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The Mommy Apocalypse: Daycare, Oxytocin, and Why We’re Becoming A Society of Non-Nurturers

“As childcare costs overwhelm young families, more women are staying home, and families are losing financial ground,” according to the blurb for a 2014 segment of NPR’s To The Point, guest hosted by Barbara Bogaev.  Then came the embedded solutions family policy experts like to apply:  “Should employers step up with paid leave, flexible work hours, on-site preschool?”

As a mom who hand-raised four kids, the premise for the program, titled, “The Rising Cost of Childcare,” stuck in my craw for months.

So I came up with few question of my own: If we now know that maternal nurturing behavior is passed down to the next generation, why are Americans still so in love with letting other people raise their kids? Some babies aren’t even dry behind the ears before they’re handed off to a stranger.

And could our propensity for surrogate parenting be responsible for our evolution as a nation of non-nurturers? Which is definitely where we’re heading.

Think about our schools’  “zero tolerance” policies – one strike and you’re out. The way our country’s mentally ill are now sentenced to prison instead of hospitals. And how the right to bear arms has become the rallying cry of many conservative Christians, of far more importance than either healthcare and education. (Blessed are the gun-owners?) And the heartless way in which police shoot first, ask questions later.

To support their views – and to my great consternation – Bogaev’s panelists also linked rising childcare costs to a “stalled” women’s movement and decreasing family budgets.

A stalled women’s movement – as though intelligent women who opt to put their children first are a bunch of empty-headed Lucy Ricardos who can’t figure out how to open a pickle jar.

The message was much like any other marketing spiel that “pushes” commodities in consumer’s faces, like toothpaste and laundry soap. In this case, the commodity is daycare. The rationale for buying it is that it’s a necessity.

Too bad they didn’t present any data on what happens when the maternal-infant bond is broken early on, day in and day out.

Regardless of the family’s financial status, a baby’s need for intense nurturing is real. For those willing to look at the child’s side of the equation, there’s plenty of research on why Mom will always be baby’s best bet.

Meanwhile, as we wait for pediatricians to catch up with the latest neuroscience, the bad advice continues unabated. A mom in my infant massage class was recently advised by a friend to let her 5-month-old baby cry-it-out. The friend admonished the mom for picking the baby up right away, saying she would never learn to sleep on her own. (I suspect the friend was jealous!)

I started thinking, who are these anti-nurturers, and why do they persist in telling mothers to neglect their young?  Are we entering the Mommy Apocalypse, marked by a breed of genetically modified women whose “touch receptors” have been inactivated?

No, I’m not writing a sci-fi novel. But the idea isn’t far-fetched.

We could be seeing a population of mothers whose maternal behavior has been altered by a history of insecure maternal attachment, which then becomes a generational pattern. In such moms, oxytocin production may be blocked due to stress-induced epigenetic changes in the DNA – which has been seen in rat studies. And since oxytocin is necessary for dopamine production, these moms won’t light up with joy upon seeing their babies’ faces. In other words, the brain’s reward system is… qu’est ce que c’est? Broken.

Even more sadly, this type of mother may not be able to understand why other moms would even want to cuddle their babies.  Even watching the lovey-dovey stuff makes them nervous.

Low oxytocin has been correlated with low trust as well as decreased empathy.

I spoke with a mom a few years ago who honestly believed there’s no absolutely no difference between at-home maternal care and daycare. “Anyone can change a diaper. The baby doesn’t care who’s doing it,” she said.

The unfeeling woman could be a poster child for pediatrician Lane Strathearn’s article, Maternal Neglect: Oxytocin, Dopamine and the Neurobiology of Attachment, published in the Journal of Neuroendicrinology (Oct. 17, 2011)

Strathearn writes, [W]omen who report childhood emotional neglect show significantly reduced levels of CSC oxytocin, as is also seen for other types of maltreatment (though not for physical neglect).

The article cites rat studies that demonstrate how non-nurturing behavior, as well as nurturing behavior, create generational cycles.

However, Strathearn says in closing, “Further research is needed to explore whether modern obstetric and childrearing practices—such as scheduled cesarean sections, early non-maternal childcare, and lack of physical touch—may be contributing to this cycle of neglect. Additional studies are needed to explore the role of oxytocin in promoting secure mother-infant attachment.” (Lifted from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2826.2011.02228.x/full)

Could it be, as Bogaev’s pro-daycare brigade points out, that families in which the mother quits working are “losing financial ground?”

I suggest we look at loss of income in another way. For example, as an opportunity for a mother to play a significant role in shaping her child’s development.

Parents who are educated, talented and clever should be able to figure out how to “make do” with less for the first three years of a child’s life.  It’s an opportunity to get creative. Slow down to the speed of sound. Become students of mindfulness. (OK, and maybe move to a third-world country.) Moms have more time to plan and prepare nutritious meals. They can provide the kind of unhurried time young children require. I can’t imagine sitting a two-year-old on the potty and telling him, “Hurry up and poop! Mommy has to go to work.”

While there will always be a need for daycare, it should not be a source of embarrassment when a family can no longer afford it.

The best fate that ever befell me was not finding a teaching job right out of college. To support my student-husband, I took a job in a federally-funded childcare center. I knew before the year was out that I would never send my kids to daycare.

“Opt-out” is the term for women with an advanced degree, breadwinner husband, and income of $75,000 or more. I’ve never been in that tax bracket. (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/07/opting-out-about-10-of-highly-educated-moms-are-staying-at-home/)

Our four children were born over a span of 12 years. With the first two, I was a full-time SAHM. While we were not poor, the month always lasted longer than the money. Later, I took a part-time job working from home. What got us though those intensive parenting years was my husband’s commitment to having a stay-at-home mother for our children. He worked full and part-time jobs and never complained. Our budget had so many holes, it looked like Swiss cheese. But leaving my babies was never an option. I felt an incredible urgency about my role. A sense that it wasn’t going to last and I needed to focus on the children. I trusted the feeling and allowed it to consume me. To me, staying home to nurture my children was like putting gold in the bank.

Again, I do not disagree that some families cannot make do with less – or they would be destitute.

But discrimination against SAHMs definitely exists. The mothering profession is often viewed in the media (and by friends and relatives) as an inferior career choice. (Although that’s not saying much for people who care for kids.) I think some successful working women see their little ones as accessories, like a scarf or necklace. They decorate themselves with a hug every morning before the nanny takes over.

So here’s FamilyFieldGuide.com’s  # 1 Tip: No matter what you do for a living, no matter how prestigious your job or impressive your earnings, your child’s first three years are more important. If you find yourself torn between baby and career, choose baby. 

While some mothers may be dropping out of the workplace due to the high cost of childcare, the linked Pew Foundation survey does not specifically state that as fact. It does say that the majority of non-working women aren’t working because they don’t want to be. “For women, the share (of those not in the labor force) saying they didn’t want a job hovered around 38% throughout the 2000s but began creeping up in 2010, reaching 40.2% last month.” (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/11/14/more-and-more-americans-are-outside-the-labor-force-entirely-who-are-they/)

It also points to “marginally attached workers” – people not counted as unemployed because they searched for work in the past year. Concerning this group, the report says, “The rest of the marginally attached cite a range of reasons for not having looked for work recently, including family responsibilities, being in school, ill health, and problems with child care or transportation.”

Could it be that some women don’t want a job because they’ve found their children actually fare better with mommy at home? Despite the fact that most mothers in the U.S. work at least part time, 60% of Americans say children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family, while 35% say they are just as well off when both parents work outside the home.” (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/08/7-key-findings-about-stay-at-home-moms/)

The data is broken down to show, “Hispanics, white evangelical Protestants and those who never attended college” as more likely to say children are better off with a parent at home, and college educated women to say their kids are all right if parents work outside the home.

If this is true, maybe we should be asking why college educated women think daycare is just dandy. Is it because they they’ve invested so much in their schooling that they can’t jump ship for a few years? Or maybe they identify more strongly with their careers. Perhaps it just seems more progressive. Or could it be because their brains process affective cues differently – and they have trouble reading emotions – a trait related to decreased levels of oxytocin. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3319675/?report=reader)

Maternal oxytocin levels – the system responsible for maternal-infant bonding across all mammalian species – dramatically increase during pregnancy and the postpartum [period] and the more mother is involved in childcare, the greater the increase of oxytocin. (“What Happens to a Woman’s Brain When She Becomes a Mother,” by Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, Jan. 2015) http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/what-happens-to-a-womans-brain-when-she-becomes-a-mother/384179/)

But with low oxytocin levels, a mother may not bond well with baby. There’s insufficient interaction. Mom can’t read baby’s social cues. And as a result, the baby doesn’t make as much oxytocin, without which he cannot regulate his stress, or become an emotionally healthy human being.

Oxytocin is magical. Called the “cuddle hormone,” it makes mothers want to be close to their babies, providing love, nurturing, eye contact, smiles, and all important touch. The biological underpinnings of attachment are undeniable.

“Without the assistance and monitoring of a caregiver, babies become overwhelmed by their emotional states, including those of fear, excitement, and sadness. In order to maintain emotional equilibrium, babies require a consistent and committed relationship with one caring person. As you can expect, the research indicates that the person best suited for this relationship is the mother.” (“The Science of Attachment: The Biological Roots of Love,” by Lauren Lindsey Porter, Mothering Magazine, 2003)

In his book Touching, The Human Significance of the Skin, anthropologist Ashley Montagu writes about the mother-baby relationship as “naturally designed to become even more intensive and inter-operative after birth” than while the baby was gestating or growing in the womb. (Montagu, 1988)

The environment expected by the newborn, Montagu often quipped, is a “womb with a view.”

So you see, all those mommies with babies strapped to their chests aren’t just trying to make a statement. They’re really onto something.

While society now pays lip-service to the idea of bonding and attachment, we’re kind of fuzzy on what it is and how it happens. “From an emotional perspective, attachment is the creation of a mutual bond in which the mother shapes infant development through her interactions and relationship with her child.” (“The Science of Attachment) The mother and baby become a unit, called the “mother-baby dyad.”

The reason a healthy maternal-infant bond is not optional, repeat – not optional –is because it forms the basis for all future interactions and relationships.

The percentage of stay-at-home mothers is on the rise: from an all-time low of 23% in 1999, the share of moms not working outside the home rose to 29% in 2012. (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/04/08/after-decades-of-decline-a-rise-in-stay-at-home-mothers/).

And that’s good news, no matter what daycare advocates say. As a culture, we need to bend the conversation in favor of raising kids at home. Daycare need not be an absolute, even for low-income families.

Somehow we have equated living above the poverty line with the preferred place to raise children. The two are not mutually exclusive,” writes single mother Bobbi Parish in her Jan. 4, 2014 article, “I Lived in Poverty to Save My Son From Daycare,” (http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/i-lived-in-poverty-to-save-my-son-from-daycare-dg/

“Children need more than money and the things that money can buy,” writes Parish. “They do have a right to having their basic needs met: housing, clothing, food, education and medical care. But they also require love, guidance and protection. When mothers and fathers cannot provide those, no amount of money can fill the aching loss a child feels.”

As a society, we know something has to change if we are to raise emotionally healthy children who become emotionally healthy adults. The science supporting the significance of the maternal-child relationship is overwhelming. Like global warming, we ignore it at our peril. FFG

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