Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: Being There

Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters by Erica Komisar, LCSW
Date: April, 11 2017
Format: hardcover
How did I get this book? borrowed from library
Goodreads | Publisher | Author

I imagine the title of this book alone elicits one of two reactions from most people -- nods of agreement or it gets their hackles up. As a general rule, I don't read a lot of parenting books and only picked this one up from the library because I really liked an article the author wrote on the children's book site Brightly (affiliated with the book's publisher): How Reading to Your Children Helps You to Be a Present Parent. Parenting advice in general stresses me out, but how books and reading help us be better parents is the kind of advice I find encouraging (imagine that!) Reading is just one example of how we can better connect with our kids, but this book goes way beyond that and is a rather forceful argument for the need for more present parenting (with a HUGE emphasis on mothering) when kids are very young.

I did find this book interesting and useful, but as a whole, it was a bit hard to swallow. I guess that is sort of the point and Komisar says right in her introduction that readers who already have kids may not like what she has to say and may feel guilty or uncomfortable. She has a point when she says, "As a therapist, I am in the business of making people feel uncomfortable so they can change and ultimately live happier and more satisfying lives." She is also hoping to reach readers before they become parents, but I don't honestly know how many non-parents are going to pick up a book like this. If any do, it certainly gives plenty to consider and it does an admirable job of conveying the enormity of parenthood, its responsibilities, and the fact that a lot of things change when you have a kid. Believing your life will go on exactly as it was, just with one more along for the ride, is (in my opinion) a pretty dangerous -- and unachievable -- illusion.

Komisar asserts we would all do well to confront and work through any of our own childhood traumas or difficulties before we become parents ourselves. I'd venture a guess that very few people put "see a therapist" on their list of things to do before starting a family or while pregnant. And while I see the author's point, without a HUGE sea change in how mental health is viewed in this country, this seems like the kind of thing only a privileged few realistically would (or could) do.

Komisar also asserts she is not anti-feminist and is not anti-working moms. She is a big advocate for better family/maternity leave policies and legislation and the need for more flexible workplaces. She argues this makes economic sense for companies as well as being good for families. She also gives zero free passes to stay-at-home or work-from-home moms -- even if you're physically around more, according to Komisar's research and experience in her practice, there is a whole lot you can still screw up. (My husband thinks reading this was a bad idea because I'm already too hard on myself -- and he's probably right.) She addresses ways to best handle daycare or other caregiving arrangements, how to better understand how young children process your absence, and how to help them with those transitions in a healthy way.

As someone who is primarily home with my son, I had a lot of questions about how to actually do what she is asserting is best for babies and toddlers. She does give a lot of practical, concrete examples and advice, but I was still left feeling a bit like she is saying that (ideally) everything should be done by the mother all the time and that you should avoid as many distractions as possible during waking hours. She mentions the need for a support system and laments the rarity of extended family support with child-rearing, but I was having trouble figuring out what exactly she envisions this support system doing because she is so, so focused on interaction between mother and child. She mentions the importance of fathers too, but again, I'm a bit at a loss for concrete examples of the role she feels these other people play in a child's life from birth through age two.

I think it is excellent advice to be less distracted when we are with our children. I already know I need to be on my phone less and it's something I am working on. But when she talks about moms needing support and not being isolated, I think she is overlooking the fact that phone contact is one way to be in touch with loved ones and friends during the day when you are otherwise alone with your child. It's not face-to-face, but sometimes messaging is all we have. Even recognizing my own need to cut back (and asking my husband to do the same), I'm a bit tired of vilifying phone use. And the way this book discusses moms on their phones just reinforces the idea that everyone is watching you and judging you -- like you need a sign on your head justifying why you are on your phone to the rest of the world or you're just another mom who's ignoring her baby, like everyone these days, isn't technology just terrible?

And she even cites things like washing the dishes or cleaning as distractions that don't allow us to be present. I am all for dumping the expectations of a spic-and-span house when you have littles in the house, but there is only so much you can let slide. You're going to run out of dishes at some point or you're going to start sneezing your brains out because it's been way too long since you last vacuumed (or is that one just me?) I understand we should limit our distractions, but if we focus almost entirely on our child during his waking hours, there just are not enough hours remaining to leave the rest of everything to when he's sleeping. And if she acknowledges a need for moms to rest and recharge (which she absolutely does), there has to be time for that somewhere too, not just frantically cleaning, catching up on work, showering, and (maybe) getting a halfway decent amount of sleep. I really would have loved to see a sample schedule for a week that shows how she suggest we fit it all in -- and by "all" I really do just mean the bare minimum of what is needed to keep things reasonably afloat, not the "all" that means everything is perfect all the time.

She repeatedly says that it is never too late to change or repair our relationships (which is encouraging), but over and over and over again, there are statistics that make it seem as if you don't get those first three years right, your kid is (probably) in big trouble. Oh, and any of your own emotional issues can likely be traced to how you were mothered yourself, which I think is rather unfair. She tries really hard to not play the guilt or blame game, but (to me), it seems to be there in between the lines anyway, to some extent. She says there is no such thing as a perfect mother, that children don't actually need a perfect mother, but rather a "good enough mother," and that babies are generally forgiving of our mistakes as long as we continue to try to meet their needs. But I'm having a really hard time determining what exactly "good enough" is when there are so very many things we shouldn't be doing (and things we should be doing better) and she's throwing around terms like "subtle forms of emotional abuse and neglect."

I also had a really hard time distinguishing between what she describes as perfectly normal for a toddler and what she describes as problematic behavior or symptomatic of deeper issues. I could read one section and think "phew, OK, all that toddler stuff we're dealing with is just par for the course" and another section and think "or maybe my kid is completely screwed up already?" There seems to be a fine line, at least to a lay person who does not have a background in child psychology and development.

She also says things like the pain and hardship of being sleep-deprived in order to make sure your young children feel safe and secure, especially at night, is worth it. She maintains that the worst sleep deprivation is in the earliest newborn days, but that night waking (and night comforting) are normal through the first three years. In my own personal experience, it is really hard to be engaged and present in the way this book describes when you are exhausted all the time (and what about people with more than one kid?!) I hate letting my son cry at night (and we've tried waiting varying amounts of time before going in depending on his age and other factors), but my ability to concentrate and be more engaged definitely suffers when I am chronically not getting close to enough sleep.

The best parts of this book? The Debunking the Myths of Modern Motherhood chapter was very interesting and a more general discussion of the principles found in the book as a whole. I think those are really great conversation starters in terms of how society views motherhood, babies, children, and what is truly best for families. (And I don't mean a one-size-fits-all solution or a return to some past era that gave women less choices -- that's no good for anyone.) The other chapter that really got me thinking was Why Don't We Value Mothering? In general, society tends to devalue "women's work" and that is problematic. I'm really trying to let Komisar's bold statement that "All mothers are working mothers" really sink in -- because I need to hear it and because it is true. We all have differing circumstances, desires, choices, etc. but parenting is hard work, period. No matter how much or little else you do in addition.

The book is well-written and engaging -- I read it in just 2 days (partially thanks to the fact that it was due back to the library the day I started it and I couldn't renew --oops!) It was very thought-provoking and is making me re-examine how I interact with my son on a day-to-day basis. There are plenty of things I can do better, but I feel like there is a lot of pressure to mother the right way and it's really overwhelming. This book tries very hard to be a balanced, realistic view of varying family circumstances and I think it more or less achieves that despite my rambling criticisms and questions. I do think it's my own perfectionist tendencies (and, of course, she has something to say about perfectionism too!) that views many of her recommendations as overwhelming (if we shouldn't be so distracted when we're with our kids, we should really never be distracted, right? But of course that is completely unrealistic and impossible.)  I would really, really love to talk to someone else who has read it, so if you do, please let me know!


  1. Oh man, I was definitely one whose hackles were raised by this title. As a teacher and a HUMAN BEING I have seen so many different scenarios- amazing parents with SAHMs produce assholes... and great kids (sometimes in the same family!). Amazing parents who both work and take their kid to daycare produce assholes... and great kids. My mom stayed at home with my three siblings and I, and were are all over the map in terms of levels of education, emotional stability, etc... At the end of the day, I am very happy my son can say "mama job teacher" and also knows that we will rock his puzzles and coloring books when I get home. I think if your kid feels loved, is healthy, is exposed to different experiences, and learns to respect others you're doing something right, whether you stay at home or not. Also, so much research has proved that fathers are important.

    Rant over. Also, make sure to cut yourself some slack. There are people who give their kids Pepsi in their bottles, so if you're not doing that you're probably okay ;)

    1. You are completely right. I think the author really is trying to say that "being there" can be done whether you are a SAHM or a working mom. (Honestly, if the book's blurb didn't clearly state that this was a book for a variety of situations, I would not have read it.) Her myth-busting chapter gave a great overview and captured the "big picture" better than the book as a whole. I think I just got bogged down in the details (and the whole perfectionist thing). When I went back and re-read that chapter after posting this review, I was a bit more reassured of the overall points she was trying to make.

      She does acknowledge the importance of fathers, I just felt like she didn't flesh that out, so it was really easy to feel like it was all about the moms all the time.

      And I totally do need to cut myself some slack -- I'm just not very good at it!

  2. This sounds awful. I was definitely bothered by the title right off, especially the subtitle. If this was directed at both parents, that would be different. The fact that it's specifically directed at mothers really bothers me. It also doesn't sound like her expectations are very realistic!

    1. The more I think about it, I am inclined to think the title was intentionally controversial. As much as I rambled and ranted here, if I take a step back and look at the big picture, it wasn't all bad. And I do think I (and probably a lot of other people) are increasingly distracted these days and that it takes an intentional effort to acknowledge and change that.

      And I also have to acknowledge the fact that she discussed a lot of things regarding child development/psychology that I really was clueless about. I did learn some things from this book, I just know I need to take it with a grain of salt and not think of it as an all-or-nothing proposition. And I really do wish she fleshed out the parts about fathers and a support system -- she clearly acknowledges their importance, she just focused so much on the moms, that it was really easy for the others to just get lost in the shuffle.

  3. Sounds like I'll skip reading this one. I already struggle with "mother guilt", and I don't think this will help! Thanks for the detailed review/rant. ;)

    1. I hear ya! That's pretty much why my husband was like, WHY did you read this book?! You are already too hard on yourself!


I'd love to hear what you think :)