Erica Komisar on the Politicization of Motherhood

Erica Komisar joined Buckley Fellows for dinner on Thursday, February 8th in New Haven to discuss her new book about the importance of motherhood and early child care, and how this is tied to the lack of happiness in our current society. Two fellows spoke with her before talk, and their thoughts are printed below. 

Erica Komisar is a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst and parent guidance expert who has been in private practice in New York City for the last 30 years. Erica is a psychological consultant bringing parenting and work/life workshops to clinics, schools, corporations and childcare settings. She published a new book in 2017, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Using current research, statistical evidence, and material from her work as a therapist and social worker, Erica pulls together a cohesive argument about the importance of being physically and emotionally present during a child’s first three years.

We sat down with Erica before our seminar and interviewed her about her new book and the motivation behind the book. She told us that the initial motivation for this book came from her 30 years of practice and experience as a psychoanalyst, and her observation of mental illness in children who don’t receive parental care. “The lack of motherhood in our current society is a real problem, supported by neuroscientific researches, and I felt the need to let everyone know,” Erica said.

We then asked Erica about the reasons for the lack of motherhood in modern society. She stated that the pursuit of achievement is often what takes a mother away from their children, and that this is a harmful trend. “People focus too much on professional achievements that it becomes an obsession,” Erica said. “But achievements don’t bring sustainable happiness. On the other hand, healthy relationships breed happiness.” She raised the “deathbed question” and pointed out that it’s the relationships that we have with our children who will be around at the end of our lives that we will remember and treasure, not money or professional achievements.

We also asked Erica to describe the response to her book, Being There. She noted that the studies she cites throughout her book are not her own research. Rather, she collated findings from research in psychology, neuroscience, and epigenetics. She explained that the ideas of the book are based on scientific evidence, not her personal opinion. Still, Erica’s book elicited an inflamed political response. Though Erica considers herself a “social liberal,” liberals rejected her book, while conservatives have embraced it. In her book, she states that “women can do everything, just not all at once.” Erica considered this to be practical advice, but liberals considered the book “anti-feminist,” which both surprised and disturbed her. While Erica does not consider herself a conservative, conservatives have supported her book. In part, because the book aligns with a conservative outlook concerning the importance of motherhood.

Additionally, we asked whether the negative response to her book was due to a disagreement with her claims about children and motherhood, or whether critics agreed with her premise but did not like that she was discussing her findings. In short, was the disagreement about facts, or about values? Erica responded that when people do not want to hear a message, they do not hear it. One implication of her message is that society is not putting the needs of children first. Pointing this out makes some people uncomfortable. Another implication of her message, she says, is that gender neutrality is a myth.

She describes how her book details the differing brain chemistry between men and women, specifically regarding their experiences of nurturing children. Erica points out that while men and women are equal, they are not the same. She observed that the title of her book, Being There, alarmed feminists, though she considers herself to be a feminist. She believes women should be admired for their choices. But when Erica says mothers have a “moral obligation to prioritize their children over everything else,” critics interpreted this to mean that “society should revert back to the 1950s.” Erica ridicules this, noting that she returned to work when her children aged into toddlerhood.

Toward the end of the interview, we discussed the “happiness” course at Yale (Psychology and the Good Life), and how the course’s popularity reflects the young generation’s anxiety towards their happiness and well-being. Erica suggested that the nowadays students are so anxious about the results and achievements that they lose the point of life. A non-linear path can lead to happiness more often than a pre-planned route.

She noted that many readers have thanked her for writing the book, stating that they are grateful Erica is emphasizing the importance of motherhood. Lastly, she stated that equality is not based on sameness—we should understand people are equal without attempting to erase differences.

 

Rob Henderson is a senior in Grace Hopper College and U.S. Air Force veteran.

Barkley Dai is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College.

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