Commentary

Apple pie and ...


 

 

How do you feel about apple pie? Is it a concept that evokes a positive feeling for you? Even if you prefer pumpkin or blueberry? Although your attitude toward apple pie may be relevant as we approach the holidays, is it a topic worthy of discussion in a publication devoted to pediatrics?

Certainly not, but what about motherhood? How do you feel about motherhood? As someone who is devoting his or her professional energies to the health of children, you must have formed some opinions about motherhood. Although your patients are children, it is their parents – and more often their mothers – with whom you communicate, particularly in the first several years of life. The interaction between a child and his or her mother can provide the child critical emotional support.

Mother and child having fun together. BananaStock/Thinkstock
My guess is that, like the majority of people, you will answer that the concept of motherhood is one about which you have positive thoughts, regardless of how you feel about apple pie. But let’s sharpen the focus of my question and ask if you believe that, for biological and physiological reasons, mothers are necessary for babies. And, here, I am asking you to look beyond the obvious events of pregnancy and childbirth. Do you believe that a mother is uniquely equipped to provide some things for her child that can be critically important for that child’s emotional development, particularly in the first 3 years of the child’s life?

You may never have been asked that question in exactly that way before, but I suspect you have thought about it both professionally and personally. You may have considered the answer as you were deciding if, when, and how you were going to return to work after maternity leave. Or you may have been forced to consider the question in formulating an opinion in a case of contested child custody.

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (“The Politicization of Motherhood,” by James Taranto, Oct. 27, 2017) suggests that how you answer my question about the biological necessity of motherhood will determine your position on one of our nation’s political divides. The article focuses on Erica Komisar, who has written a book in which she lays out evidence from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and epigenetics supporting her view that a mother is biologically equipped to provide for the emotional development of her child (“Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters,” New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017).

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.
Dr. William G. Wilkoff
As you might suspect, her book has been embraced by the more conservative among us who feel that a mother’s place is in the home. On the other hand, she has been shunned by more liberal folks who believe that much of what one might consider traditional motherhood can be subcontracted out to fathers and day care providers. However, Ms. Komisar’s liberal roots become apparent when she suggests that the federal government should mandate employers to provide generous maternity benefits including flexible and extended maternity leaves.

I haven’t read Ms. Komisar’s book, nor am I aware of the studies she cites, but reading the article prompted me to think a bit more deeply regarding how I feel about motherhood. I guess I always have felt that there is something special that a mother can provide her children, particularly during the first 3 years of life. I don’t know whether there is a neurobiological basis for this special something, but if it is missing, the child’s emotional development can suffer. Are there situations where another person(s) can provide a substitute for this special maternal sauce? Of course, but it doesn’t always work as well as the real thing. And not every mother has an adequate amount of that certain maternal something.

As pediatricians, we are faced with two challenges. The first is to help families cope with situations in which that special maternal ingredient is absent or in short supply. Our second challenge is to help mothers who believe there is something special they can offer their children but feel guilty because, for whatever reason, they can’t be there to provide it.

I am interested to hear how you feel about motherhood ... and apple pie.
 

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”

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