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.
Moral Absolutes Ping - Unforunately I don't have time to read this right now, I have to get up really early and go out...
Check it out, it looks really good.
Let me know if anyone wants on/off this pinglist.
Who is that? The blessed 10% of the population with a family income over $90K per year?
Time for you to check up on the income bracket levels and median family income. When the top 20% starts at around $75K per year, splitting the amounts below that doesn't produce two "high paying" jobs for too many people.
The cost of living in NJ, MA, CT, NYC, SF, LA are so astronomical that it is long past time for any sane person who values time and family to have moved somewhere else less expensive to live, and less doctrinairely liberal.
It is extrmely difficult to live in such places as a single worker family unless that single worker is a lawyer or investment banker.
The EITC "costs" about $100 per person per year, so it is hardly impoverishing any family in its tax "cost". However, it isn't even really a cost except in liberalthink tax theory. It represents a refund of social security taxes to low income persons. If you earn nothing, you get no EITC. And since it is a refund of other taxes, it is not a real cost, but a removal of part of the tax burden on the US population.
A more thoughtful plan of action would have moved the family to be tended out of NJ, rather than moving your family into that hell-hole.
Funny, where I am, its the guys in the 40's-50's who want all that crap, while most of us younger guys are happy that our wives ARE at home with the kiddies.
I really don't want to be mean. It's just a fact that single parents almost always have to work. I don't think it is automatically an awful situation. But you felt BETTER when your kids told you they like you better when you aren't around?
That would have added to my guilt
I think that both cost of living and taxes, and our more affluent lifestyle, "force" many families to rely on two incomes.
Taxes: I think the real killer here is becoming property taxes. Add state income tax and federal income tax, and we've got a crushing tax burden.
But it's not just taxes that separates us from the 1950s or 1960s. For better or worse, there are many necessities now that weren't necessities then. Many people mention things like DVD players or microwaves, but these are largely one time expenses. I look at recurring charges that exist now that didn't exist then.
TV: just about everyone has cable TV. Then there's premium cable, NetFlix, Tivo charges. Some people pay up to $200 a month just to watch TV. In the 1950s, the actual device was more expensive, but then it was always free to watch the three or four channels you got.
Internet: the internet may be free, but you've got to have an ISP, probably cable or DSL. Then you need virus protection. Plus whatever other internet access services you may have. 1950s folk had such great TV, they didn't need to worry about the internet.
Phone: long distance rates are cheaper, but most everyone has a cell phone, with snazzy ringtones and such. In the 1950s, you had one black rotary dial phone in your house.
Electric: who had central air in their house in the 1950s? Or computers, etc.
Car: now there's Onstar, which incurs a monthly fee.
Credit: anyone can get credit now. It's easy to abuse this privilege.
There are a lot of recurring fees that people have now that they didn't have in the 1950s.
Thanks for saying that raising kids is cheap! I tell people this all the time, I raised good kids, my youngest is 18 now, and I may have spent LESS than the amount I would've spent on the narcissistic track I was on.
You are right, adults create their own expensive lifestyles, and then insist that kids are too expensive because they cannot do without. Gearing down is not impossible, but it takes ego-supression.
Some people just can't do ego-supression. They have shiny cars and spoiled angry kids.
It's nothing more than a taxpayer-subsidized babysitting service. Why pay out of your own pocket for your own children's care when you can spread the costs around to every taxpayer, including people who don't have kids, whose kids are grown up, or send their kids to private school or homeschool.
I'm sorry dear but I hope it makes you very, very, uncomfortable. Your kids need you and you will never have this time with them again.
When my kids were first born I continued working, missed both of their first steps. Finally the light bulb went off and I left a six figure career to stay with the kids. The change in my kids was just amazing. My sons preschool teachers surrounded me in the hall of his school a few weeks after I quit wanting to know what was going on in our lives. My son all of a sudden had confidence. They had never seen anything like it
I really hope you sit down and calculate the cost of you working when your husband goes back to work. Consider higher tax bracket, cost of car and gas, child care, clothing, lunches and that fact you probably won't making a lot of meals from scratch (That has saved me a bundle of money!)
We had to make some life style changes but they were really minor. (No more jewelery, no more Nordstroms, a lot less eating out)
Having two parents work is very, very expensive. Looking back my six figure career brought us surprisingly little profit, definitely not enough to abandon my kids. Plus just being able to be there for your family 24/7 is heavenly! Stuff happens and I'm there to handle it. I love it! 12 years of college and a great career were fun at the time but being a mom is much better and much more rewarding.
Another good book to look into is WHAT OUR MOTHERS DIDN'T TELL US: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman by Danielle Crittenden. It explains what feminist have "accomplished".
Your kids don't want to be raised by a payed employee. They want and deserve a parent.
LOL! Too true. Been there. Two parents working is very expensive but kids pay the highest price.
...that's why I included the caveat about health bennies.
Here in Michigan, all children have access to insurance--period. If insurance cannot be provided by the parent, it is provided by the state. Another thing to consider, which, sadly, most people don't: Doctors, dentists in particular, are some of the most willing negotiators you'll ever find outside of a farmer's market. They won't bring it up, but its true. My advice...shop around. Call three different dentists a day, explain your financial situation and the needs of your kids, eventually you will strike gold--probably sooner than later. Most doctors will offer a reduction of fees to the uninsured or underinsured if they are asked to do so. Many will allow you to pay off expensive dental work on a payment plan with no interest--you pay what you can afford to pay. Depending on how often your kids need to see a specialized doctor, you might want to consider contacting the closest state university (or any other college) that has a medical/dental school--it may mean driving an hour for an appointment, but if your appointment is only once every two or three months it could be cheaper in the long run.
Its far easier to negotiate with a doctor than a corporation!
Those children are someones sons or daughters. Put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine if 1/2 million American kids were sent to China every year for adoption. You don't think this would go unnnoticed and not cause any problems?
Just remember, these children weren't produced by an orphanage. They were produced by a mother and a father, who now do not have their children.
These kids are nothing but a drain on the social fabric of those countries, and even if those countries weren't already mired in poverty, no one would adopt them.
They don't need adoption, they need their parents.
They are still quite prejudiced against adoption.
Thanks for making my point.
And why do you think we are TRAITORS?
People who refuse to have their own children when they could are essentially traitors, because they refuse to provide for the continuation of this nation. I was not referring to adoption but to a refusal to give birth out of selfish hedonism.
But to make a larger point:
Nation, n. 1. large number of people of common descent, language, history, etc., usually inhabiting a territory bounded by defined limits and forming a society under one government ... (ME f. OF f. L natio -onis (nasci nat- be born)
Hordes of adopted children are not "growth" for our nation because they aren't of "common descent" with us; they are an extension of the nation where they came from onto our nation's land. Call it reverse western colonization if that makes it clearer.
One more thought about "stealing" children. The Angelina Jolie brouhaha is a perfect example.
I disagree with this. It's not the cost of living, it's the cost of wanting everything right now that forces moms to work.
>>>I disagree with this. It's not the cost of living, it's the cost of wanting everything right now that forces moms to work.
Not true. You live in OK. Come to NJ and tell me that.
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