Mind Matters — Mothers Are Our Most Important Resource

In Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, by psychologist Erica Komisar, confronts our beliefs about the importance of motherhood.

Using the latest scientific research on neonatal development, neuroscience, genetics, and hormonal differences between men and women, Komisar makes her case that mothers in the first three years of a child’s life are uniquely important. I remember when my children were between the ages of 0 – 3, I read books about this very idea. To me, it was a given that the mother-infant bond was supremely important.

Science, at the time, was beginning to catch up with the intuitive experience of motherhood and acknowledging the mother’s ongoing importance in the development of the infant and young child. Ironically, however, society purports to love mothers and children—look at all the mother-infant paintings, Madonna or no, all through the ages. However, when it comes to public support of infants, children, and their mothers, well, that’s another story.

Komisar confronts both society’s lack of material support for mothers and children by hardly ever providing paid maternity leave; and she also confronts cultural concepts that all caregivers are equal. She says, “Today, when fathers are more involved in raising their children than ever before, the idea of the unique and irreplaceable role of a mother may seem old fashioned. And yet there is significant evidence that biology has an impact on the different ways men and women nurture…most recent research has shown that a mother’s unique presence is critical to the emotional development and mental health of her children in their early years.”

Komisar is acknowledging the importance of fathers, but notes how hormonal differences play a different role in childrearing. Where the mother (female) produces more oxytocin, the father (male) produces more vasopressin. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love” hormone or the trust and bonding hormone. Vasopressin, on the other hand, gives rise to aggressive protective responses. Both hormones are present in both parents, but not in equal measure. These biological differences are what makes the mother-infant bond unique.

Komisar argues that mothers, because of this difference, provide the infant and young child emotional regulation, soothing, and comfort. The father’s function is to help the child to separate from the mother as she or he begins to gain independence.

Because of the importance of the mother in the first three years of life, Komisar would like to see more women not have to work outside the home for those years. However, many women do not have the luxury of that option. While many European countries, as well as Australia, have parental leave (shared by both mothers and fathers), the United States, for all its talk of family values, gives short shrift to such support for parents and children. Even CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, has been defunded.

Consider this. If women—professional women such as surgeons—are getting paid twenty to thirty per cent less than their male colleagues in the U.S., why would we consider women’s role with children to be important enough to warrant ample maternity leave? I think part of the issue at hand is that in the end we as a society really don’t care enough about the role of women in it. We certainly don’t appear to care about children beyond our own. If we did, things could be different.

The whole of the country benefits when all children are given the nurture needed. Part of that nurturing is dependent on society’s support of the nurturer—beyond platitudes and into policy and practice.