By Sigurd Neubauer
“For thousands of years, there has been a gender structure that has worked,” says Erica Komisar, a New York City-based psychoanalyst, parent coach and public intellectual.
She’s the mother of three grown children and the author of two best-selling books on parenting, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters (TarcherPerigee, 2017) and Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety (Simon & Shuster, 2021).
Komisar treats adolescents between the ages of 9 to 25.
Referencing evolutionary biology, Komisar says that men and women have different biological functions, which impacts how a parent engages with its child.
Take Oxytocin, for example: Also know as the ‘love hormone,’ it has a different effect on men and women. It makes mothers more empathic and sensitive nurtures, and it makes fathers more playful, she adds.
When fathers look after their children, the release of Oxytocin influences behavior ranging from throwing babies up in the air to ‘playing horsey’ with older children. For mothers, the hormone generates more affectionate contact behaviors following mother-infant contact, synchrony, and engagement.
Komisar, however, believes that American society has discounted mothering, which has generated children with emotional problems such as ADHD, depression and behavior problems and a range of social disorders.
The traditional definition of what gender is, and what it means, is changing as well.
“Society is going in a new direction which is impacting mental health. It’s moving in a negative direction,” Komisar says, referring specifically to how men and women have reversed roles.
The change has come at a cost, she adds. The psychoanalyst is referring to a term coined by relationship coach Suzanne Venker – known as “role-reversal stress” – which impacts marriages, children, adolescences, and teenagers.
“We can recognize the changes that it has caused,” Komisar explains. She believes that the sequencing of what’s happening in America is wrong, referring specifically to how women often are being celebrated and promoted in popular culture while men are emasculated.
In a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Komisar writes: “How should society understand and address role-reversal stress? It’s neither possible nor desirable to revert to a world in which women lack choices and men don’t respect women’s accomplishments and ambition. For the best outcome we must openly discuss the benefits and risks of emasculating men while empowering women and find a harmonious balance.”
On how gender role-reversal stress impacts marriage trends in the U.S., Komisar argues that in an evolutionary manner, men have traditionally protected their family through what is known as ‘Protecting Aggression,’ which is manifested against physical dangers and by being breadwinners. “By protecting their families, men had a positive role in society, which was expressed through masculinity. This has now changed, especially with masculinity on the decline,” she says.
The societal changes are also impacting men biologically as they’re now releasing less testosterone, which is linked to their traditional roles exhibited through Protective Aggression to releasing Oxytocin, which is tied to nurture.
Now, with American wives increasingly out earning their husbands, as Komisar points out in her WSJ op-ed, the person who brings in the money has assumed the protecting role, which is a role that women have adopted. “As a society we are seeing these changes happening too quickly and we need to be able to discuss the idea of emasculating men. We need to talk about it, but no one wants to, which is crazy,” Komisar adds.
To draw home her point, Komisar quotes legendary television personality Fred Rogers (1928-2003), who hosted his namesake show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, saying: “If it is not mentionable, it is not manageable.”
The current wave of gender reversal stress is also impacting boys, teenagers, and young men at a time when masculinity as a virtue worth exhibiting - at least in popular culture – is on the decline
Boys, teenagers and sexual identity
But the current wave of gender reversal stress is also impacting boys, teenagers, and young men. While popular culture is increasingly focusing on sexual identity and especially on the widening definition of LGBT+, its impact on boys and adolescences is already seen.
“What’s happening in America is confusing to them. They are uncertain about their role in society, including sexually. If a boy has a strong role model, he will emulate his behavior on that of his parents,” she says.
“If he is raised in a household where the father stays at home and the mother works, he emulates that. If the mother stays at home and the father works, some young men become confused when they start dating especially if they’re told by their partner that she doesn’t want children.”
Men are also confused about the role of masculinity in society, the psychoanalyst explains.
“The hyper focus on sexual identity is affecting both young men and women. You’re almost a pariah if you’re heteronormative. It is almost embarrassing for those who are not following the norm of being queer as it has become trendy. They almost feel embarrassed and ashamed. Many say that they are queer to be part of a part peer group. This trend is important to discuss as well, Komisar explains but quips: “It is trending to say that you’re struggling even if you’re not. Those who are heteronormative are hiding or not discussing it.”
Komisar doesn’t believe that it’s necessary to publicly discuss sexual preferences.
“The idea of announcing it has become part of a trend and an identity in itself. It used to be a private matter. This has never happened before.”
Komisar, however, hopes that eventually society will come to a place where it “becomes a personal thing between us and the people that we love and that it won’t have to be public proclamation. “
On whether there is a correlation between gender role-reversal stress and the shrinking space for traditional masculinity and the uptick in men becoming gay or even trans, Komisar says that there’s no evidence of people becoming either gay or trans because of the changing cultural norms.
What the ever-increasing emphasis on sexual identity does do, she emphasizes, is that it has opened up a mental space for people to start thinking about it, namely: what is their gender or orientation.
“These topics are introduced so early, at the age of 7 or 9. At that age, kids are barely ready to think about what they want for lunch let alone what their genders are. We’re confusing them and creating tensions. Mentioning it is making children anxious as they are starting to think about whether they’re gay or trans. For children who are actually gay or transgender, it is not a choice for them. Children expressing being queer is about symptomizing with the world where sexuality is fluid, even if they themselves are not attracted to people from their own gender.”
On how these dynamics impact dating for men and women, Komisar explains that if an adolescent of either gender is heteronormative, but describes itself as “queer,” but dates people from the opposite gender, they are by definition heteronormative. “But what the social change has done is that it has opened up for sexual experimentation as boundaries are loose.”
Towards a harmonious gender balance
Referring to her WSJ op-ed and books, Komisar emphasizes that “she doesn’t write to set us back” but rather that the social change – which is not just sociological and cultural but counter evolutionary biology – do not come without any consequences.
“We are supposed to accept these concepts without debating them,” she says. “Discussing these issues are seen by some as paramount to rejecting them. And once you reject them, one gets ‘canceled,’” Komisar says.
Being ‘canceled’ is a form of social and professional ostracism in which a person is either shunned or boycotted for expressing contrarian or otherwise unpopular views.
If it is not mentionable, it is not manageable: Fred Rogers
How did it all happen?
The foundation for what’s happening in America today originates in the ‘Sexual Revolution’ of the 1960s, Komisar, says. “These changes are not bad,” she emphasizes “but it did open the gate for what’s happening today.”
The sexual revolution and the feminist movement of the 1970s paved the way for social change, which continues to reverberate to this-day through America’s never ending Culture Wars.
Yet, the modern woman – if she is married and has children – often must balance between professional ambition and her responsibilities as a mother.
Not all women agree that motherhood has to be sacrificed to fulfil their professional aspirations.
Take Mary Tyler Moore, an early feminist icon, for example.
During the 1970s, her television character, Mary Richards, was not only the first independent professional woman but the show presented a positive view of what young women could accomplish.
At the time, Tyler Moore, rejected the premise that to be a feminist one had to give up motherhood. She also rejected Gloria Steinem’s movement and what it represented.
Tyler Moore once declared in an interview: “I want to mention my Gloria Steinem experience. She thought that I was 100% on Betty Friedan’s train. And I really wasn’t. I believed that women—and I still do—have a very major role to play as mothers. It’s very necessary for mothers to be involved with their children. And that’s not what Gloria Steinem was saying. Gloria was saying oh, you can have everything, and you owe it to yourself to have a career. And I didn’t really believe in that, so that was a little difficult for me. Well, I just had to say no.”
Like Tyler Moore, Komisar openly identifies as a feminist, but acknowledges that there’s a “need for men to be men.”
The psychoanalyst expresses concerns about how the pendulum has swung to the extreme. We already see “a civil war in America over culture,” she says, adding that it includes the “complete reversal of gender roles.”
“We are all architects of our own lives, she says. Jews believe in self-determination and in Judaism, God is the architect,” Komisar, who is Jewish, explains.
“If you have children, ambitions have to be regulated to take care of them,” she says. To draw home per point, Komisar points to her own career. “It was only during the last 15 years that my career took off. During the early stages, my practice hardly brough in any money and I needed to come home to be with my children.”
It’s all about taking a long view, she argues. “We all must have faith in ourselves that we will eventually be successful, but before that, we all have to make choices,” the psychoanalyst says in reference to work-life balance.
She also says that raising children requires parents to strive for the ideal, which is, Komisar emphasizes, a father and mother. But one must be practical as well as she acknowledges that if a mother cannot be there for a child and a father can, this is the best substitute.
“It is difficult for a child not to be picked up by its mother and being raised by a babysitter. We need to have this conversation, but we’re ‘not allowed’ to do so,” she prefaces.
Whether Komisar sees any pushback against the current societal trajectory, the psychoanalyst reveals that she wrote her book – Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters – because there was a lot of dissatisfaction among parents and children about the topic of how children are raised.
Komisar finds satisfaction in her work. “My writing has changed how a lot of people think about these issues.” She adds that Americans have been taught that being individualistic is self-evident.
“If you want to become whatever you desire – whether it is a banker, lawyer, or doctor – and having a family as well – can be accomplished at no cost. This is a lie. We have three generations of very disturbed children and parents who feel guilty and anxious. We work today more than ever, and professional life has substituted personal relationships.”
“By writing the book, my goal was to question these assumptions,” Komisar concludes.
We all must have faith in ourselves that we will eventually be successful, but before that, we all have to make choices