One-hundred and eighty-two point five. 182.5.
That’s the number of days I spent at home with each of my babies when they were newborns.
If you’re struggling with the maths, that’s six months.
And I just discovered that there is an optimum number of days a new mother should spend with her brand-new baby before she goes back to work.
Listen: TV Presenter Bec Judd runs us through her maternity leave process. Post continues after audio.
I read about that in a Sunday column by Angela Mollard for News Corp. And it made me cry.
It made me cry because lately, like almost every other parent I know on one day or another, I have been struggling with my primary-school-aged kids in various ways. Tantrums. Defiance. Unexplained tears that go on for hours. The edges of something that looks a bit like anxiety, if you look at it with that thought already in your head.
And there, on a Sunday morning when I was feeling vulnerable, picking up the pieces of another window-rattling tanty, was an answer, and a stick with which to bash myself – my kids are wild because I didn’t spend 1000 days with them when they were tiny. It’s all my fault. Of course it’s all my fault.
Angela Mollard is not responsible for my tears. Clearly, the cause of that ridiculous reaction lies with me. But the architect of my despair is not Angela, but Erica Komisar. Komisar is a psychologist from New York City who has written a book based on her research into psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics (that’s a fancy genetic speciality) – Being There: Why Prioritising Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters.
Alt-right types and family-values Christians love the book, although Komisar herself says she's a Democrat feminist who has no desire to turn the clock back to 1950. But they love her because Being There promotes the theory that only a mother - not a father, nanny, child-care worker or auntie - can give a baby what it truly needs to feel safe and learn to regulate their emotions.
It's to do with oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that produces the "love hormone" that is a buffer against stress for tiny babies. “Every time a mother comforts a baby in distress, she’s actually regulating that baby’s emotions from the outside in," Komisar told the Wall Street Journal. "After three years, the baby internalises that ability to regulate their emotions, but not until then.” So mums, she says, “need to be there as much as possible, both physically and emotionally, for children in the first 1000 days.”
It's women not doing this, Komisar argues, that has left us with a generation of depressed and anxious young people. It's all about time.
If you, like me, fell well short of that 1000 sole-care-giver marker, then right now you are feeling a little bit sick. A little bit guilty. A little bit mad. You're gathering your argument to the contrary.
Parents, more than ever, are anxious about their child's anxiety. We're terrified by the headlines of a mental illness "epidemic", by the perceived mainstream explosion of teenage self-harm, sexual assault and suicide we hear and read about and share. We're scared about phones. And Snapchat. And bullying. And YouTube. And boundaries. And no boundaries.
My mum-and-dad friends and I spend a lot of time talking about this stuff. Fretting.
And we also spend a lot of time at work.
For many, it has never been a choice, but a bald necessity. Imagine a world in which you got to choose where you could be, and when. It's not a reality within most of our grasps.
Others mount arguments about the expense of living in a capital city. About the unrealistic expectation that any family could live on one wage in a world of $1.5 million average house prices. About wanting our kids to have holidays and movie-outings and extra-curricular everything.
And for others still, it's about the education we slogged away at and don't want to fritter away. About the years of climbing the ladder only to slip back down. Or fear of 'wasting' hard-won wisdom and experience on crawling around on the floor with Play-Do and Pepper. Of mental stimulation and challenge.
Komisar says that when she was trying to sell her book to a publisher, “a number of the agents said, ‘No, we couldn’t touch that. That would make women feel guilty.’ ”
And it does. Reading about her book makes me feel guilty, never mind actually buying a copy.
And that's why we're here, picking at parenting scabs. That's why I was having a little cry over long-ago spilt milk yesterday morning. Because we're all looking for the silver-bullet that will insulate our kids against suffering, and what if this is it, and we already screwed it?
Listen: Monique Bowley and Bec Judd deep dive on the toughest part of pregnancy: the final days and hours before the big event. Post continues after audio.
After my 182.5 days, my kids' dad took over the next 182.5. Although Komisar's theory declares that his biology is wanting when it comes to turning out happy little humans, he did an excellent job until a caring professional took the reins.
But I'll never know if my daughter just yelled at me that she's had "the worst day of my life" because I went back to work before she could talk.
It will remain a mystery whether my boy doesn't eat vegetables because his oxytocin trough will never be filled.
And I may never find out whether if I had spent three years (and then another three years) responding to my kids' every coo, they would never slam a door or throw sand or say a rude word or ignore my 200th plea for them to brush their fricking teeth.
For many of us, that ship has sailed. And as every year passes and every parenting call we make leaves its mark, we just have to hope love is enough to overcome time.
Because for us, we can't rewrite that particular book. But we can choose not to read Being There.
How many days did you take? Do you wish you had taken more, or less, parental leave?
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