Psychoanalyst Erica Komisar’s Being There: Why Prioritizing Mothering in the First Three Years Matters has something to aggravate all sorts of parents—working moms, stay-at-home moms, stay-at-home dads, parents with multiple children—and it’s truly a shame.
As a stay-at-home mother with a fairly traditional worldview, I initially assumed this book would be geared toward women like me, who agree that society is not as family-friendly or child-centric as it could, or should, be. I assumed I had finally found a champion among parenting book authors. Oh, how wrong I was.
The book is divided into three sections, the first of which is the most personal and difficult to read. It’s hard to read not because it’s jargon-filled, but because it’s anxiety-provoking, particularly if you’re already a parent with a track record to judge.
For example, when Komisar writes early on, “Working and nonworking mothers should strive to be as present as possible [emphasis hers] in the first three years of their child’s life,” readers may wonder whether they are sufficiently present, both physically and emotionally, according to this book’s metric. Komisar’s goal is presumably not to drive all parents crazy, based on her noting, “No mother I have ever helped did better when accused of being a bad mother.” However, readers may still hear the overall message that way.
There’s also incredible pressure for mothers, as Komisar lays out the stakes, explaining that “attachment is an ongoing process throughout the first year,” that it "requires continuous ‘split-second’ maintenance in the first year,” and that your child’s cognitive development, future mental health, and general well-being rides on these early interactions. That may well be true, but it’s hard to relax and enjoy parenting while reading these exhortations.
Komisar has very specific views about the “right” and “wrong” way to parent. Some of them—like prioritizing relationships with one’s children and minimizing the use of tech around young children—rang true to me. But others grated.
For example, Komisar acknowledges that mothers can do paid work, but if you work part-time, she advises separating from your child for shorter periods across more days, rather than working fewer, longer days. This may be better from a child’s point of view, but it casually disregards how hard it is to find quality part-time childcare, especially for short bursts of time (In my experience, it’s close to impossible).
Further, I can’t remember the last time I read something that made me feel so judged. There’s an off-putting shock-and-awe aspect to the book’s tone, making you feel that whatever you’re doing as a parent, it’s not good enough. And I write that as someone who should be Komisar’s “class pet,” as I already live much of her advice: I stay home full-time to raise my children because I believe that time outweighs the financial sacrifice, I have a husband who supports that choice, and I regularly reflect on my own parenting. I can only imagine how stay-at-home dads (who are treated dismissively in the first section) or mothers who work outside the home would feel reading this.
Still, I came away from this stress-inducing first section feeling like Komisar would flunk me for my parenting style because she wants mothers to be fully attuned to their babies. She sees multi-tasking as problematic, and it may not be ideal. However, for a mother of three young children, like yours truly, it’s also frequently unavoidable. There are times my infant has my undivided attention, but there are also others when she shares it with her sisters, and I simply don’t believe my daughters are suffering for it. This felt like advice better suited to a first-time mother, or even offered by a first-time mother with time to lavish on only one young child. Surprisingly, Komisar has three older children.
Other observations struck me as odd, too, like the suggestion that breastfeeding mothers start on the right side to best connect with the baby, when lactation consultants typically advise new mothers to alternate sides in order to maximize milk supply. Or the idea that the best nanny is the one who will mother you too; that’s not something I’ve ever wanted in a childcare provider. Nor do I think our own part-time babysitter, who’s a private person, would appreciate Komisar’s insistence that I regularly ask her personal questions. Komisar repeatedly admonishes us to be self-aware, but the self-aware comment here would be urging each family to do what works best for them.
That shouldn’t be a controversial point, since Komisar acknowledges different family forms exist, like single-mother and same-sex parent families. Yet, after insisting that mothers are unique and urging readers to consider child rearing from the child’s point of view, Komisar remarks, “all child raising choices should be acceptable, but it’s up to the individuals making these choices to understand the responsibilities and ramifications of their decisions.” This comment reads like a belated attempt to split the proverbial baby. Nearly 200 pages into the book, it seems a little late to announce that we shouldn’t judge other people’s choices.
If Komisar’s right that research supports her initial point about prioritizing the mother-child bond, then why should society give equal support to families doing things differently? Either mothers are crucial to their children’s development, or they aren’t. Either Komisar’s main point holds water, or it doesn’t—in which case, why write this book?
In the final section, Komisar ventures into policy, after acknowledging she’s not a wonk. This includes recommendations that largely read like a summary of the Left’s family policy agenda, complete with the assumption that we should help women with young children work full-time. Komisar’s editor should have eliminated this section or at least insisted on something fresher and more in line with the author’s thesis. Such as how might we change the culture to encourage women to value motherhood more highly again? Or how can we reform employment regulations to enable more parents to work part-time, making stay-at-home parenthood a realistic option for more families?
In the end, I found Being There incredibly disappointing. In insisting that parents’ presence matters to their children’s well-being and that society would benefit by paying more attention to those relationships, it offers an important and frequently overlooked view. However, these crucial points are likely to remain unheard because of the author’s alienating tone. If I hadn’t promised to review it, I would have angrily flung it out the window by page 50. But if other parents do that, Komisar’s intended message won’t be heard, leaving America’s children no better off than they are today. And that would be the greatest shame of all.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now an independent writer in Washington, D.C. She frequently writes about culture, religion, and issues affecting families. She shares all of her writing on her website.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.