The conversation we need to have about work, kids & parenting

The conversation we need to have about work, parenting & the kids

“Parents’ demanding jobs put children’s mental health at risk”

If there is a more panic-evoking headline for working parents I’m not sure I’d like to read it. This headline and accompanying piece struck visceral fear into my heart and head earlier this week. It directly challenges my worldview and puts the three little people I love the most at risk.

Researchers from the Australian National University and La Trobe University in Melbourne watched 2500 working couples and their children over a period of 10 years. They conclude that the mental health of children is affected detrimentally when parents bring stress home and are conflicted between work and family.

In children this distress may manifest in anxiety, becoming withdrawn and even experiencing headaches. Sixty percent of the working couples said that, at one stage, they struggled to manage their work and family commitments. One in seven couples endured a prolonged period when one parent wasn’t managing well.

Has the fear set in yet?

To be honest my own fear in this regard has been marinating for several weeks. This headline and research isn’t the only reason I am acutely alive to the subject of the wellbeing of children – my own and yours – on account of parents working right now.

As a working mother and an advocate for women working, I am both personally and professionally invested in the outcomes for children and families from women working.

A few weeks ago I read two extracts from Being There, a recently published book by an American psychoanalyst Erica Komisar about why mothers being physically present for the first three years of a child’s life matters.

Komisar’s thesis, from her clinical practice and reviewing of research, is that more children are suffering from mental health problems as a result of more mothers working.

She makes the case for prioritizing motherhood and I can’t lie: reading sections of Being There was intensely difficult. So was interviewing Komisar.

For starters, on account of getting the time difference between New York and Sydney right, our interview took place at 7.15pm on a Tuesday night. So, roughly 15 minutes after, in an ideal world, I would have tucked my three daughters into bed. Miraculously this occurred, but not without some stress on my own part so I was free to start the call with the physical reality of shuffling my family commitments with work, front of mind.

The first subject I wanted to explore was mothering versus parenting. Why does the book not make the case for fathers prioritising caregiving as well as mothers?

Komisar is adamant that biologically men and women are wired differently and while fathers are important, mothers are fundamental.

“I believe mothers are unique and I am not ashamed of that,” Komisar said. “As a clinician I know that. If a mother is healthy she is unique in nurturing.”

Komisar says fathers are naturally less empathic which means they can’t buffer a child’s emotions, moment to moment, like a mother can. This process helps children to learn to regulate their own emotions, which is why she argues that mothers need to be as physically and emotionally present in the first 1000 days of a child’s life as possible.

When I cite research that indicates fathers are as capable of being nurturing as women, she disagrees.

“Fathers can be nurturing but in a different way. We know that father don’t naturally do the empathic and nurturing piece. Fathers do something different.”

She concedes that if a father stays home and is sensitive and empathic “kids can grow up to be emotionally healthy”. But it is clear from her language and the book itself, Komisar views the role of fathers very differently.

“Men and women aren’t interchangeable.”

That doesn’t accord with research by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a professor emeritus at the University of California and one of the world’s foremost experts on mothers.

She says that biologically, male parental care is so important that their bodies physically change to adapt to it.

“Men have tremendous capacity for nurture,” Hrdy says.

The reason it might seem like mothers are better with infants is practice – not biology:

“What that means over time is, the baby frets and Mom picks the baby up and soothes the baby. The baby gets used to Mom. So then the Dad comes and, if Mom isn’t there, picks the baby up. The baby is not quite as familiar with the father and keeps on fretting. And the Dad starts to think, ‘Why do I bother? The baby wants its mother.”

The reason Komisar’s premise is confronting is not merely because it directly undermines the worldview I admittedly prefer. My worldview is that men and women sharing the unpaid and paid labor more equally creates better outcomes for everyone involved. For the men, the women and the children.

And, believe it or not, the reason I subscribe to this view is not because I’m callous or heartless or want to deprive any child of their mental health.

I am not interested, in the slightest, in jeaopordising the welfare and wellbeing of my daughters. I did not blindly read Komisar’s text seeking to prove her wrong at every turn. It is thought provoking and food for thought. But the dismissal of fathers as primary and fundamental carers is, in my mind, a catastrophic flaw in the book’s premise.

Aside from being in conflict with other research about men’s capacity for nurturing, the level of pressure the alternative places on women is hard to fathom. Given post-natal depression is already so rife, how would the mental wellbeing of mothers fare if they were to vanquish the role others can play in helping them to raise their children?

When I cite that Nordic countries have achieved more equal caring between mothers and fathers Komisar says the ‘sharing’ is disruptive and detrimental to children. It is better, she says, for a child to have one primary carer for the first three years of their life.

She says that mothers must ‘repair’ each absence with their child.

“Every woman whether she works or not, need to repair her absence. It’s like a hole in the sweater, if you leave it just gets bigger,” she says. “When you go out of the room your baby doesn’t have a sense that you’re coming back. We have ways of helping babies understand that you’re returning. So when you come back you say ‘Mummy went to the bathroom – I’m back now. You’re ok’”.

Fathers, it seems, don’t need to fret about absences and make such repairs. Their presence appears to be a bonus, not a given, which presumably means they are free to frequent the bathroom without

When I ask Komisar how mothers and families are to reconcile the needs of their infants and children, with the bigger picture of life – ensuring financial security in a bid to avoid being homeless later in life for example – she is dismissive.

“I am talking about the needs of children, not the mother.”

It is naïve, I suggest, to pretend the two are mutually exclusive, but Komisar says it is about prioritising.

“Many women have to work – but the idea that some women get a great deal of pleasure from working needs to be considered. The needs of your children need to be put first.”

Several agents baulked at Komisar’s book on the grounds that it would make women feel guilty and she has stated many times that it’s made her a pariah for ‘the left’.

“If, as a society we’re silenced to talk about mothers and children we are silent about solutions,” she says. “If we can’t talk about the problem we can’t fix it.”

The problem as defined by Komisar is the generational rejection of caregiving.

“We are now in the third generation of women who feel that caring is secondary,” she says. “There has been an incredible devaluing of mothering.”

I would define the problem differently. The pressures on women have increased tenfold in the past few decades: more women than ever before are working more than ever before, women are caring more, for children and elderly relatives, and women are still doing far more of the cleaning, administration and leg work of making households tick.

I sincerely doubt there are many mothers in that group who aren’t motivated to support and nurture their kids as best as possible. I also doubt that many of those mothers could do a better job of raising and nurturing those children by shutting out the care of others and taking on more themselves.

Dismissing the role of fathers and grandparents and teachers and carers and friends would be unsustainable for many families – even where both parents don’t work. As far as stress levers go, shutting out others would be an effective mechanism to make life a whole lot harder.

The research from ANU and La Trobe this week shows that more stress is the last thing any kids or parents need in their homes. For the sake of themselves and their children, mothers and fathers need support in combining their paid work and their family commitments.

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