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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.