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Has Promoting Mother Absence Spawned Campus Crybabies?


The reflective Mary Eberstadt has the latest Weekly Standard cover story, asserting that the late rise of identity politics especially among the young descends from the decline in family, despite myriad other theories. An excerpt:

Maybe that cultural scream of ‘mine!’ is issuing from souls who did have something taken from them—only something more elemental than the totemic objects now functioning as figurative blankies for lost and angry former children. As of today, less than 65 percent of American children live with both biological parents, even as other familial boughs have broken via external forces like the opioid crisis, criminality and incarceration, and globalization. Maybe depression and anxiety have been rising steadily among children and teenagers for a reason. Maybe the furor over ‘appropriation’ unveils the true foundation of identity politics, which is pathos.

She touches on some of the research that has become well-known among child psychologists and sociologists, referencing the dramatic increase in, for example, mental health problems, at a high point now on campuses and in the public at large. Mental health problems are linked with family instability, as are reductions in the resources that can help alleviate them, such as church attendance and deeper, broader community relationships. Divorce and failure to marry before bearing children also harm nearby families that do not themselves experience these maladies. Private choices are in fact not private choices, after all. They hurt other people, inside and outside one’s family.

Eberstadt’s storytelling about this phenomena, linking a search for social and political identity to a loss of familial identity, is unusual. It seems more common on the Right to make fun of these “special snowflakes” rather than take seriously their claims of suffering amid the richest time and country in history. To be fair, throwing tantrums like a toddler when you’re 20 is something to jeer at. But I agree with Eberstadt that something underneath these tantrums deserves more than derision and dismissal.

Last year I argued protesting college students were right to complain they’re being exploited, but by a higher education system that cheats them out of a real education in pursuit of government subsidies. This time let’s take a look at some evidence for Eberstadt’s charge that increasingly anxious and rootless young Americans have been cheated by their own families and society of their sense of identity due to selfish sexual and economic norms.

The Effects of Absent Mothers and Fathers

Eberstadt takes more a cultural approach to describing and linking these phenomena than a clinical one, which makes her perhaps more readable but less convincing to picky people like me who like to see lots of proof in the course of an argument. Luckily I have been a reader of her books going back more than a decade, so I know she knows the data perfectly well. There is plenty to support her argument, which is emotionally touching to those who have not closed themselves off from it due to mommy or daddy guilt or the choice to prioritize their comforts above loving others:

many people no longer know what almost all of humanity once knew, including in the great swath of history that was otherwise nastier, more brutish, and shorter than ours: a reliable circle of faces, many biologically related to oneself, present during early and adolescent life. That continuity helped to make possible the plank-by-plank construction of identity as son or daughter, cousin or grandfather, mother or aunt, and the rest of what’s called, tellingly, the family tree.

In short, she argues “Our macro-politics have gone tribal because our micro-politics are no longer familial.” We learn from our family life who we are, how to conduct ourselves, our place in the world, and gain from it a base from which to launch our own adulthood. When masses of young people fail to launch successfully into adulthood, it is fair to source many of their problems in their families.

Before we extend our relations into siblings and neighbors, developmental psychologists find our prime sense of identity is developed through our direct relationships with first our mother, then our father. As psychologist Robert Karen wrote in his exhaustive overview of child development research, “Becoming Attached,” our early relationship with our mother (and then father) forms a template for all future relationships. How our parents relate to us as small children teach us how other people are likely to relate to us, whether we believe deep inside we are worthy of love and are capable of handling stress. Those parent patterns can be broken and healed, but typically set our default.

Baby’s Relationship with Mom Develops Emotion Control

A new book out this year by Erica Komisar, a Manhattan-based psychoanalyst and social worker, provides more sociological and psychological research on this front for a popular audience. In “Being There,” she explains that babies are born without the ability to regulate their emotions and handle stress. So a mother essentially serves as a set of emotional-regulation training wheels for the child, especially in his first three years.

“’Every time a mother comforts a baby in distress, she’s actually regulating that baby’s emotions from the outside in. After three years, the baby internalizes that ability to regulate their emotions, but not until then.’ For that reason, mothers ‘need to be there as much as possible, both physically and emotionally, for children in the first 1,000 days,'” she told the Wall Street Journal in a recent interview. With the increase of working mothers and mothers physically but not emotionally present for their small children, more young people are not having this crucial developmental need met.

Ms. Komisar’s interest in early childhood development grew out of her three decades’ experience treating families, first as a clinical social worker and later as an analyst. ‘What I was seeing was an increase in children being diagnosed with ADHD and an increase in aggression in children, particularly in little boys, and an increase in depression in little girls.’ More youngsters were also being diagnosed with ‘social disorders’ whose symptoms resembled those of autism—’having difficulty relating to other children, having difficulty with empathy.’

As Ms. Komisar ‘started to put the pieces together,’ she found that ‘the absence of mothers in children’s lives on a daily basis was what I saw to be one of the triggers for these mental disorders.’ She began to devour the scientific literature and found that it reinforced her intuition.

In another interview, with Mother magazine, Komisar traces emotional problems to parenting, particularly mother absence: “We’ve seen children forced to be much too self-sufficient and independent and it backfires. They develop calluses for their emotions too early, before they’ve internalized that resilience that mothers provide. They develop defenses. These babies hold it together the first three years, when their mothers aren’t there either emotionally or physically, and then they are breaking down after around 3. They are breaking down in school when the stress becomes great. It’s like The Three Little Pigs. If you build a house with bricks, when the storm comes, it doesn’t blow the house down. If you build a house with straw, at the first sign of a storm, the house blows down. Mothers being there, both emotionally and physically, builds a house of bricks.”

There’s a pretty clear line here to current campus hijinks. Because of their distinct biology, mothers primarily develop children’s empathy, self-awareness, emotional management, and overall sense of emotional wellbeing. Fathers primarily protect the family and develop children’s ability to control aggression, solve their own problems, and not turn into nincompoops (that’s a clinical term for learning to, say, bounce back into play after skinning a knee). Looking at not only the loudest, sobbiest voices on the quad, but also the emotional and social retardation of today’s millennials and Gen Zers, the connection to mother and father absence is pretty clear. Surely we can’t blame it all on moms and dads, but surely they deserve some blame.

Will This Change Anything? Up to You

Now, of course, the question is: What are we going to do about it? In her Wall Street Journal interview, Komisar reports being shunned by mainstream outlets like NPR and socially by women because they don’t like the implications of the research she’s publicizing. Elites’ preferences pressure families to behave in ways that are not optimal for child development.

These include: popping mom out of the house soon after giving birth, expecting employers or taxpayers to provide for families rather than the families themselves (hi, dads!); pressuring women to measure themselves by male biological yardsticks; denigrating children and the work of raising them into capable adults; big businesses’ preference for full-time location-based workers rather than part-time, from-home, and gig options; and high government spending that soaks up the economic resources that could otherwise allow for more single-income, dual-parent households.

But the thing is, social preferences like this are very malleable. Women want a man-style life at the expense of the kids because we’ve taught them this is how we measure their value. I sure did. That is, until I married a man who kept telling me how great it is that women can have babies and how much he wanted some, and would do anything necessary to make that work. Then I had our first baby much earlier than I’d planned and slowly started to fall in love with babies and motherhood. Nobody told me, and nobody tells most young women, how deliciously wonderful this aspect of our humanity can be. It’s a whole new world, more challenging than any job, and more captivating.

Women need to know that. And they need to know others support them in discovering and dedicating ourselves to this world that belongs to us by birthright as women. That would be a truly pro-woman stance by men and business and government instead of all the meaningless virtue-signaling we’re subjected to in lieu of substantive structural changes to their anti-child policies. That’s also something you and I can do — besides having a few babies ourselves and making life choices to put their needs first — to reverse our anti-child culture bequeathing us so many sad, angst-ridden, identity-less adults.