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Home-Alone America:
The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes

by Mary Eberstadt
Sentinel, 2004

Review by Shawna Goodrich

Why are America’s children and youth suffering at unprecedented rates from malaise, obesity, substance abuse, conduct disorders, mental illness, and sexually transmitted diseases?

The answer is quite simple, according to Mary Eberstadt in her book Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes. Parents, mothers, in particular, have abandoned their children. Eberstadt argues that "life is better today for many American adults" but worse for their children due to an "ongoing, massive, and historically unprecedented experiment in family-child separation in which the United States and most other advanced societies are now engaged." If mothers could find it in their hearts to stay at home, the problems that contemporary children face would almost disappear, says, Eberstadt. Name a problem, any problem that contemporary children might encounter, and she will likely attribute it to the cumulative effect of three decades worth of maternal absence.

To give Eberstadt credit where it is due, she is right on three accounts. Incidence rates for obesity and sexually transmitted diseases among children and youth have increased in the past thirty years. And, in 2005 more mothers are employed outside the home than in 1975. However, it’s what she does with this data that is problematic. She argues that because these statements are independently true a causative relationship exists between them. Attempting to substantiate this spurious conclusion with a patchwork of unrelated research studies, she selects research that supports her argument and fails to mention studies that contradict it. By not using a systematic approach to research, her conclusions are merely polemic -- not scientific.

She begins each chapter discussing a problem common among children and youth, cites statistics demonstrating its increase in the past several decades, and asks, "What could possibly account for this phenomenon?" To which she replies, an increase of maternal employment. Often, little data exists to substantiate her claims and she crafts her own line of reasoning. For example, she suggests there is a causal relationship between childhood obesity and maternal employment because their rate of occurrence increased concurrently during the past several decades. When two trends occur concurrently, it suggests there is an association, but not necessarily a causal link. In fact, countless phenomenons have changed in this period of time, many of which might be associated with this trend. In order to demonstrate a causal link in naturalistic studies, all potentially confounding variables must be accounted for.

Aside from flawed science, Eberstadt’s biggest obstacle to constructing a cogent thesis is conservative myopia. By assuming that maternal employment is the only explanation for a rise in children’s problem behaviors, she overlooks fundamental sociopolitical questions. Disregarding the social, cultural, economic, and political context of women and children’s lives, she dodges the complex questions concerning childrearing and maternal employment.

In the first chapter titled, 'The Real Trouble with Daycare,' her perspective undermines her objective. She argues that "institutional care is a bad idea for parents who do have a choice because it raises the quotient of immediate unhappiness in various forms among significant numbers of children, and the continuing ideological promotion of such separation causes the related harm of desensitizing adults to what babies and children actually need." In simple terms, she is saying that daycare debates focus only on long-term outcomes and ignore children’s immediate needs. This causes parents to overlook their children’s well-being "in the here and now."

There are three problems with her argument. First, the concept of choice has become an ideology encoded by a system of beliefs that assumes women in North America have obtained significant and systemic advancements, also that they enjoy rights equally. Moreover, Eberstadt fails to define her use of the word "choice." Secondly, by directing her argument to "parents that do have a choice" because they have sufficient incomes, she is addressing a small segment of the population -- higher-income families -- which leads to a question. Who composes Eberstadt’s audience? Wealthy parents do not typically send their children to daycare. They hire nannies. If they do use a daycare, they can afford a high-quality one, and are unlikely to encounter the problems with care that Eberstadt names -- inadequate physical environment, infection controls and low child/staff ratio.

If I were to accept her argument, failings and all, Eberstadt would need to account for some trends that contradict her argument that mothers are abandoning their children. How does a rise in home-schooling coincide with her thesis that mother’s are fleeing their children? And, maybe she could help me understand why mothers from middle and upper income families are the only ones choosing to leave paid employment and stay-at-home? Perhaps she could help me figure out why a National Institute of Health study she cites concludes that children of mothers on welfare fare better when their mothers work. Yet, all other children fare better when their mothers are home full-time. I guess adequate food, shelter, clothing and medical care are still important to children’s development.

My biggest complaint about Home-Alone America is that Eberstadt touts it as one of the few works to examine the question of how much children need their parents, but she’s too busy bashing mothers to give it any real consideration. Her book belongs in the heap with all the others that promulgate the mommy wars.

mmo : July 2005

Shawna Goodrich lives on an island outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a writer and mother of two. Ms. Goodrich is a regular contributor to the MMO.

Related reading:

From the Hoover Institute journal, Policy Review:
Home-Alone America by Mary Eberstadt (excerpt)

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