Review of Being There, by Erica Komisar
Welcome to Book Reviews! Being There, by Erica Komisar, is a polarizing book but one we felt was important to review because of the counter-cultural narrative it presents on mothers. While the prevailing commentary on what a mom should do once she has a baby is “find childcare and get back to life as normal,” Komisar argues that mothers should spend significant time being present with their children in the first three years of life—quitting their jobs if necessary. While this is obviously a big ask, Komisar maintains that a mother’s contribution to her children’s emotional health is invaluable, and she says that she is “not ready to give up on mothers” just yet. However, in the process she paints the commitment to “be there” in such extremes that she manages to offend just about everyone in the course of the book (including stay-at-home moms who are purportedly doing what she recommends). Read on to see what our book reviewer, Hannah, says about what worked—and what didn’t—in Being There.
A Quick Look
TITLE: Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters
Author: Erica Komisar
PUBLICATION DATE: 2017
DIFFICULTY (on a scale of 1-5) : 2
What You Will Get
In Being There, Komisar encourages mothers to prioritize their children in the first three years of the child’s life. Komisar is a psychoanalyst—from the school of psychology founded by Sigmund Freud—and she offers the perspective of a psychologist who thinks that our adult problems stem from childhood (think “mommy issues”). As a psychoanalyst, Komisar attributes the mental health crises affecting young people to the exodus of their mothers to the workforce. Komisar gives an explicitly child-centered perspective, arguing flatly for what she views as best for children and plainly discounting what may be best for moms. While Komisar’s views are counter-cultural, she clearly does place value on the choice to stay home with children, which feels refreshing in an age in which stay-at-home moms are often dismissed.
As far as practical tips and tricks, this book will give you instruction about how to be present with your children, a discussion of why being present matters, and recommendations for policy changes that support women who are taking time out of the workforce to be with their children.
What You Won’t Get
Comfort. Whether you have decided to stay home with your kids or work outside the home, this book will not be a comfortable read for you. Komisar admits that women often feel ill at ease after listening to her arguments, but she says that this feeling is justified so that mothers can make changes to live a happier life. I definitely felt that discomfort when I was reading her book, even though I have made the choice to leave the workforce temporarily to be home with my young children. I didn’t love the guilt Komisar seems to take pride in imposing on others. It felt too “mommy wars” for me, and I think we get enough of that in American culture already.
What I Can’t Stop Thinking About
Komisar makes a strong point that mothers need more time with their babies than the 12 weeks allotted by FMLA. Given how embarrassing our parental leave policy is in the United States, paid leave advocates mostly focus on getting 12 weeks of paid leave for all new parents. However, Komisar makes it clear that 12 weeks with a baby hardly matters in the long run. She argues that mothers need to be there for their children for the first three years of their lives, often at the cost of dramatic professional sacrifice. That doesn’t mean mothers can’t return to work, but Komisar argues that society needs to make time and space for women to have a meaningful experience at home while their children are young or there may later be serious repercussions.
My Top Five Takeaways
1. The First Three Years Matter
“Spending more time with your child during this critical period of development means she will have a greater chance of being emotionally secure and resilient to stress as well as being better able to regulate her emotions throughout life, read others’ social cues, achieve a higher emotional intelligence, and connect with others intimately” (page 3).
Komisar says if there’s one thing they can do to give their children the biggest boost developmentally and emotionally, it is being there for their children during their first three years of life. Komisar says “more is more,” meaning that the more emotionally and physically available a mother can be in the first three years the better off her children will be.
As I read, this perspective increased my mom guilt, making me feel that I should never take a break from my children, even though I am already at home with them full time. Komisar’s argument made me feel that every moment away exacts a direct hit on my children’s emotional and physical well-being. This made me feel bad even as I reflected on the simple week-long trip I took to visit my sister in Portland this summer. While the trip was so good for my mental health, Komisar would likely label that trip as short-sighted and tell me I should go but that I should take my children with me or wait until they were older.
2. Children Need Present Mothers
“For a mother to be present, she must first be self-aware of and accept her own (sometimes conflicted) feelings about motherhood. In addition, she must be willing to make her child a priority in the time she spends with her. This means not only spending as much time as possible with her child during her first three years of life but also focusing on how that time is spent. . . . Divided attention is both destructive to relationships and stressful to individuals” (page 33).
I appreciate this definition of presence, and I agree that multitasking (which I admittedly do too much) is harmful in relationships. My issue with how Komisar defines presence is that it seems to exist outside of reality. For example, we recently welcomed our second child to the family in November, and now my attention is constantly divided between my toddler and my newborn. I am forever multi-tasking, as I believe most of us are. To judge women for this multi-tasking and blame them for any developmental and emotional problems their child may develop does nothing to address why these burdens are placed on moms. The problem is not that mothers don’t want to spend time with their children. The problem is that true emotional presence at all times of the day is impossible given the multitude of tasks women are currently expected to do.
3. Komisar Asks Women To Sacrifice, But Does So From a Position of Immense Privilege
“Our society values financial security and material success over the more important values or emotional security and connection to those closest to us. Are we making the right choice when we choose a more comfortable material life over the mental health and well-being of our children and ourselves? Your baby does not care if she has a bigger room or a Florida vacation; what she wants is you and the safety and security of being in your presence” (page 5).
I like Komisar’s perspective that our kids care more about time with us than new toys or vacations. Komisar admits that there are often career costs associated with taking time off or scaling back work hours, but she says we chose to have children and so now need to make the sacrifices to care for them.
I think the reason I struggle with her assertions is not that we disagree but that her perspective shows an incredible amount of ignorance of the realities most mothers face. When Komisar had each of her children, she took six months of maternity leave and then worked from home for only an hour every day when she returned to work. By the time her children were three years old, she increased that time to three hours of work per day at a schedule she was able to dictate herself. If this sounds magical and unrealistic, know that Komisar has her own private practice where she can control her schedule and number of clients. Further, it is obvious that Komisar wouldn’t have been able to keep such a luxurious schedule if she did not have a significant degree of financial latitude.
Most moms would love to have a schedule in which they could gradually transition back to work after a long maternity leave and then only work for an hour or two every day, but that isn’t a reality for most of us. Many families rely on a mother’s income, and most jobs do not provide a mother with the flexibility to make their own schedule. Being There is addressed to moms, but the issues at play are much larger and require systemic change if we want moms to be able to have meaningful time with their children until age three.
4. Caregiving Can Be a Shared Responsibility
“The best situation for your child is to have your physical and emotional presence for much of the time in the first three years. . . . If you can’t care for your baby yourself, the next best option is individual surrogate care, whether it is your husband or partner, your mother or other relative, or a nanny. If that is not feasible, sharing a caregiver with another family can be a cost-effective option. I believe the least good option for surrogate care is daycare or institutional care” (page 119).
Moms are irreplaceable (we know it, and the data show it). While this is a special bond that should be nurtured, the reality is that many mothers can’t be with their children 100% of the time, whether because they work or because they simply need a break from constant mothering.
So what about fathers? Komisar says that when moms and dads nurture, they both produce the brain hormone oxytocin. However, this neurotransmitter has different effects on men and women. Oxytocin makes mothers more empathic and sensitive nurturers, and it makes fathers more playful. Reading this surprised me. It totally supports my perception of dads playing with their kids and the mom being there to talk about feelings and give comfort. Komisar generally frowns on having the father be the primary caregiver, but, if a family chooses to structure care this way, recommends that fathers learn how to be more empathetic.
While Komisar’s evaluation of mothers and fathers is insightful, I feel she misses the point: mothers cannot shoulder the entire burden of caregiving on their own. Children can thrive when both parents are present and giving their extra nurturing care or playfulness. And when that is not possible, even Komisar had to admit that having a relative or other caregiver is important. I would add that sharing the load provides an important balance for both the children and for a worn-out mother. Further, families are not always structured the way Komisar imagines, which leaves out a discussion of families with LGBT or single parents. These are big oversights in my mind considering families don’t always look like married, cohabitating, male-female, partners.
5. Komisar Misses Key Realities for Modern Mothers
“Life is long and you can do many things, but you cannot do them all well at the same time. Young women who have been pushed their entire lives to achieve at a high level tell me that if they step off the corporate ladder they can never get back on at the same level. That’s true; you may never be the CEO of the bank or corporate law firm if you choose to make your family your first priority. But you may not have emotionally healthy children or have a close relationship with your children now or when they’re adults if you make your career your first priority” (page 188).
This final section of the book might be the most controversial. Komisar says that women have a choice whether or not to have children, but once they have made the choice, they are committing themselves to the sacrifices associated with that choice. Komisar gives herself a free pass for this rhetoric, claiming that “not all women should have children.” But she misses that the majority of women do want children, but many do not have the support or resources to make the dramatic sacrifices she asks mothers to make.
Komisar asserts that to be a present mother, a mother must set aside her own needs and then gradually reclaim what is important to her as her child matures. However, she doesn’t address the issue of having multiple children. Three years for one kid may not sound like much, but for the majority of mothers who have more than one, the years stack—leading to a career break which would (for many) mean career suicide.
I want to believe Komisar’s vision is possible: that mothers can be home while children are young and have fulfilling careers when their children are older. I am just not confident that the professional world will make space for women to reenter the workforce after taking a break to raise children.
When I talk to people about this book, I find that women either love it or hate it. Komisar’s book uses a lot of black-and-white thinking, and she is unwilling to give up on moms as the only ones who must be home with their kids. I thought this book would reassure me in my decision to be home with my kids, and in one sense it did. But it also added unrealistic expectations to what my life at home with my children should look like, and it excluded the moms who I know don’t have options to be at home.
I appreciate Komisar’s desire to equip mothers with comprehensive information to help them make decisions about their children, but this book feels like yet another person saying mothers aren’t doing enough. To be physically and emotionally present and give everything to a child without complaint is a much bigger sacrifice than Komisar owns. I wish Komisar had honestly discussed the magnitude of the sacrifice she is asking mothers to make. More than that, I wish Komisar took her passion for the mother-child bond and focused it on the people who have the ability to make actual changes to the structures that put mothers in such an impossible double bind between work and family. If we had legislation or community resources that made space for moms to be home with their children, we wouldn’t need to guilt moms into making such significant sacrifices at such great personal cost.
If You Don’t Have Time to Read
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholemew.