Babies Need Their Mothers, but Mothers Need Paid Leave: Katelyn Beaty Interviews Erica Komisar

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Erica Komisar is a social worker and psychoanalyst who believes young children are faring worse than they were even 30 years ago. In her practice, “I was seeing an increase in children with mental disorders, being diagnosed earlier and medicated at an early age.” After 13 years spent researching neuroscience, attachment theory, and psychoanalysis, Komisar linked this increase to a social devaluing of mothering and an inability for many women to be present to their children in the first three years of life.

Such a diagnosis, Komisar says, has cheered social conservatives—until she gets to her policy solution: at least one year of federally mandated paid maternity leave, with part-time and flexible options for two more years. “All mothers and babies should have the right to be together in the first year.” In other words, babies need mothers, but mothers—especially single and working-class ones—need tangible, societal, and fiscal support in order to nurture their babies during such a crucial time.

Komisar spoke with CT editor at large Katelyn Beaty about these and other themes found in her book, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, as well as what Christian communities offer to the conversation.

Why is it the case that a child’s well-being apparently comes down to his or her secure attachment with the mother and not the father or other caregivers?

Mothers and fathers nurture differently for the most part, and the research backed that up. Mothers and fathers can be equal in many ways, in intelligence, in pay, in the kinds of jobs they do, but the truth is that we’re different biologically.

One of the differences is the biological difference in nurturing because nurturing comes from a particular part of the brain. Basically, when women nurture, when they’re pregnant and give birth and breastfeed and nurture, they produce oxytocin in their brains, a love hormone, a neuropeptide, and it makes women more sensitive and empathic. So it makes women look at their babies’ pain and soothe their babies who are in distress by reflecting the pain, and it’s a natural instinct of healthy mothers whose own mothers have done that for them.

When fathers nurture, particularly as primary caregivers, they also produce oxytocin, but it has a different impact on their brains. When fathers produce oxytocin, it makes them more playful and engage in tactile play with their babies. They’ll tickle their babies, wrestle with their babies, distract their babies away from pain. It’s not making them more empathic, it’s making them more encouraging of the babies to get past the pain. When fathers were given intranasal oxytocin in experiments to see if they could be more like mothers, they actually tickled the babies harder and chased the babies around more. It didn’t make them more sensitive, empathic nurturers.

That may be the politically incorrect thing, but it’s just the truth in terms of what the research shows: Mothers and fathers are different in terms of nurture.

How does this finding inform how women make decisions about work? Many women are in the workplace, either full-time or part-time, and simply can’t choose to be at home full-time caring for their children.

One of the problems that we have in our culture and society is that we have no paid maternity leave, and it’s a real, urgent problem. If you are a middle-class or upper-middle-class woman, you have many more choices than a woman who is poor in terms of being able to stay with your child for up to a year and have flexibility. What I advocate is that we give all women [new mothers] a year off of work and that we pay them to stay home with their babies. After that, we give them the option of another two years of the ability to work part-time and flexibly so that they have control over their work; they can still work but prioritize their children. The book is not about working versus not working, but about more is more.

Do you advocate for a federally mandated one-year paid maternity leave?

Oh yes. In Slovenia, they give three years of fully paid maternity leave. What do they have in other countries? They have a year, sometimes 18 months, and it’s not always fully paid, but there’s paid maternity leave for up to 18 months. Is it such a stretch of the imagination to say we could have an insurance policy from the time we start working as parents—and men too, because they need paternity leave—we put $10 away out of each paycheck into a special insurance fund that pays us back when we need to take parental leave, and if we don’t have children, that goes back into our general pension or social security fund. Would that be such a hard thing for the government to do?

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Source: Christianity Today