“A mother shouldn’t leave her child until about the age of three”, declares a father.
Oh, I do not think so.
What infants and toddlers and preschoolers need is attachment — loving, responsive care from people they know and trust, preferably have known for most or all of their lives but at least with whom they have built a relationship. They need to have older people — adults, yes, but also teens, older children — who know them and love them and who they know and love, accessible to them when needed. The placement of that responsibility exclusively on the mother makes it not a joy, a task of life easily fulfilled, but a burden, under which so many of us are breaking.
Something is wrong with a culture that expects a six week old to sleep through the night, that tells a four month old her hunger is inconvenient and needs to be scheduled, that is surprised when a one year old doesn’t want to be left with a stranger. Some of us recognize this, and some have decided the problem must be because women are employed outside the home, have chosen to have lives that do not revolve around our children.
Not that we have moved away from our families of origin.
Not that we have built fences real and psychological between us and our neighbours.
Not that we have tiny families and a dearth of siblings and cousins.
Not that we have segregated adults and children, and alternately marginalize people with fewer years as second class citizens and exalt them as angels on earth (but never simply honor them as perfectly imperfect persons).
Not that we hold ideal a single family home, and define family as up to two parents and 2.5 children.
Not that we have taught half the population to deny and repress any nurturing potential, for fear of being “unmanly”.
No, it is, as always, entirely the fault of women. Of mothers, for daring to stand up for our humanity and our autonomy, for daring to do the work that earns power and prestige and some amount of protection, for daring to say we have needs and wants and goals too, for daring to take even an hour away to nurture ourselves so we have something to give to our children.
How dare we?
What some misguided whistleblowers (on the problem that is our parenting culture) have deemed is the solution — a mother, subsuming her own desires entirely to her offspring for a full three years each, minimum, accessible at all times of day, all days of the week, all weeks of the year — is just as unnatural and damaging as the model it rebels against.
We are not supposed to do this gig — which risks becoming labor and work and mind-breaking, body-destroying toil the less it is shared with loved ones — all by ourselves. We are not. That some can do it and survive, even enjoy it and would pick it first over any other idealized options, speaks far more to the diversity and flexibility of humanity than it does to the failure or unnaturalness of any woman who doesn’t choose or wouldn’t enjoy (possibly wouldn’t survive) 24/7/365 sole caregiving.
Kids don’t need one person, if that person is going to break if she has to clean up one more fecal-smeared surface.
Kids don’t need one person, if that person is snapping and yelling and cannot catch her breath alone.
Kids don’t need one person, if that person’s back is breaking from twelve hour shifts of bending and lifting and carrying and holding.
Kids don’t need one person, if that person has lost herself and her center and has no core around which her child can revolve, no life from which her child can learn.
Kids need people, people they know and love and trust, people who are with them and responsive to them day after day, who know their rhythms and their personalities and their needs and their wants, who have done the work of endless toiletings and feedings, who have assisted nap times and play times, who have tickled and carried, who have been there through laugh fests and crying jags. Kids need as many of those people as possible. Blood relation entirely optional.
One? Is a bare minimum. The kid might survive, even thrive (because humans are fantastically adaptable); and the parent might as well (ditto): but it comes at a high risk of burning out the carer, torching the relationship, scorching the child. And if that happens, there is no one for the child to turn to.
Two is better.
Three or four are better still.
Half a dozen is getting closer to ideal.
Half a dozen? Sure: a parent or two, a grandparent or two, a parent’s sibling or two, a couple teens or older kids: it’s not a big family, as primate evolution (or human tribal history) goes. But good luck growing it in this society.
(My infant only wants me. She’ll have nothing to do with her dad!
Has her dad been there? Does he know her? Does she know him? Did she hear his voice in the womb? Did she breathe in his smell within hours of birth? Did he carry or wear her her first day out of the womb? And the second? And the third? Does she sleep with his breath on her face, his heat keeping her warm, his body keeping her safe? Does he respond to her attempts at communication about her hunger and elimination? Does he help keep her clean? Does she know him?)
Kids — the younger they are the truer this is — need to be with people they know, and trust, and love (who among us doesn’t, really?). They need attachment; this is immutable biological fact. They’ll make do with almost whatever we give them, but the more the better. It is only our messed up society — or the very rare, very exacting child — that says that this means all-mom all-the-time.
(Oh, the breasts. The sweet, sweet breasts. Yes, infants need near-immediate access to milk at basically all times; known and trusted lactating breasts are biologically expected to be on call 24/7. Only humans — and only some humans — would translate this as mother’s-breasts-only, and even fewer as mother-as-primary-minder-at-every-moment. But a ten, a twenty, a thirty month old gets ever less in need of such omnipresent access, even as their need for it sometimes, and their need for constant nearby presence of trusted caregiver(s), might remain unabated.)
Do you, caring mother, have to leave your less-than-three? Of course not. (If there’s no one around we trust our children to trust, why would we want to? If we have enough people to share the load with that it is still a joy and not a toil — however many that is for us, zero or a dozen — why would we want to?) But you could. If you wanted. If your child wanted. If there are other people your child knows will care for them.
And I promise — it wouldn’t destroy them.