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As a working mum, maybe we DO need to feel guilty

FOR someone who deals in words, more often it's numbers that stop me in my tracks.

The number of weekends I have left to enjoy if I live to 90 - just 2080.

The amount a share I've been eyeing off has gone up since the end of October when I neglected to buy it - 25 per cent.

The number of hours snails can make sex last - 12, apparently.

But there's one number that's been irking me all week - 1000.

That's the number of days babies need to be around their mum, according to a new parenting book that claims mothers need to prioritise their children over their work.

I'm concerned by the premise of Erica Komisar's new book and, alongside a lot of American commentators, I'm hesitant to give it airtime because its ideas could set women back decades.

Yet I can't get that number out of my head - 1000 days. Less than three years.

In Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, Komisar argues that mothers need to be both physically and emotionally available for children in the first 1000 days because they're "much more neurologically fragile than we've ever understood".

As a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst, Komisar has become increasingly concerned that the devaluing of motherhood has led to an increase in boys being diagnosed with ADHD, girls suffering with depression and an increase in "social disorders" where children lack empathy and have trouble relating to other children.

Even before the day they’re born, parents are bombarded with conflicting information on how to give their children the best lives. (Pic: iStock)
Even before the day they’re born, parents are bombarded with conflicting information on how to give their children the best lives. (Pic: iStock)

Yet where others have based their viewpoints on intuition or observation, the central tenet of Komisar's book is scientific. She argues that mothers, more than fathers, are "biologically necessary" for babies because they produce more oxytocin, the love hormone proven to be "a buffer against stress".

Citing a neuroscientist, she says that through eye contact, touch and baby talk, mothers produce more oxytocin and in turn this produces the hormone in her baby.

"Every time a mother comforts a baby in distress, she's actually regulating that baby's emotions from the outside in," she says. "After three years, the baby internalises that ability to regulate their emotions, but not until then."

Alongside multiple studies that show babies suffer separation anxiety when their mothers leave them due to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, Komisar's argument strikes to the heart of the massive cultural change we've seen in the past 50 years.

Indeed, should women return to work soon after giving birth? Is institutional child care a good option for babies? Are fathers more suitable caregivers once a child is older?

Britain's Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and patron of national children's mental health charity Place2Be, recently spoke of the importance of supporting young children. (Pic: AFP)
Britain's Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and patron of national children's mental health charity Place2Be, recently spoke of the importance of supporting young children. (Pic: AFP)

 

I don't know the answers but Komisar's book has got under my skin.

Each week I write a parenting page for a magazine and increasingly the research shows a correlation between quality parenting and the wellbeing of a child.

One study published last month examined the connection between parental stress and child behaviour problems, concluding that having time and energy for your children genuinely matters.

Parents suffering high stress demonstrated less warmth, lower levels of responsiveness, less affection and were more likely to be harsh or uninvolved when it came to discipline.

Parents with less stress use more positive behaviours including sensitivity, understanding, listening and "scaffolding" - a practice of using guidance, supportive communication and trust to encourage children to increase their competency.

Another essay, published in Psychology Today, argued that children who did not have their emotional needs met in childhood often failed to sustain relationships in later life. As the author, Peg Streep, points out, children who grow up with a secure style of attachment are more likely to enjoy adult relationships that are "durable and nurturing".

Britain's Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and patron of national children's mental health charity Place2Be, recently spoke of the importance of supporting young children. (Pic: AFP)
Britain's Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and patron of national children's mental health charity Place2Be, recently spoke of the importance of supporting young children. (Pic: AFP)

What is indisputable is that children need both love and time and yet a University of NSW study analysing Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveals parents spent four hours less each week with their children than they did a generation ago.

So where do we go from here? Having finally secured some agency in the workplace are women expected to simply down tools and return to full-time parenting? What about their own intellectual needs, their financial agency, their sense of purpose and achievement? And what about men - where do they feature in the solution?

It would've been simpler to ignore Komisar's work - to dismiss it as regressive twaddle - but what if she is right? What if the alarming growth in child mental health and behavioural issues is in part due to a lack of early nurturing?

It's a subject even the Duchess of Cambridge is concerned about. As patron of the children's mental health charity Place2Be, she told an audience this week: "We are all working to give children the emotional strength they need to face their future lives and thrive."

However uncomfortable some research and viewpoints may be, we must take them on board as we develop new ways to both work and parent. Technology, changes in attitude, longer life expectancy, increased flexibility and a society that values both parents and children offers up all manner of creative solutions.

Perhaps mums can be the primary parent in the first three years and dads take over for the three after that. Perhaps both work part-time.

Whatever parents choose, it's worth remembering that 1000 days is just a fraction of the 30,000 most of us will enjoy in our lifetimes.

angelamollard@gmail.com

Topics:  children lifestyle motherhood mum parenting

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