On this week’s episode of SheThinks, we chat with Dr. Erica Komisar about the science behind early childhood development and why institutionalized daycare and preschool are not often the best options for young children — or their parents. Komisar is a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, parent coach, and author. With 30 years of experience in private practice, she works to alleviate pain from individuals who suffer from depression, anxiety, eating, and other compulsive disorders. She is the author of the book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, and Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety, which will be released in November 2021.
Hey, everyone. This is Kelsey Bolar, filling in again for Beverly Hallberg, as she is off getting married and enjoying some much-deserved quiet time off on her honeymoon. This is another edition of She Thinks, a podcast from Independent Women’s Forum, where we talk with women, and sometimes men, about the policy issues that impact you and the people that you care most about.
On this week’s episode, we’re joined by Erica Komisar, a clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, parent, coach, and author. With 30 years of experience in private practice, she works to alleviate pain from individuals who suffer from depression, anxiety, eating, and other compulsive disorders. By helping them live better lives and have richer, more satisfying relationships, she assists them in achieving their personal and professional goals and living up to their potential. Now, this is very fitting if you hear some background noise for interviewing Erica, because I have a two-year-old daughter and Erica’s work has had a huge impact on my own life and my own parenting decisions, which I look forward to getting into today.
Erica is the author of the book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. She has appeared on every major media network, CBS, ABC, Fox, NPR, you name it. She’s a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Fox 5 New York, and she’s a contributing editor to the Institute for Family Studies.
Her upcoming book, Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety, will be released any day now on November 2nd, 2021. Erica, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining. I’m very excited to hear from you.
Thank you so much for having me.
First off, I want our listeners to be able to get a sense of who you are personally. I know you’re a working mother and have had to make a lot of the decisions, the parenting decisions that you have chosen to write about and devote your life’s work to. Give us a sense of your background.
I am and was originally a social worker and psychoanalyst who had a very full practice and then got married and had children of my own. After I had children, really reduced my work schedule. Again, being in the field, understanding the importance of physical and emotional presence for healthy emotional security and healthy attachment, I reduced my work schedule really pretty minimally right after my children were born. I took six months with each child off completely and then went back to work really incrementally.
In the years that I was raising my young children, I was really … My work was there, but it wasn’t my priority. As my children got older … And now my children are 20, 22. I have a 17-year-old. Basically, my children are off in college or about to go to college. As you can see, I’ve been really busy in the past four years. Being There came out four years ago, and now this book is coming out.
I think the lesson in all of it, from my personal experience and many of the women I write about in the book, is we as women have been really scared into thinking, frightened into thinking by society that if we don’t rush to the head of the line from the very beginning that we’re not going to be successful with our careers. And that’s just absolutely a misunderstanding and a myth.
I am in the age where myself and other friends are getting pregnant, beginning their families, and we’re faced with the decision of how much to work, when to work, whether to have an in-home nanny, send our children to daycare. This was a specific area where your book had a huge impact on me personally. Because prior to reading it, I didn’t know the science behind the importance of the first three years of a child’s life developmentally and the importance specifically of the mother being physically present in the child’s life.
I have friends across the political spectrum, probably more on the left than the right, to be honest with you, and I always encourage them to read this book. But I get nervous because there are some very hard truths. Can you walk our audience through some of those hard truths and what the science really says about how important it is to find that delicate balance if you do want to be a working mom between being physically present, but also keeping your foot in the door in your career?
I mean, in many ways, I wish the book had been titled The Science of Mothering. That was one of the possibilities. But I think Being There also explained very much the content of the book. But I think many people read the title of the book and then were afraid to read the book, which is a shame. Because really, it’s a book chock full of research. I think most of us want to understand why mothering is really important, why it’s critically important.
Mothers are basically the emotional sort of … Not just emotionally sort of important, but biologically important. We call them the emotional regulators for children from the very beginning. Their physical and emotional presence is critical in terms of soothing babies from moment to moment. In that interaction of soothing the baby, you bring the baby’s emotions back to what we call emotional homeostasis. You’re doing that all day long. When your baby’s in distress, you’re soothing them. That builds, builds, builds on itself in terms of building emotional security. And when you’re present and a baby begins to trust you, and rely on you, and depend on you, that is the foundation of emotional security. And that emotional security is the foundation for mental stability and mental health, as well as resilience to stress going forward.
What we know is that more is more. The more present you can be physically and emotionally, particularly in the first three years, which is what we call the first critical window of brain development, right brain development, the more you can be there in those years, the better off for your baby. That doesn’t mean, contrary to what people perceive with the title, doesn’t mean you can’t work. I always recommend to mothers that they do take off at least if they can, six months to a year entirely only because you don’t know this human being. You’re actually getting to know this little person. And this little person is incredibly neurologically fragile.
What we’ve done over the years is we have projected onto babies that they are like Teflon, that they are born resilient, born tough, born able to deal with stress, and none of this is true. I don’t know how this myth … I mean, the myth was put out into the aether. Because I think in the effort to get women out into the work world, there was this myth that babies didn’t need their primary attachment figures. And yet, the research has been there. The attachment research has been there since the 1960s.
Babies do need their primary attachment figures. Now, that can also be the father. Doesn’t necessarily have to be the mother, but they have to have a primary attachment figure that is their go-to person for emotional security when they’re in distress. Does that mean you can’t work at all? Of course, it doesn’t mean you can’t work at all, but it means reprioritizing the baby over your work. And that’s something that, as you said just now, kind of raises a lot of women’s hackles.
Right. And if I remember correctly, your book said about 20 hours would be the max you want to be using a daycare or have a nanny during the week. Is that correct?
It depends on your individual baby, and it depends on how young your baby is. The younger the baby, the less they can bear you being away. I know a lot of women are going back to work because their companies are giving them six weeks of paid maternity leave, and then they’re running back to work. At six weeks, a baby is so incredibly fragile. I mean, neurologically fragile, desperately in need of you. Other than just saying this, I wish I could really translate this into some language that all women and men can understand. Babies are not like adults. We, again, project onto them that they have this adult-like capacity to cope with stress, but they do not. They are incredibly susceptible.
So, 20 hours would be a little bit later. Wouldn’t be in the first six months. The first six months, again, I recommend that you are there all the time. But then, after that, you have to look to see how sensitive your baby is. We as mothers have to be able to read the social cues of our babies. We have to be able to read their distress and know how much they can handle. That’s individual to your baby because we know that a lot of babies are born with what we call a sensitivity. We call it sensitivity. It’s really neurological sensitivity to stress. It’s what we call the short allele on the serotonin receptor. They’re much more sensitive to stress, and therefore much more sensitive to the mental disorders that come with stress later on, like anxiety and depression.
We have to be tuned into who our babies are. There are some babies who at six months or a year you can leave for 20 hours in the care of a wonderful surrogate attachment figure, one person who is going to be their go-to person when you are not there. But you may have a sensitive baby. Sometimes people call those babies colicky, sometimes. Because in the old days, pediatricians used to say, “Well, if your baby cries a lot, it’s digestive issues and it’s colic.” There’s all kinds of research to show that it’s not about the digestive system because all babies have digestive issues. It’s really about how neurologically fragile your baby is and how susceptible they are to environmental stress and how much buffering they need from stress.
So if you have that kind of sensitive baby, and you know a baby who’s harder to soothe, who cries more frequently, a baby who doesn’t sleep easily, these babies are what we call sensitive babies. And they need more of you rather than less of you. It’s why I’m sort of being a little evasive about your question because there’s no formula. But I would say if you don’t have a sensitive, as sensitive, all babies are sensitive, as sensitive a baby, and you read their cues … And there are certain cues that I have in my first book, as you know, that tell you what to look for so you know your baby’s doing fine when you leave. The only way you know is if you wean them. Slowly spend small increments of time away from them.
The problem is women are home for three months or six months, and then they go to work full-time. And what happens to that baby is it feels like the world has fallen apart because you are their world, and so their world has fallen apart. Whereas if you start to spend an hour, an hour and a half outside the home, and then you come back and you see how your baby does, and if they do fine, the next week you spent two hours and you see how your baby does. See if their sleep isn’t interrupted. But, that’s basically my answer, is it depends on your baby, your individual baby.
So there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
But how do you square that with the proposals coming from the Biden administration supposedly pro-family plan where included in this $3.5 trillion spending bill that’s still getting worked out. Might end up being lower than that. We’ll see what happens. But included in this proposal are universal childcare measures and universal daycare measures, government-funded childcare, government-funded preschool. What do you make of these?
There’s a big difference between preschool, which is three to five years of age. We should never call preschool anything under the age of three because then it’s daycare. I think there needs to be that separation. I believe in universal preschool. Preschool is three hours a day, usually, of socialization when your child is three and four years old to ready them for kindergarten. Anything under the age of three is considered daycare.
What does it mean to institutionalize our daycare? Because let’s not put lipstick on a pig here and say that universal childcare means institutional childcare. When we institutionalize attachment, it doesn’t work because you can’t institutionalize attachment security. Attachment security is dependent on one go-to person who is the person you go to when you’re in distress. It’s usually your mother. It can also be your father. But it is not a daycare worker who is transient who you see a few hours a day who may come and may go.
What we’re doing is we are exposing our children at a very young age to very high levels of stress. There’s research to show that when they are put in long hours of daycare at a very young age, they produce more cortisol, which is the stress hormone. And we know that that cortisol, which is produced in that child, impacts their brain development greatly and reduces their ability to cope with stress and adversity in the future.
So yes, I believe that children should have the best childcare, but the best childcare would be to give instead of institutionalizing childcare, which is what the Biden proposal is about, that we do with other countries like Finland do, which is give parents a childcare stipend. In Finland, they give about 14 or $15,000 a year to a family. That money can be spent any way that family sees fit. That can be for the mother to spend part-time at home so she only has to go out of the house part-time. That can be used to give to a grandmother who can take care of a baby or an aunt who can take care of a baby. It can be used to give to one single surrogate caregiver, which is far better than institutional care.
For anybody who doubts this, on a neuro psychobiological level, you cannot from moment to moment soothe a baby in distress when you have five to eight babies that you’re soothing in distress. In daycare, the ratios are no less than five to eight in institutional daycare because it’s not economically feasible to do less than that.
I want you to imagine or anybody who’s listening to this to imagine you are taking care of six babies under the age of two. You have to soothe their distress from moment to moment. Can you do that? The answer is no. And that’s the problem.
We are not really constructing institutional daycare for children. We are constructing it for the economy. We are constructing it to get women into the workforce. And I get it. We want to work as women. We need to work. We need to make income. But it should be based around and prioritized around the needs of children, not the needs of the government to get more people into the workforce.
I couldn’t agree with that more. I really fear the fact that these hugely significant proposals are getting bundled into this massive spending bill that’s really doing a disservice to this really important conversation about daycare and preschool that our country could and should be having. But by including it in this massive spending package, I’ve hardly seen any news coverage of these types of proposals beyond just mentioning this is what it includes. My fear is that it leaves a lot of mothers with the conclusion that it’s this option that the Biden administration is proposing or nothing. But I think you raised some really important alternative, ways. I know at IWF that’s what we try to communicate. But again, these sometimes can be hard truths to talk about with young mothers. They’re inconvenient truths to the economic agenda. How do you walk that balance with your own patients that you see and in your own work? How do you not offend mothers who feel like they don’t have many options?
Well, I think the research shows it’s very clear. And I know you have the research, too. The research shows that when you ask mothers would they rather be with their very young babies or work flexible or part-time hours so they can be with their babies as much as possible and not put their baby into daycare, they always say yes. It’s become a myth that mothers want to leave their babies.
I mean, there are some mothers who have attachment disorders with their babies because their own mothers were depressed, or distracted, or had difficulty mothering. There are many mothers who suffer from attachment disorders who have a very hard time attaching to their own babies. There are some mothers who want to get away from their babies as quickly as possible. And for those mothers, I have a tremendous amount of compassion. My practice is all about compassion for mothers struggling with mothering.
But for the majority of mothers who are healthily, securely attached to their babies, the research shows that those mothers want options to raise their own children, particularly in those very early years. We have no paid maternity leave to speak of in this country. And when I say that three months of paid maternity leave is nothing, it’s not nothing, but it’s nearly nothing. What we really need is one year of fully paid maternity leave, like other countries that are civilized, have. And I’m not the one to propose this. There’s all kinds of proposals in terms of delaying retirement and using social security benefits to pay for that. There’s proposals that you use that you create a caregiving tax, which can be used to care for a child or care for an elderly parent or a family member.
There’s all kinds of proposals how to raise the money so it won’t break the bank. But the idea is we’ve got it all wrong, that mothers don’t want to be with their babies and want to race back to work. They don’t. And they suffer from terrible guilt, which causes a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression, and a lot of disconnection from their babies. Because the only way that those mothers can run back to work after six weeks or three months is that they disconnect emotionally from their babies. And that’s exactly what we don’t want those mothers to do for those babies to be healthy and for those mothers to be healthy.
I have been telling people, “I challenge you to find me any mother on the street who would say her first choice would be to send her six-month-old to institutionalized daycare from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM.” I think it’s much more likely, and the polls confirm this, that that mother would much prefer a flexible work option where she can be physically present for at least part of the day with her child.
I hope that those in Washington, DC listen, and really think about the implications that these types of proposals could have in terms of our society and the development of our future generations. Because as your book addresses, these first three years have long-term implications for a child and adult emotional development. On that front, you also just wrote a new book, again, called Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling. Could you share what inspired this book and what it’s about it? It mentions anxiety. I’m wondering, does that have anything to do with COVID?
COVID is mentioned in the book. It’s not a huge part of the book, but it’s mentioned in the book. COVID has exacerbated the mental health crisis that was already brewing in this country. But the reason I wrote this book was really to bring parents and children closer together. It was causing me as a therapist a great deal of distress to see so many young people in so much distress, suffering from anxiety, depression, ADHD. There was so much misinformation and misunderstanding about the causes of these disorders, and how to treat these disorders, and what parents could or could not do in regards to their children’s mental health. So, I really felt compelled to write a comprehensive mental health guide for parents who are raising children in this very challenging time.
As I said, the first critical window of brain development, right brain development, or what we call social-emotional brain development, is zero to three. If you missed that window, or you were forced to be away from your baby, or you feel like there may have been attachment issues in that window, you have a second chance in adolescence, because adolescence is what we call the second critical window of brain development when the brain is reorganizing, and pruning, and doing a lot of the same things as zero to three, and where the environment is very important. And you are the environment. So as parents, you have another chance. We all like second chances, right? You have another chance of really changing the forever path of your child’s mental health and emotional security.
Well, again, that book will be released on November 2nd. I encourage all of our listeners to read it. I certainly will be picking up a copy myself. Erica, where can our listeners go to follow more of your work?
www.komisar, K-O-M-I-S-A-R, .com. I’m on Twitter, @ericakomisarcsw. I’m on Instagram. Also on Instagram. And yes, please follow me on Twitter. And if you go on my website, you can also buy my books and send me an email.
Well, I want to personally thank you and say women like you are an inspiration to young moms like me. You serve as an important reminder that we don’t have to accomplish it all in our childbearing years, that we have long careers ahead of ourselves. You serve as a role model on that front, so thank you. And thank you for being honest about the science and helping young moms like myself navigate some of these really complex decisions.
We hope you take away something from today’s conversation. And if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks or like the podcast in general, we would love it if you could take a moment to leave us a rating or review on iTunes. This helps ensure our message reaches as many Americans as possible. Share this episode, and let your friends know they can find more She Thinks episodes on iTunes, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Spotify, and all their favorite podcast apps. This is Kelsey Bolar signing off on another edition of She Thinks.