing, were bored with us, were distracted,” she says. “When we have babies, it’s harder for us to take pleasure in our babies.”
All is not lost for you as a mother or your baby, though. You can redevelop that nurturing part of the brain by being fully present with your baby, she says. Therapy also helps to grow that right side of your brain.
Komisar isn’t anti-working woman. She herself worked when her children, who are now 17, 15 and 12, were young. She took off six months with each child, then when she went back, she worked about an hour and a half a day, then grew to add another hour the second year, and worked up to three hours a day.
“I had children and I had all the ambition that all the young women have,” she says. Even though she was a parenting guidance expert, she says, “Having children also surprised me. They still surprise me
“They needed what inherently all children need, they really needed me, and they couldn’t be without me.”
Komisar would like a national policy in which mothers get a year of paid maternity leave. Six weeks, which most women get if they get anything, isn’t enough. “Babies are just waking up then,” she says.
If you do have to go back to work and cannot work a reduced schedule as Komisar was able to do, then she offers a ranking of preferred care options.
First would be you. And not the father either. They don’t have the same biology to nurture that mothers have.
Second would be one known family member. It’s about about consistent face time. This is where fathers, grandmothers, aunts come in.
Third would be a nanny. And not a nanny who cooks and cleans your house, too. No, you need a nanny who is actively engaged with your child.
Fourth would be a shared nanny or an in-home daycare where it’s a ratio of 1 caregiver to 3 children or less.
Last would be daycare. A good daycare doesn’t exist, she says. What she would want to see is a daycare with one consistent caregiver, caring for no more than three children. The problem with daycares, she says, is “they are noisy, crowded, with lots of caregivers. They are completely overwhelming, overstimulating.” She says it overloads certain circuits of a child’s brain leading to aggression, behavior problems, stress disorders, ADHD.
If you do work, you have to repair that loss of Mom every day when you do get home. She likens it to a pull in a sweater. Every day you leave, it’s a little tug of that sweater until it falls apart. At night, you should be putting that sweater back together by being engaged both when the baby is awake and when the baby is asleep.
Komisar is a big proponent of co-sleeping, which is strongly advised against by the American Academy of Pediatrics because of sudden infant death syndrome, but she says it’s important because a baby is used to hearing your heartbeat, being part of you from their time in the womb.
It’s also not enough to stay at home and be miserable, either. Komisar believes pediatricians should be evaluating moms for signs of stress, boredom and depression. Those are all signs that a mother isn’t engaged with her baby as she should be.
Komisar recognizes that today’s moms have challenges that mothers two or three generations ago didn’t have. We’re missing the support network.
“We’ve never raised children in so much in isolation as we do now,” she says. ” We were always surrounded by mothers and sisters and grandmothers and next-door neighbors whom we called aunt. Now we’re isolated. We now hire people as extended family. … young women are at a loss.”
Children’s need to be in constant contact with their mothers doesn’t end at age 3, like the book title might indicate, Komisar says. They need this contact all through their childhood.
If you’ve been that distracted mother, it’s not too late to repair the damage. She likens it to a stain in the carpet.
“The sooner you can repair your separation, the better off your children are,” she says. “If you didn’t repair it early, you still might get some of the stain out from the separation, but it might not all come out. It’s always good to try to repair what happen earlier. You’ll still get some of it out.”
Erica Komisar reading and signing “Being There”
When: 10 a.m. Monday
Where: Jewish Community Center Community Hall, 7300 Hart Lane