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
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