I am a mother and I work, but I am a mother first to my three teenagers.
As a psychoanalyst and parent-guidance expert, I have seen society increasingly devalue mothering while idealizing work. At the same time, I have seen an epidemic of troubled children who are being diagnosed and medicated earlier and earlier with ADHD, early aggression and other behavioral and social disorders.
Many people say these two phenomena are utterly unrelated. I believe they are connected.
These disorders, I believe, are at least in part children’s responses to stress in the environment and an inability to regulate emotional responses to it. In my clinical practice over the past 20 years, I have seen again and again ways that these disorders connect to the absence of mothers on a daily basis in children’s lives.
Although this may make some women feel guilty, I do not see guilt as a terrible thing. It is a signal feeling like physical pain, and often a sign that a woman is in conflict over her choices. Guilt can lead us as women to reflect upon our decisions. Of course, not all women have the same choices and many have to work to support their families; however, all women have some choices. And as a feminist myself, I believe that we need all of the information to make the most informed decisions.
I am simply trying to restate some basic psychological facts about parenting, especially in the early years of a child’s life, that I believe we as a society have lost.
Mothers serve two very important biological functions for children in the first three years. They soothe a child’s distress in the moment, and they help regulate a child’s emotions, not allowing them to go too high or too low. This lays down the foundation for resilience to stress going forward into adulthood.
Like a mother bird feeding its young, mothers digest strong emotions and experiences for their babies and help them to learn how to begin to cope, by making sure that their emotions do not run too high or too low.
When a mother or other primary caregiver is not present enough, a child experiences higher levels of stress. Research shows that when mothers and babies are separated, they both produce more cortisol, a stress hormone. The unrelieved production of cortisol may cause a baby or toddler to become anxious and fearful, even when there’s no reason to be afraid. ADHD-like symptoms can be a response to stress in the environment, just as aggressive behavior can be a response to fear.
With parenting and young children, more is more. The more emotionally and physically a mother can be present for a child in the first three years, the better the chance that child will be emotionally healthy and mentally well.
Why the first three years? It is during this important time that mothers lay the foundation down for their child’s ability to be resilient in the face of adversity throughout life and to be able to regulate their emotions going forward into adulthood. By age age 3, a child’s right brain is 85% developed.
Fathers and mothers are both critical to children’s development, but from a biological perspective, they are not interchangeable. In the first three years, it is particularly important for a baby’s brain development that they receive more sensitive nurturing. A mother is more emotionally invested in her child, and from an evolutionary point of view, more committed to their safety and survival. Other caregivers, even fathers, do not have the same instincts.
This is not to belittle or insult the good work of so many professional caregivers. It is simply to state facts. Yet since the 1960s, it has become socially acceptable and common for women to express disdain for and disinterest in mothering.
We would never want to go back to a time when women did not have the freedom to make their own life choices. However, if those choices include having children, it is important that they take responsibility for their children’s emotional as well as physical health.
Nurturing is passed down generationally from mother to daughter. When mothers do not nurture because they are distracted, bored, or depressed, they do not pass down to the next generation a love of or ability to nurture.
Many of us have come to believe that our young children are “just fine” when we leave them for long stretches without their parents.
But something is wrong in this country. Too many young people grow up without the power to self-regulate their emotions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports a 400% increase since the 1980s in children between the ages 12 and 19 on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Today, one in five children is diagnosed with ADHD.
These trends should have been no surprise. Research by Jay Belsky in the 1980s showed that children who spent more than 20 hours per week in child care away from their primary caregiver before they were a year old were more aggressive and prone to behavioral problems in preschool. I’ve seen the evidence myself in my own practice.
In the distant past, cultures glorified the power of giving and nurturing life. Today, many women see themselves as warriors in the pursuit of power, money and work equality, and have turned away from nurturing as less than meaningful work. And yet they miss the point that mothering is the concrete emotional foundation of the house that withstands adversities and storms later in children’s lives.
Like many of the women I see in my practice, I worked ambitiously before having children. I was driven in both my education and my career, becoming one of the youngest in my psychoanalytic program to complete it, and doing so in record time. And yet when I got pregnant, everything changed and my priorities became clear.
Did it help that I had devoted my professional life to working with adults, and particularly mothers, who suffer from depression? Certainly. But the reality is that I, too, had to grapple with my work-life balance being turned upside down.
When my three children were very young, I decided that I had to write a book about how as a society we had devalued mothering and had abandoned our children. Yet writing that book 15 years ago would have meant abandoning my own children to do it.
I had neither the mental space nor the time, and I would not be practicing the very principles I preached, about prioritizing our children in the early years. So I put the book away until my children were teenagers and needed me in a different way.
In my work with young mothers and women contemplating mothering, I find that fear predominates: fear of loss of a job, fear of loss of a “spot” at work, fear of having less money, fear of loss of self, which is often connected to work.
Driving those fears are notions of success tied to financial, professional and material endeavors rather than relationships. For too many, the 24-7 workplace has replaced the value of mothering as a priority. Having a successful career and making lots of money that allows you to buy more stuff doesn’t help you to be more present for loved ones: children, spouses, family and friends.
Intimacy requires time. Giving up your role as a primary caregiver comes with sacrificing physical and emotional intimacy with your child. Without the daily dependency upon you, your baby cannot trust you to be there when she needs you.
It is this dependency on a daily basis that forges the loving and spiritual connection between a mother and child. There is nothing sweeter and more satisfying than this deep and non-transferable bond.
This is not simply a cultural argument; it is an economic one. Our society does not value mothering and nurturing as meaningful work when compared with paid work outside the home. That’s a huge mistake.
As the saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever said, “I should have spent more time at the office.” Will we regret that we didn’t get another promotion or that we didn’t accumulate enough wealth or status, or will we regret feeling alone and disconnected from those we should be most intimate with? Will our legacy be to leave our children emotionally healthy, or with a pain and emptiness in their hearts where love and security should have been? Will we be (as we say in Judaism) a “blessing in their memory”—or a curse because of our neglect?
None of this is to suggest that a physically present mother is always a better mother. Mothers who are physically present but not emotionally present can be cold, manipulative, even abusive. But without physical and emotional presence in a young child’s life, nothing else is possible.
Still, political and business leaders, women among them, continue to promote the idea that full-time work is more admirable and fulfilling than raising our children. That women with young children can “do it all” and don’t have to sacrifice anything to become successful professionally and financially.
Women get the message that making money is better for society and better for them, and even better for their families than being with their children.
Yes, there is a benefit for a family to having more financial resources. As children get older, a working mother shows her children that women can achieve as much as men professionally.
But this is not the whole truth. In fact, adding very intense work or very long hours of work outside the home to a mother’s life adds more stress to both the mother’s life and that of her family.
I’m not an economist or a policy wonk. I don’t claim to have all the figures that can make the statistical case that when women stay home in the early years, it’s better not just for their families but for society too. I admit that psychological studies reach complicated, sometimes contradictory, conclusions.
But I do have experience on the front lines of treating mothers who are dealing with the consequences of putting work or other interests before the well-being of their babies and young children, and children who are suffering because their mothers are not present for them in a meaningful way.
Again and again, I see that when children are not doing well, mothers are not doing well. Mothers miss the opportunity to attach to and be intimate with their children. They miss the joy of being there for the mundane and the exceptional moments, because only when you are there for the mundane will you experience on your children’s terms the exceptional moments.
There is no quality time without quantity time. “Quality time” is a term used by busy parents who want to spend time with their children on their terms. Real quality time happens on a child’s schedule, not an adult’s which means having to be there in great quantity.
Yes, mothers experience sacrifices and losses when we prioritize our children, but there is more to gain in the emotional closeness and intimacy with our children than there is to lose. When my 6-foot-5, 17-year-old son hugs me and lays his head on my head and says “Mom, thank you for always being there when I need you,” it is all worth it.
Komisar, a psychoanalyst, is author of “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters.”