Babies need to be with their mothers.
There, I’ve said it.
It’s a simple and obvious fact, taken for granted by everyone throughout history – except for our most recent blip on the screen of time — and by people in traditional cultures today.
Modern life, feminism, and women’s legitimate need for self expression through meaningful work make us tiptoe around this self evident truth. Scratch the surface of any self respecting baby expert and you’ll find they believe it, too. The ones whose work I know best, child psychiatrist turned pediatrician Nina Lief, Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler and her protégé, Magda Gerber, founder of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) in Los Angeles, are well known in the U.S. mainly to hard core of baby people (and the starlets and others who attend RIE classes.)
Each of them believed this passionately but wrote and spoke carefully so as not to alienate today’s young mothers.
The arguments against nature determining human behavior are many, but it seems to me that the physical fact of lactation and our scientific knowledge that mother’s milk is the perfect (and best) source of the nutrition babies need, attests to the fact that the youngest humans need to be with their mothers.
Full disclosure: I am a feminist and a mother who put her children in day care. I initiated and wrote the Jerusalem Post parenting column for seven years as well as feature articles in Parents Magazine; ran the Parents Center on wholefamily.com; am a certified parent educator and infant massage instructor and a voracious reader of parenting books. Most of all, I love babies.
When I was brining up my two oldest children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1980’s, I did not question putting my babies in day care. I had finally, at the age of 32, achieved a hidden life-long dream of becoming a newspaper reporter, and I wasn’t going to give that up.
We needed the extra income if we were going to keep living the way we did (by no means luxuriously by New York City standards but super luxuriously by world standards i.e. we occasionally ate out.) Besides, I knew I would go crazy if I was cooped up alone with babies all day. Besides, everyone I knew was doing it.
My first born took to day care like the proverbial fish to water at 18 months. When I picked her up, she pointed her index finger toward BJ’s Kids, the anti-sexist, anti-racist day care center we had found (and to which we had to take two busses) and made longing noises, pronouncing as best she could the names of two new friends.
My second born went calmly enough but I got a lump in my throat that wouldn’t go away. After the first doctor I went to admitted it could be cancer, a second doctor diagnosed it right away: a classic case of globus hystericus. There’s nothing there, he said. It’s emotional.
Yosef was busy and engaged and the day care teachers were lovely and sensitive but when I came to pick him up at the end of the day, he would look up, see me and immediately lower his gaze back down to what he was doing.
Maybe he was just happy and busy. But maybe this was what the experts call an avoidant reaction and it spoke louder to me about what Yosef might be feeling than any kicking or screaming protest or enthusiastic reunion.
The lump in my throat went away and we both adjusted, as most parents and children do.
But 25 years later, it’s still hard for me to believe that I, a product of the ’60’s who questions everything, didn’t question the decision to separate from my babies daily.
The fact – and I wholeheartedly believe it is a fact – that babies need to be with their mothers poses a dilemma. I used to think that a solution in which father and mothers both cut back on work or changed schedules and shared baby care was the answer.
But I still remember the words of a wise, older friend and mother of five who, when I dreamed about this potential solution before I married and had children, said simply, “A father isn’t a mother.” I thought she was unenlightened. Thirty years and three children later, I know she was right.
There is a difference.
There is much society can do to ensure that mothers who do stay home with their children are fulfilled.
A public education campaign; free, neighborhood-based parent education programs and a much longer paid maternity leave like they have in the Scandinavian countries would go a long way toward enabling mothers to take the necessary break from work.
Community-based women’s cooperatives in which mothers could do productive work for a number of hours a week – with their babies present and without risking their benefits, would also help.
Networks of peer support among mothers with young children can provide needed emotional support and fun. Regular time on their own when the baby is cared for by someone else who loves her will help moms keep their sanity and perspective.
Most of all, seeing babies for the miracles they are, learning about and respecting their innate developmental rhythm, realizing that well-nurtured babies benefit from spending some time every day doing their own thing with no adult interference — within earshot of mom and in a safe place – will go a long way toward supporting mothers to do what is natural, what is best for their babies.
Once, it was radical for women to leave their babies and go to work. It’s time to think deeply about what has become de rigueur and take the radical step of reuniting babies with their deepest source of comfort, love and support.