Mary Eberstadt’s Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs. and Other Parent Substitutes is a culture-changing book. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to The Economist: “Eberstadt’s 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, we’re 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 Eberstadt’s “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.” Eberstadt’s language sends a powerful message: It’s not about adults. It’s about what separates or unites adults and children, and what that means for them both
Not that Eberstadt is calling for a return for the ’50s. Eberstadt doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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”–that’s how Eberstadt understands our society’s way of rearing its children. And she’s right. We’ve barely begun to look at the real effects of the profound social changes that followed in the wake of the ’60s. That’s 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 don’t 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 they’ve 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 Dad’s new wife gave them their own weekend bedroom in his new place.” In fact, it’s 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.”
Eberstadt’s 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”; “they’re 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?”
Eberstadt’s 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 doesn’t lead to Columbine, bring it on.” Eberstadt wants to raise that moral bar.
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 it’s 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 child’s 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, Who’s 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 won’t 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 woman’s 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 I’m inclined to believe the latter, the important point is that until now, the choice between these two points of view hasn’t even been posed. The separationists who’ve controlled the public debate up to now have excluded Eberstadt’s sort of questions altogether. That’s 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.
One of the cleverest reversals in the book comes in the chapter on children’s mental health. Increasingly, we’re 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 nation’s 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 nation’s 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. That’s 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.
I’ve 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 haven’t even talked about the music chapter, my favorite.) I can’t pretend neutrality, since I was privileged to see Home Alone America in manuscript, and am thanked by the author for my comments. I’m 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. We’ll be the richer for it if we do–as you will be if you read this wonderful book.