Today in the Boston Globe I have an op ed entitled By the book, but breaking a bond, that is based on a previous blog post about the Massachusetts law enforcing 8 week maternity leave. Already at six am there are comments, and as is common when one puts ideas out into the world, some are none to friendly.
My aim in writing this piece, as well as one aim of my book (today I am sending the complete manuscript to my editor-thus the long absence from my blog) is to call attention to the critical importance of parent-child relationships in the early months of life.
When I see older children for consultation for behavior problems, I often hear stories from mothers who struggled terribly when their children were very young infants. Sometimes the memories are vague, but these mothers recall vividly the sense of being completely alone.
The most dramatic example of this was a mother with severe post partum depression whose father suddenly died when her baby was three months old. Much to my astonishment she described being relieved by this event. It wasn’t because she didn’t love her father. Rather, in sharing the grief with her siblings, mother and extended family, she no longer felt so terribly alone. In order for mothers to be available for the kind of preoccupation their newborns require for healthy development, it is essential that they not be left alone.
If I were to give one piece of advice to mothers, families and our culture as a whole, it would be to recognize that while what a mother does with her newborn may look ordinary, it is in fact extraordinary and deserves to be valued as such.
The relatively new field of Infant Mental Health has recognized this fact. The organization Zero to Three offers this definition if infant mental health, which is thought to be a characteristic of the child. “The young child’s capacity to experience, regulate and express emotions, form close and secure relationships, and explore the environment and learn. All of these capacities will be best accomplished within the context of the caregiving environment that includes family, community, and cultural expectations for young children. Developing these capacities is synonymous with healthy social and emotional development.” Research, clinical interventions and policy all aim to support parent-child relationships in the early months and years.
My aim is not to make parents feel bad for working, nor to imply that mothers need to stay home for years. Rather it is to bring readers inside those critical early months. My hope is that our culture as a whole will support, value and nurture parents of young children, parents who have the awesome responsibility for raising the next generation.