I shared this fascinating piece from the WSJ with my Facebook followers last week before heading into my weekend social media fast, and it garnered a flurry of mostly positive responses, which was a relief to login to on Monday morning. I was hoping it would be read in a spirit of head nodding “YES, women and babies do deserve better than the current popular setup” and not “yet another volley lobbed into the ongoing internet mommy warz.”
So if you haven’t had a chance to read it, please do give it a glance, unless your paywall has been met for the month, in which case I’ll give you the Cliffs Notes version here: mothers are biologically and psychologically necessary to their children, particularly for the first 3 years of life but crucially so in the first year, and they are not easily or effectively substituted for with alternative caregivers or daycare situations. The second best solution seems to be a dedicated, close family member who can act in proxy for mom, such as a grandma or aunt.
The research behind these findings originates not out of some bastion of conservatism orchestrated and funded by a Washington think tank or a fundamentalist Christian nonprofit, but from years of study in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics by a liberal psychoanalyst from New York’s Upper West Side, Erica Komisar.
The author recounts being blacklisted from the ordinary promotional circuit she would normally utilize during a book tour: places like NPR, MSNBC, and other more liberal-leaning mainstream news outlets. Instead she was welcomed onto Christian radio stations and more conservative new outfits like Fox and Friends. She recounts being virtually shunned by the liberal media and cast as something of a pariah in her own peer group.
But she says she couldn’t ignore the meaning of her own findings. So much so that she applied her own advice and shelved the book project while her own 3 children were young, choosing to back burner many of her professional pursuits during their earliest years at home.
This line in particular stands out to me from the piece: “She followed her own advice and held off working on the book because her own young children, two sons and a daughter, still needed her to be “emotionally and physically present.”
I don’t know if that resonates with any of you, but it seared itself into my psyche because as a creative, a writer by trade, and a mother of many, I have never not wrestled with the mythical concept of “work/life balance.”
And let me insert here a big, fat caveat: working moms, too, make enormous efforts to spend quality time with their children, but all too often the significant personal sacrifices they make to be there for their kids go unsung.
I spent the first year of motherhood parked in coffee shops, tapping out freelance work while my son napped in his carseat. Once baby number two came along, I resigned myself mostly to nap time tapping, and by the time Evie joined us a year after that, I waved the white flag and parted with some of my meager freelance income to bring in a mother’s helper for 10 hours a week.
And that’s where we are still: 2 kids in school full time, 2 at home almost full time, another baby on the way in a couple months, 8 hours of in-home child care per week that our budget can just baaaaaarely squeak out, and me tossing and turning some nights wondering how I can continue being productive, being relevant, being effective.
And that’s just the professional side of the coin.
The other nights? Those I spend worrying that I’m stealing from my kids’ formative years, giving them un unhealthy dose of screen time while I subsidize our family fortune with my professional contributions, scarring them by crouching behind a glowing fruit logo for hours a day.
I’m being a little dramatic (aren’t I usually?) but I really do wrestle with the implications of what my presence – and not merely my physical presence, but my emotional presence too – has on their wellbeing. And with a freshly-minted 7 year old in the house, I’m suddenly personally aware that oh, my, it does actually go by really fast. One eternal Tuesday at a time.
But like many other women I know, my not working isn’t really an option. I’m profoundly grateful to have been given a gift I can monetize almost exclusively from home, but yeah, I still wrestle with mom guilt. And the mental weight of wearing the professional and personal hats 24/7 gets a little unwieldy at times.
But I have it better than many, many moms. I have the option of working from home and an employer willing to accept my contributions remotely, figuring I’m more valuable creating content from afar than not creating it to begin with. And I’m able to keep my workload to around 20-25 hours a week, many of which can be broken up into weird chunks during available nap/sleep times for the kids. But they still spend a good deal of time hearing “in a minute, mama’s working” – and those minutes add up.
What I want to talk about is not government-mandated maternity leave or even whether or not mom and dad are biologically interchangeable for childcare purposes (Komisar’s research says nay) but about the elephant in the room whose bulk prevents us from making meaningful cultural progress in this conversation: if we don’t value motherhood to begin with, how uncomfortable (and impossible) to make the case for its necessity-by-design.
And our culture does not value motherhood. I am aware of my own contribution to the narrative of shame by rushing to offer my “real” identity to strangers at the park or grocery store: “well, I’m a writer, but I work from home. Yeah, I’m really lucky.” Gush, gush.
But why do I feel the need to lead with the socially-superior identity?
Because we live in a culture that values production and technology before people and relationships.
Because I went to college and even a little grad school, and I have the student loans and “broadened horizons” to prove it.
Because I refuse to be typecast as a stereotype who never wanted anything “more” than diapers and dinners and laundry. (As if those sacred duties are meaningless and easily cast aside and outsourced.)
But, to the degree that I myself kick against the traces of the profession I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to, I do my own small part to lessen its significance in the eyes of the world.
Why not stay noncommittal when someone asks “do you work?” (Yes. I have kids. I work constantly.) Why not own the fact that, truly, most of my waking hours involve kissing owies and spreading peanut butter, and that it’s only the margins that get filled in with typing and word craft?
Why not surrender even just on an internal, emotional level, to the reality that right now, this family is my primary occupation, and just be thankful that God has given me a little side hustle to bring in some cash from the marketplace?
Why insist on donning the costume of “professional” identity in public?
I guess because if I’m being totally honest, I’m a little insecure in my own decision to toss it all aside, at least for a decade or so, to raise these ferocious and unpredictable human beings. Because I feel a shameful surge of envy when I see the announcement of another mom’s latest book title or new media project come across my Instagram feed. Because I watch worriedly each month as our bank account trickles down to zero and frantically cast about in my brain for ways that *I* can help shore up that bottom line.
Because I feel trapped, quite frankly, between an economy that seems to demand two incomes and a domestic situation that necessitates my presence at home 90% of the time. And I can’t seem to make the numbers totally work, either in our kids’ favor or the budget’s.
So it’s a bit of a catch-22. And I think that’s where the majority of the backlash to this research, minimal though it was at least on my FB page, comes from. Because other mamas out there whose kids are in daycare or who can’t seem to get the budget to balance or who wrestle with the ennui of not being quite enough on any level are about ready to throw their hands up and scream in frustration, “how can I win???”
There’s no winning. We’re 3 generations deep into the modern experiment of the dual income model of family life, and to opt out at this point in time carries with it no small amount of hardship. And yes, I’m well aware that former generations worked the land together and ran a home economy that depended equally upon both spouses, but the big fat difference there would be mom available to the children’s needs as a default setting and dad able to support the family on site, not away in an office (or on a plane) for 12 or 14 hours a day or 3 weeks out of the month.
Here I do not mean to romanticize the past, truly, because thank God for antibiotics and internal combustion engines and anesthesiologists.
But, still, there are grave imperfections within the modern economy, and perhaps none so glaringly offensive as the impact on our children.
I don’t have a pat answer or a neat solution. Just a shared sense of “um-hmm” while reading Komisar’s research and a conviction that, having come to a similar conclusion, I’ll do whatever necessary to be with my kids while they’re little.
But I can’t pretend that decision was made lightly, or without staggering cost. Nor can I shrug away the imperfections inherent even in our own best practices. I freely acknowledge how much needs to change in the current socioeconomic setup to implement many of Kosimar’s conclusions. And I think it will be a grassroots chorus of voices raised to demand more from individual employers and the culture at large and not an idealistic government-mandated policy of paid parental leave.
In order to be wholesale and effective and truly humane, change must come from the foundation and make it’s way up, revitalizing society from the most fundamental level: the family.
And also this: that those of us who have freely chosen this path have a responsibility, in a sense, to joyfully announce the gospel of suffering inherent in the vocation of parenthood, and motherhood in particular.
To recognize that in this earthly life there will likely be no perfect solution, no adequate policy, no neatly wrapped package of relief which solves the issue once and for all. We ought to be honest with ourselves and with the culture at large, acknowledging that to be counter-cultural at times comes with an accompanying price tag of pain, whether it be loss of income, loss of professional experience or social status, or even plain, old fashioned loneliness at being misunderstood and undervalued.
And that it’s worth it.
It’s worth it to look foolish in the eyes of the world in order to do right by our kids. And it’s worth it to embrace even the messiest reality and say, yeah, I can give myself over to this. It is in giving that we receive. Whether it be the grace to endure the hardship, the unexpected windfall to pay the orthodontic bill, or the encircling love and support of a small community of families – virtual or tangible – who get it, too.