Why Absent Moms Matter

Erica Komisar’s “Being There” Confronts Our Generation With Some Uncomfortable Truths

It takes courage to tell someone something they don’t want to hear, but for clinical social worker Erica Komisar, it’s part of her job. In the introduction to her new book, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, Komisar warns:

You may not like what I am going to say in this book. If you’re already a mother or you’re contemplating having children, it may make you feel guilty or uncomfortable.

In a culture where gender equality is increasingly being defined as gender uniformity, there are certain conclusions that we simply must not come to, questions that must not be asked. This is why the kind of information provided in Being There is unlikely to be found in most popular parenting literature today.

There is tremendous pressure to affirm and re-affirm that mothers should return to work promptly and with the same level of commitment as their male counterparts in order to “keep up,” and that mothers can be replaced for 8+ hours a day by paid help, without detrimental effects to their babies or their themselves. Questioning this feminist dogma is a modern taboo — even in the clinical world. According to the author:

Clinicians are reluctant to make direct correlations between an emotionally disengaged or physically absent mother and a child’s personality, social functioning, and even mental illness, but it is what we discuss as clinicians among ourselves.

Inconveniently, babies do not enter the world pre-programmed with a politically correct worldview. They are not particularly concerned with wage gaps or glass ceilings. A baby is, however, born with an instinctual need for his or her mother — the person whose body was the only home they knew up until birth. This need is both physical (think breastfeeding) and, as Komisar’s book explores, emotional.

The book starts out controversially with its title: a gender-specific word like “motherhood” in a book about parenting in 2017 is sure to provoke some heated responses. Although its tone is always gentle, the book does not back down from its specific emphasis on motherhood, and insists that if we are to give ourselves the information to make decisions that are in the best interest of our children (and ultimately ourselves as well), we would be wise to think of fatherhood and motherhood as equally important, but not interchangeable.

Komisar explains why the difference between maternal and paternal care is not an outdated stereotype or even an expression of individual personality per se, but a part of our biological make-up. When women birth, breastfeed, and interact with their babies, their bodies produce the hormone oxytocin, fostering trust and bonding between mother and baby (this is why pumping, while nutritionally superior to formula-feeding, still does not provide all the same benefits as mother-to-baby breastfeeding). Fathers produce oxytocin when they spend time with their offspring as well, but they produce less oxytocin and more vasopressin, a hormone which creates the kind of aggressively protective emotions we feel when our child is in danger. Their bond with their children is important, just different.

“This does not mean that fathers are not loving or that their unique style of nurturing and protection is not important to a child’s well-being: they are.” writes Komisar, “ . . . Later in a child’s life, the male style of nurturing helps a child create a healthy separation from his mother and explore the world on his own.”

Many mothers say that they “become a different person” after having a child: this is our bodies’ hormones equipping us to meet our child’s physical and emotional needs. Oxytocin causes new mothers to instinctively provide the kind of touching, eye contact, and responsiveness that babies need for healthy emotional development. Most of what babies need emotionally in the first three years will come naturally to a mother who has a secure bond with her child.

Being There explores the benefits of maternal presence, but also the dangers of maternal absence (note that absence may also be defined as “absent while present,” as in the case of an at-home mother who is distracted and inattentive to her child). Speaking from twenty-five years of private practice as a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and parent guidance expert, the author states:

While not every child’s symptoms or conditions are related to a mother’s absence or inattentiveness or a child’s attachment problems, many are linked to a child’s early experiences with his mother . . . I see issues such as anxiety (which shows itself as attention difficulties, aggression, and behavior issues), depression, social difficulties, lack of resilience to stress, and (particularly in older children and teenagers) eating disorders and addictions.

She goes on to give numerous case study examples of parents who came to her because their children exhibited behaviors such as aggressiveness, severe separation anxiety, and difficulty adapting to social situations such as daycare or preschool. In many cases, the problems were resolved by the mother repairing the “broken connection” between herself and her child. Mothers also found that a secure attachment between themselves and their babies improved their own emotional well-being.

Komisar has been wrongly categorized as an avid proponent of at-home mothering, but her approach is less prescriptive and more educational: her intention is to foster a much-needed awareness regarding the effects of maternal absence, so that readers can choose what works best for them; the best choices are those which are best informed.

For instance, while this book is about motherhood, it is for mothers and fathers. Fathers who want to be the at-home parent while the mother works might give their children the optimal advantage by doing so when they are somewhat older rather than immediately after birth, but Komisar provides practical tips for how men acting as their infant/toddler’s primary parent can adjust their parenting style to best meet their child’s emotional needs during this crucial developmental window.

This book offers necessary information to make that best choice, and it is there to support you no matter which choice you make. It provides a wealth of useful information on how working mothers can maintain the optimal emotional connection with their babies while away at work, how to find the right caretaker, and ways dads serving as primary caretakers can adjust their parenting style to their babies’ need for a “mother figure.” While realizing that not every mother is going to, or is even able to be home with her child, Komisar argues that the worst thing we could do is close our eyes to the effect that maternal absence has on young children, because if we refuse to see it, we cannot address it.

Komisar’s research suggests that in order to create a world where both mothers and their children can thrive, we must broaden our understanding of “equality” to something more nuanced than comparing numbers on a paycheck. As Komisar repeatedly writes:

We can do everything in life, but not at the same time.

If we continue to stress identical career arcs for mothers and fathers, rather than supporting mothers in making choices that respect their unique relationships with their children in the infant/toddler years, we may be doing so at the risk of the next generation’s mental and emotional well-being.

Being There is an excellent reminder to mothers wrestling with the competing demands of parenthood and career that babies are people too — people with acute feeling and very real emotional needs — and the latest challenge to a culture that tells us that, when it comes to our children, all choices are equally good.

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