early motherhood

The Incontrovertible Nature of Motherhood - Erica Komisar

Erica Komisar Uncivilize.jpg
We can do many, many things in life; we can even do everything in life. We just can’t do it all at the same time.
— Erica Komisar

In America today, 25 percent of women go back to work less than two weeks after giving birth. Seventy percent of babies under the age of one are regularly cared for by someone other than a parent. When you consider the biological imperative for mothers to be close to their babies -- the indisputable norm for how babies were nourished, nurtured, and protected from potential predators for millennia of human history -- it would appear we are now in the midst of a biological and societal experiment in child-rearing unprecedented in the history of humankind. 

This experiment hasn’t been without consequences, says Erica Komisar, my guest today and the author of the thought-provoking (and controversial!) new book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. In it, she explores the critical nature of a mother’s presence in early childhood, and connects the alarming increase in childhood mental disorders over the past 30 years to our society’s absence and devaluation of mothering. Erica is a psychoanalyst, so not surprisingly we unpack a lot in this interview -- from the neuroscience underscoring the pivotal role of motherhood and our time’s misguided focus on gender neutrality, to her thoughts on technology, modern-day alloparenting, and how we can spark the revolution toward a truly child-centric society in the 21st century. 

Here’s what we delve into: 

  • Why Erica delayed writing Being There for a decade

  • “Life is not a linear pathway”

  • Our modern epidemic of mental disorders in young children

  • Motherhood as a transformative experience

  • The neuroscience behind the first three years

  • Guilt as the necessary signal to confront feelings of conflict

  • Why gender neutrality is interfering with mothering

  • “We’re not meant to be isolated or to raise children in an isolated fashion”: Our society’s overvaluation of independence and self-sufficiency

  • Why daycare isn’t alloparenting

  • “Having to work” versus really having to work: what the surprising research says

  • How to find a career with more flexibility

  • Being there versus helicopter parenting

  • Kinship bonds and Erica’s vision for the future

Want to learn more about Erica and her work? You can connect with Erica via her website; she’s also on Facebook and Twitter. The link to buy Being There is here and below! 

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Links from the show:

Suniya S. Luthar’s research: Read “The Problem With Rich Kids” on Psychology Today

Motherhood Without a Motherland - Sarah Menkedick

Photos:  Jorge Santiago
I had always had this perspective that I’m not from anywhere, I don’t feel a connection to anywhere; I’ve lived in all these different places. And finally, when I was pregnant and I was living in Ohio in a little cabin, I really did feel like for better or worse, this is where I’m from. And it deeply shaped me.
— Sarah Menkedick

For thousands of years, new generations -- and new mothers, in particular -- had the wisdom of their elders, of their culture, of their sense of place to guide them. Today in 21st-century America, where so many of us can only trace our ancestry back to one immigrant grandparent and what family we have is scattered across the continent (or the globe), modern motherhood can be a crushingly isolated existence. Add in the the demands of our go-go-go technologized life and an economically obsessed patriarchal society that doesn’t value motherhood as a meaningful pursuit, and it’s no wonder I often wish I could toss myself, my husband and our two little girls in a time machine and head back to a simple Little House on the Prairie-like homestead somewhere in my past. Except like so many modern displaced people of lost ancestry, I wouldn’t actually know where to point the time machine to go home.

So imagine my delight when I discovered writer Sarah Menkedick, who lived out my actual fantasy (minus an actual time machine). Four years ago, she ditched the modern world and her modern existence literary writing and trekking around the globe (teaching English to teenagers on far-flung Réunion Island, camping on the Mongolian grasslands) to start her family, offline, in a tiny 19th-century cabin on her family’s Ohio farm. The result was her beautiful daughter, and a magnificent memoir in which she explores the existential nature of modern motherhood and the meaning of home (but so much more): Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm, which was released by Pantheon earlier this year.

I was so excited to have the opportunity to interview the brilliantly talented Sarah about her book and other writings (she’s a writer’s writer: bylines in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, Oxford American, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times and a Fulbright fellow, to boot), as well as how she’s taking lessons learned from a simpler existence into her life and home now, post-cabin. 

Here’s what we talked about:

  • Introducing Sarah and her book Homing Instincts

  • “We were perhaps a little naïve”: Pregnancy and early motherhood in a 19th-century cabin in rural Ohio

  • The constant pressure to be productive versus being in the world in a simpler way

  • Homing Instincts as “the anti-travel book"

  • Sarah’s life now in Pittsburgh

  • The experience of pregnancy and moving beyond always seeking “a better place"

  • Finding home in an age of lost ancestral homelands

  • “I have a people”: Her husband Jorge’s deep roots in Oaxaca, Mexico

  • How Sarah changed her perspective on homeland

  • Raising her daughter between two different cultures

  • “Why don’t people take writing about motherhood seriously? Because women do it”: The story behind Sarah’s op-ed in the LA Times

  • “It’s not just about mothers; it’s about birth being a pretty important experience for everybody. Just the fact that that’s a radical point is kind of crazy”

  • The two camps of modern motherhood: Motherhood as transformation or motherhood as a prison?

  • Food, raising children, and the cultural vacuum of America

  • Building a tribe of mothers in Pittsburgh (or not)

  • “It felt more natural there”: Family-friendly social life in Mexico

  • Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School

  • What’s next for Sarah: Exploring the cultural history of anxiety and motherhood

You can read more about Sarah and her writings on her website as well as connect with her on Twitter and Instagram. And be sure to check out Vela, her must-read online magazine of remarkable nonfiction writing by women. 

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Sarah's book: