Skip to comments.A Paradigm Shift in Parenting
Posted on 11/30/2004 2:28:45 PM PST by Lorianne
Mary Eberstadts Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs. and Other Parent Substitutes is a culture-changing book. But dont take my word for it. Listen to The Economist: Eberstadts passionate attack on the damage caused by the absence of parents suggests that we may be approaching some sort of turning point in social attitudes, where assumptions about family life and maternal employment start to change. It has happened before it could happen again.
Rich Lowry has already done a great job of recounting some of the core claims of Home Alone America. I want to talk about what makes this book so powerful over and above its important arguments about day care, behavioral drugs, teen sex, specialty boarding schools, etc.
From the very first page of the book, were in a different world. Eberstadt begins with a gentle pledge to break our social taboo on attending to the effects of working motherhood on children. And Eberstadt keeps her promise so much so that she needs to create a new word, separationist, for a certain kind of feminist. (The London Times is now touting Eberstadts separationist coinage as the latest hot buzzword.) Instead of talking about feminism, which gets us debating how to balance the interests of women against the interests of men, Eberstadt talks about separationism, which gets us debating how to balance the interests of children and adults. What we usually call divorce, Eberstadt calls the absent father problem. Eberstadts language sends a powerful message: Its not about adults. Its about what separates or unites adults and children, and what that means for them both
NO REACTIONARY Not that Eberstadt is calling for a return for the 50s. Eberstadt doesnt demand a ban on divorce, nor does she call on women to stop working outside the home. But Eberstadt does ask us to balance the needs of parents and children in a fundamentally new way. Decisions about divorce and working motherhood can only be made by individual parents. But to strike the right balance between the needs of children and adults, parents need to break the taboo set up by separationist feminists the taboo on looking at the real costs and consequences of parent-child separation.
When Eberstadt considers our current way of balancing work and family, she doesnt see a well-established and smoothly functioning social system. Instead she sees an ongoing, massive, and historically unprecedented experiment in family-child separation. An unresolved experiment thats how Eberstadt understands our societys way of rearing its children. And shes right. Weve barely begun to look at the real effects of the profound social changes that followed in the wake of the 60s. Thats why Home Alone America is not another book about the stresses and trials of working mothers or divorced parents. Above all, Home Alone America is a book about children.
RAISING THE MORAL BAR A number of thoughtful observers have pointed out that, for all our wealth and technology, Americans dont seem to be any happier nowadays than we were in the past. Eberstadt thinks she knows why. Life is better for American adults, who are financially, legally, and morally freer than theyve ever been. But life is not better for American children, says Eberstadt, no matter how much more pocket money they have for the vending machines, and no matter how nice it is that Dads new wife gave them their own weekend bedroom in his new place. In fact, its actually wealthier children who are more likely to labor under some of the disabilities of our new family dispensation. According to Eberstadt, well-to-do children come home more often to neighborhoods so emptied of adults (and therefore unsafe for outdoor play) that they simply throw the deadbolt and get no exercise more strenuous than walking from the video game to the refrigerator.
Eberstadts chapter on day care is a great example of what makes this book so interesting. While Eberstadt does bring some important new information to bear on the day-care debate (check out her discussion of biting), the real originality lies in her point of view. For example, even the most separationist feminists concede that children in day care are more likely to get sick. The interesting thing is the difference between what the separationists and Eberstadt do with that fact.
Eberstadt lays out the creepy rationalizations given by Susan Faludi and her colleagues for the high rate of day-care-borne infections: [Children] soon build up immunities; theyre hardier when they are older. Then Eberstadt lowers the boom: Now step back from this discussion for a moment and ask yourself: If we were talking about anything but day care here, would anyone be caught cheering for the idea that some little children get sick twice as often as others?
Eberstadts discussion of day care manages to shift the moral stakes of the debate. She turns the issue away from the long-term effects of day care and onto the immediate unhappiness that many children suffer when put in day care for too long. Feminists who champion the benefits of parent-child separation have set the moral bar far too low. Essentially, says Eberstadt, the feminist position amounts to: If it doesnt lead to Columbine, bring it on. Eberstadt wants to raise that moral bar.
WHOS PROBLEM? Consider the way Eberstadt transforms the work of Harvard professor Jody Heymann. Writing from the adult point of view, Heymann talks about how difficult it is for parents to balance the intense demands of work and child-rearing. Sometimes, when its impossible to miss a day of work, even a child with a fever has to be deposited in day care (against the rules). Concentrating on the childs point of view, Eberstadt stresses that this not only spreads disease, but prevents day-care workers saddled with a sick child from attending to the well ones. Whereas Heymann calls for more and better government-funded day care, Eberstadt shows that this is unlikely to solve the underlying problem.
But the real question is, Whos problem are we talking about? Up until now, public discussion of issues like day care has been dominated by feminist journalists and academics who take their own career decisions for granted and call on society to make their lives easier: How can I be equal to a man if society wont give me better day care? Eberstadt strides into this situation and asks a totally different series of questions: Are children any happier in day care than they are with their mothers? If not, should that effect a womans career decisions? Are unhappy children who bite and get aggressive or ill in day care growing tougher, stronger, and more ruggedly individualist, or is it we adults who are being coarsened to needs of our children? Although Im inclined to believe the latter, the important point is that until now, the choice between these two points of view hasnt even been posed. The separationists whove controlled the public debate up to now have excluded Eberstadts sort of questions altogether. Thats why this book is so impressive and important. Over and above the statistical issues, on just about every page, Eberstadt breaks a taboo, shifts a perspective, and forces us to look at the lives of children in new and more vivid ways.
DEFINING DEVIANCY One of the cleverest reversals in the book comes in the chapter on childrens mental health. Increasingly, were medicating children for mental illnesses that barely existed in the past. Take separation anxiety disorder (SAD), defined as developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from those to whom the individual is attached. This syndrome is now said to affect about 10 percent of the nations children. One of its symptoms is refusal to attend classes or difficulty remaining in school for an entire day in other words, what used to be called truancy.
Are 10 percent of the nations children really in need of treatment for SAD, or are most of these children actually behaving more normally than mothers who have little trouble parting from their children for most of the day? Is it surprising that children get SAD in the absence of their parents? As Eberstadt suggests, maybe we need to define a whole new range of disorders: There is no mental disorder...called, say, preoccupied parent disorder, to pathologize a mother or father too distracted to read Winnie the Pooh for the fourth time or to stay up on Saturday night waiting for a teenager to come home from the movies. Nor will one find divorced second-family father disorder, even though the latter might explain what we could call the developmentally inappropriate behaviors of certain fathers, such as failure to pay child support or to show up for certain important events. There is also nothing...like separation non-anxiety disorder to pathologize parents who can separate for long stretches from their children without a pang.
TOWARD A NEW SOCIAL CONSENSUS Despite her playfully brilliant reversal of our questionable tendency to pathologize children who miss their parents, Eberstadt does not in the end reverse the pathological finger-pointing. Eberstadt clearly acknowledges that some mothers have no choice but to work and that some marriages suffer from gross abuse. She knows that the pressures and constraints on parents today are many, and often severe. Yet Eberstadt makes a passionate and persuasive case that, when it comes to the welfare of children, we have fallen out of balance. We may not want or need to return to the 50s, but that cannot and should not mean that anything goes. The traditional family is not infinitely flexible, and changes do have consequences. Despite its real benefits, our new-found individualism has been pushed too far. Thats because we have taken our eyes off or because separationist ideologues have forcibly shifted our eyes away from the consequences of our actions for our children.
So what does Eberstadt want? Quite simply, she wants a change of heart a new social consensus: It would be better for both children and adults if more American parents were with their kids more of the time....it would be better if more mothers with a genuine choice in the matter did stay home and/or work part-time rather than full time and if more parents entertaining separation or divorce did stay together for the sake of the kids. This new consensus may be difficult to achieve. Yet it is easy to understand, and it would not demand a wholesale reversion to the pre-60s era.
Ive tried to give just a taste of what Home Alone America has to offer. The battle will rage over the statistics, the causal arrows, and such. But the power and originality of this book go way beyond all that. Its strength comes out on every page, as Eberstadt casts aside orthodoxies and forces us to look at ourselves and our children with new eyes. (And I havent even talked about the music chapter, my favorite.) I cant pretend neutrality, since I was privileged to see Home Alone America in manuscript, and am thanked by the author for my comments. Im honored by that mention, because I agree with The Economist that this book has the potential to change the way our society thinks about the family. In the same way we now look back to the Dan Quayle Was Right article as a transformative moment in our family debates, we may someday look back on the publication of Home Alone America. Well be the richer for it if we do as you will be if you read this wonderful book.
Thank you for posting this.
My thinking is that the feminist movement really did not accomplish a whole lot. Men simply got women into the workforce on their terms, and got to pay for abortions and write checks for child support instead of taking real responsibility for the children they produce. It's a great deal for men, but it still stinks for women. We have "choice," but if we decide to have the children, we only have lousy choices - quit working and give up our rewarding careers, or have our kids raised by strangers. Nothing about the workplace has changed to accommodate families with children. Feminists were so afraid of women's futures being tied to their children (which would undercut the arguments for legal abortion on demand) that they failed to push for such changes. So women have not really been liberated at all, and children have been hurt.
A real feminist movement would be agitating for more flextime, telecommuting, and job-sharing for women, and for all-day schooling for kids. And for more restrictions on divorce.
It isn't just the feminist movement. The cost of living forces families to work multiple jobs to handle all the bills. And that doesn't always work either.
Dads need to think more about the kids as well. I know too many dads who are lawyers and executives working 60- and 70-hour weeks and never see their kids except to tuck them in bed once in a while. They can afford for the moms not to work, but they are in effect single moms and the kids suffer from not having real dads.
You are right. Our tax policies have forced too many moms to work and too many dads to work more than one job or a job with long hours. Our culture encourages consumption and spoiling of children with too many things that parents feel they have to pay for. Many parents have to work to afford private school because the public schools are so bad. There are many things we could do as a society to help parents be able to spend more time with their kids.
Interesting post. I wonder what the author's attitude is concerning sending children to Pre-K? I have some real misgivings about the Pre-K concept, but some school administrators swear by the improved results in reading, etc that you see in children who attend Pre-K.
My wife was laid off from her job in June '03 and it was the best thing to happen to us. Money is tight but she would have never quit without being forced. As a result, my two- and four-year-old daughters have had their mommy around for nearly a year and a half. Not every day is a good day, but our family is better off emotionally (if not yet financially).
quote from a response in this thread
"The cost of living forces families to work multiple jobs to handle all the bills"
um... If most people actually added up the cost of their wives jobs, including everything from work clothes, to gas, to day care, to the higher income tax bracket that the extra job puts them into ...
Most would realize they are working for nearly nothing, and are cheating their children and themselves of the most important moments in life.
That said, I will look for this book. It seems to make many important points and is long overdue in the national debate.
Actually the math you describe only applies to people living above their means and well above the poverty line. For two earner families in the lower income brackets, both jobs are important.
Also, it is the lower income worker, not necessarily the female parent, who's income is going to pay for the cost of working in the first place.
"We have "choice," but if we decide to have the children, we only have lousy choices - quit working and give up our rewarding careers, or have our kids raised by strangers"
Real choice: Don't have kids with the above thoughts....
"Our culture encourages consumption and spoiling of children"
Remember key word: NO!
Don't blame this on the feminists.
Back in the 50s labor saving devices meant that men could have hot meals, clean clothes, and a neat place without needing a wife. In fact if you look at 50s and early 60s books, movies, and tv, the stay at home bourgeous wife was often depicted as a materialistic castrating parasite who spent her husband's paycheck on status symbols and did nothing but watch soaps, gossip on the phone, and do her nails. The labor of a stay at home wife was unnecessary so she wasn't worth her keep. More and more men preferred to avoid marriage, creating a new class of single urban "swingers". "Playboy", Thunderbirds, pony cars, and the whole double martini Rat Pack lifestyle were created for this new market full of disposable income.
When the sexual revolution and no fault divorce hit, men were free, free to dump their deadweight Bettys and Janets and go chasing after Julies and Jennifers. Feminism didn't kill the 50s marriage. Men killed it because it no longer served their interests to be a woman's lifetime meal ticket, particularly a woman they no longer wanted. Feminism was the logical response. The media at the time was full of horror stories about Bettys and Janets who after divorce and community property split were now expected to support themselves at age 50 without any marketable job skills. Younger women saw this and determined never to have their socioeconomic survival dependent on any man's hormones. The only way to always have marketable job skills is to never stop working.
This has nothing to do with taxes.
The advent of the two income family coincided with the explosion of the cost of the nice house in the suburbs with the good school district as middle class whites poured out of cities in the 70's. That house costs two paychecks. Period.
Sorry to hear about your mom being miserable. My Mother wasn't and she was a stay at home mom. As a stay at home mom who gave up a "rewarding career" I am offended that you call it a lousy choice. I find it even more rewarding (although just as stressful at times) than my former job. And I really don't like it when other women ask, "do you have a degree?" as if being a stay at home mom is only the choice of an uneducated dope. I have a degree in computer and information science. I made a choice to stay at home and raise my kids.
We don't have new vehicles, fancy clothes, or expensive vacations but we have a very close family that I wouldn't change for the world.
Most pre-k situations are only for people living below or at the poverty level (at least in Texas). I would venture a guess that most of the children in non-disadvantaged homes do not need pre-k at all. It is designed for the children who will probably not get what they need from their parents.
For those families well above the poverty line the second earner has the potential to earn far more than the cost of working. For those lower income families the cost of the second income is proportionately higher.
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