Erica Komisar is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, parenting expert, psychoanalyst, and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. A graduate of Georgetown and Columbia Universities and The New York Freudian Society, Ms Komisar is a psychological consultant bringing parenting and work/life workshops to clinics, schools, corporations, and childcare settings including The Garden House School, Goldman Sachs, Shearman and Sterling and SWFS Early Childhood Center. For the last 25 years, she has been in private practice in New York City, where she lives with her husband—optometrist and social entrepreneur Dr. Jordan Kassalow—and their three children.
1MFWF: Your book has a controversial message—but it’s more complex than people might think at first glance. Are you suggesting that women must not work during the first three years of motherhood?
Erica: The book is not about working versus not working; rather, it is a book about the importance of prioritizing your child in the first three years for the right brain development and mental health of the child. Research teaches us that more is more—the more emotionally and physically present a mother can be for a child in the first 1000 days the greater the chance that child will have to be mentally healthy. Ideally I would like to see a policy in this country which provides a full year of paid maternity leave for a mother and baby and then another two years of flexible and part-time work. This gives the mother and baby the time they need to bond, attach and for the mother to provide the necessary sensitive empathic nurturing to foster emotional security, stress resilience and the ability for that child to regulate their emotions throughout life.
Some mothers must work to provide for their families which means they may not have the choice of working versus not working, but all mothers have some choices—whether those choices are the type of childcare they choose, how they spend their time when they are with their baby, and whether they choose to be aspirational with their careers at a time when their babies need them most.
1MFWF: Many of our readers are dads who are eager to have (or who have made sacrifices to have) a larger presence in their young children’s lives. What would you say to dads who feel slighted by your premise?
Erica: I love dads, and the fact that dads are more present than ever before in history is a good thing for children; however, moms and dads are not interchangeable and from an evolutionary and biological perspective serve different functions for children in the early years. Mothers and fathers produce a neuropeptide called oxytocin when they nurture, but in mothers it makes them more sensitive and empathic nurturers and in fathers it makes them more playfully stimulating and promoting of separation and risk-taking. Children in the first three years, to grow their right social emotional brain, need more sensitive empathic nurturing. Fathers serve another very important function, which is they help children to separate from mothers when the time comes, help to regulate aggression in children—particularly little boys, and encourage children to explore the world.
If fathers are going to be more active as primary caregivers then we need to teach fathers to play the sensitive empathic nurturing role that healthy attached mothers play. But mothers are in fact unique to children as are fathers in different ways.
1MFWF: We often hear that quality time with children is more important than quantity time. That’s not unlike a theme of flexible work: work smarter, not longer. Why do you say that same idea doesn’t hold true for parenting?
Erica: The old adage quality time is more important than quantity time is a ruse. You need to give children both if you want them to be healthy.
Mothers do two things from moment to moment all day long which help babies to develop from a biological perspective. First, they regulate their baby’s emotions, meaning by comforting their child when he is in distress and making sure his emotions don’t go too high or too low—the mother is regulating the baby’s emotions from the outside and bringing the baby back to homeostasis. Only after three years can the baby internalize the ability to regulate their own emotions. Second, mothers also buffer children from stress from moment to moment, which after three years is internalized by the baby as resilience to stress. Research shows that only when mother rats lick and groom their young are babies more resilient to stress going forward and only then does that nurturing behavior get passed down to the next generation of females. In other words, you need to be there as much as possible both physically and emotionally in the first three years to provide the emotional security, protection from stress, and emotional regulation.
1MFWF: For mothers of young children who choose and are able to work part-time rather than full-time, what kind of scheduling arrangement do you suggest is most beneficial?
Erica: The best kind of scheduling for mothers of children under the age of three is part-time. where they incrementally leave for short periods of time. As the baby gets older that time may increase. In other words, think of a baby’s ability to tolerate the stress and frustration of separating from their mother as a traumatic experience that has to be regulated and is also individual to each baby. If you work a few hours five days per week it is better for a young child than working three long days where they are separated for longer periods of time. So part time that is optimal might be working Monday through Friday from 9 to 12, or, as the baby gets older, 9 to 2—rather than working three 10 hour days.
Also, remember that each time you leave and return it is a very intense and traumatic emotional experience for a baby so once out once in (rather than coming and going throughout the day).
1MFWF: At 1MFWF, we emphasize that flexibility is not just for working moms. We believe that work flexibility is, in fact, something that workers of all different types need and benefit from. And we warn that if we continue to marginalize flex as specific to only one subset of people, we won’t get very far in our mission for improving access to flexibility for all. How would you address fears that your message may take us back rather than forward in this movement?
Erica: All mothers need flexibility and control to be primary caregivers. I believe in a world where everyone has control and flexibility over their work, but it is most critical for the primary caregiver. If the primary caregiver is the father then ideally he needs that flexibility and control. It is always better for both parents to be as present as possible, but essential for the primary attachment figure in the baby’s life who is providing the emotional security for the child. As an entrepreneur of sorts myself, I never saw working in an institution as the way to freedom and choice and still don’t—although I am working with the private sector to encourage them to make changes so the corporate workplace is not just suited to one gender or another.
photo credit: Erica Komisar