Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Wonder Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes, by Mary Eberstadt (Sentinel, 288 pp., $25.95)
It’s one of history’s oldest questions: “What’s a mother to do?” And, in this provocative new book, Mary Eberstadt of the Hoover Institution offers a simple and straightforward answer: stay home with the children. She has concluded that most of the problems of today’s youngsters–from biting toddlers to depressed middle-schoolers to out-of-control teenagers–can be blamed on out-of-the-house moms and absentee dads. “Divorce and dual income, dual income and divorce,” she writes. “The refrain hums like a mantra through the literature” of dysfunctional youth.
When a female author writes a book criticizing mothers for not being focused enough on their children–and, perhaps, being too focused on their careers–she must explain how she herself managed to accomplish her writing without shortchanging her brood. In her introduction, Eberstadt does so, at considerable length:
I am an at-home mother of four whose “fieldwork” consists mostly of fifteen years or so spent around sandboxes, schools, carpools, baseball games, and the like and whose intellectual work is conducted by fits and starts and at odd hours in the basement, one wall over from the washing machine and another removed from the Nintendo set-up. I haven’t had a “real” office in more than twelve years. Until very recently motherhood also meant that I did very little writing apart from the occasional essay or review. Today things are different. Three of my children are at school all day long and the youngest is on the verge of it, so there is more time for reading and writing than there has been for most of the last fifteen years. I have a part-time paid baby sitter who is upstairs while I am down, a husband who often works at home, and older children who also help with the youngest one. Thus the “how” of the book.
Yet Eberstadt’s focus, she makes clear, is not on mothers and how their career choices affect them, but rather on how these choices affect their children. The book is not about the search for balance by today’s women–a subject we read about ad nauseam in women’s magazines–but rather about how lonely, unsupervised, and unbalanced millions of our children’s lives have become. Eberstadt says the goal of her book is to “put children and adolescents front and center [and] to ask what the empirical and extra-empirical record shows so far about this relatively new and unknown world in which many parents, children, and siblings spend many or most of their waking hours apart.”
If you are a working mom and don’t want to feel guilty, stop now. Eberstadt is very effective in making her case that as “more and more children have spent considerably less time in the company of their parents . . . the fundamental measures of their well being” have scandalously declined. For example, in the first anecdote in the book’s first chapter–about day care, which children now attend while still in their diapers–she sympathetically describes a sick toddler, who should be home in bed, spending all day at a daycare center plaintively calling for his mommy. Child-care workers report that parents who are unable or unwilling to miss a day at work often dose such youngsters with Tylenol to bring down their fevers before dropping them off at day care. Eberstadt also describes angry two- and three-year-olds who act out their aggression, and wonders about the mental state of “babies and toddlers who take up biting as a habit.”
The author notes the callousness of some of day care’s defenders, such as feminist writers Susan Faludi and Susan Chira, who acknowledge that very small children may get sick more often because of the time they spend away from home but contend that they “are hardier when they are older.” Eberstadt comments that “the real trouble with day care is twofold . . . It increases the likelihood that kids will be unhappy, and the chronic rationalization of that unhappiness renders adults less sensitive to children’s needs.” Point taken.
Eberstadt documents other harmful effects of today’s parents’ lack of involvement in their children’s well-being. In her chapter on “Why Dick and Jane Are Fat,” she maintains it is not the oversized portions, the increase of sweets in our diets, or the lack of exercise that is to blame for our supersized kids: “Today’s child fat problem is largely the result of adults not being there to supervise what kids eat.” That may be a considerable oversimplification, but one cringes with guilt when she cites some telling examples of how missing parents bribe kids with food: “Mom won’t be there for dinner so why don’t you treat yourself to pizza and those horrible cinnamon things you like.” Or “Sorry I missed your game/play/assembly this morning. How about an ice cream to celebrate?” I doubt there is a working mother who hasn’t tried that maneuver.
Eberstadt is also provocative on a subject she has written about knowledgeably before: the overmedicating of our troubled or, should we say, troublesome children, whom harried or self-involved parents just can’t handle. In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of children diagnosed with an alphabet of ailments such as ADD or ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and other “conduct” disorders such as ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), SAD (separation anxiety disorder), and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase “defining deviancy down” to describe how social pressures were leading to the redefinition–the normalization–of behavior once seen as pathological. “In the case of the juvenile mental problems,” Eberstadt writes, we are doing the opposite: “We are defining deviancy up so that children who would have been considered normal a quarter century ago are now judged to have intrinsic ‘brain problems’ and are treated accordingly.”
Because of this, our children are being dosed with behavior-modifying drugs at a startling rate. Friends have told me that in some private schools in Manhattan, more than half the children receive their daily meds at lunchtime from the school nurse. Over the past decade the production of Ritalin, the most frequently prescribed of these drugs, has increased 700 percent. In fact, the drug’s manufacturer created a seven-inch Mr. Potato Head look-alike toy called “Ritalin Man” to “help the medicine go down,” a marketing ploy that should make us all cringe.
Yet Eberstadt claims that she doesn’t want her book to make parents feel guilty, not exactly. “The purpose of these pages is not to ask what any one woman or man has decided to do. It is rather to ask what the accumulation of many millions of such decisions is doing to the children and adolescents of this society.” Her hope is “to replace our current low moral bar regarding nurture with a more humane standard acknowledging that individuals and society would be better off if more parents spent more time with children.”
That may indeed be happening, and not merely because mothers are once more becoming appropriately dutiful. I hope Eberstadt watched and was cheered by a recent 60 Minutes segment, reported by Lesley Stahl, which featured a group of highly educated women who had chosen to stay home full-time with their children. Their choice made a feminist who was interviewed during the segment furious, and seemed, to some degree, to confuse Stahl, a working-woman icon. But the mothers were sensible and tough-minded about what they had lost by making this choice and what they had gained. They didn’t want their kids home alone, most of all because they wanted to be with them. They recognized the benefit not only for their children but for themselves. It is an argument Eberstadt never makes but one that would surely enhance her important, thought-provoking book.
–Myrna Blyth, former editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, is a contributor to National Review Online and author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America.