A review of Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes, by Mary Eberstadt

Lionel Trilling wrote in Beyond Culture: "Somewhere in the child, somewhere in the adult, there is a hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason that culture cannot reach and that reserves the right, which sooner or later it will exercise, to judge the culture and resist and revise it." As a woman who left the practice of law in 1959 to be a mother at home and who remained in that role until our children left for college, I have been judging, resisting, and seeking to revise the culture in which I live. This choice to stay home sprang from a sense of biological urgency, necessity, and reason, telling me that my children were the most important beings in the world and that their welfare required, above all else, my presence in the home. I yearned to be with my children as, I assumed, they yearned to be with me. My choice was easy because homemaking and childrearing were respected occupations then, and, although our income was reduced by half, my husband never shrank from being the sole breadwinner, nor did he ever make me feel that I was inferior to him or wasting my education because I no longer earned a paycheck.

The culture quickly changed, however, with the arrival of a career-oriented feminist movement. Feminists successfully propagated the message that homemaking and childrearing were second-class endeavors, which prevented women from achieving the personal fulfillment and social status secured by participation in the paid work force. Our society, in particular the media and academia, wholeheartedly endorsed this feminist ideology, and homemakers were consistently disparaged and their social and economic security were fatally undermined by the enactment in all 50 states of no-fault divorce laws that warned mothers it was unsafe to devote themselves to raising children. The result was an unprecedented influx of mothers into the workplace so that, by 1985, the majority of mothers with children under six were working outside the home.

In her wonderfully insightful and eminently sensible book, Mary Eberstadt, a mother of four children who works from home for the Hoover Institution, sets forth evidence of the harm done to children by the maternal exodus responsible for the "Home-Alone America" she rightly deplores. Discussing many facets of children's lives, she may tell us what we already know, but she analyzes the subject with a fresh insight. She recognizes that her book violates a major taboo today about any discussion of "whether and just how much children need their parents—especially their mothers." This taboo seeks to protect working mothers from feeling guilty, and Eberstadt sensibly concludes her book by observing that those who "cannot choose otherwise," such as single parents, "have nothing to feel guilty about." As for those who do have a choice, perhaps the "continuing complaints about the guilt felt by absent mothers" may be "further proof of a social experiment run amok."

This social experiment is, of course, the mother-child separation required by the feminist notion that a woman's personal fulfillment requires her energetic participation in the workplace. Eberstadt calls defenders of this conceit "separationists": those who believe that women's freedom to work in the paid marketplace justifies separation from their children, and who refuse to consider whether the children and adolescents left behind by the adult exodus have suffered. She challenges a society, which only seems concerned with making it easier and cheaper for women to "combine work and family," to consider how small children actually experience being in daycare all day. She makes the very sensible point that the daycare debate is never about what it feels like for the infant and children in day care, but always about what the outcomes are in terms of personality development and cognitive ability. "The daycare proof," separationists believe, "is in the achievement pudding." Separationists, however, are often not around children, who, in their lives, have been made "someone else's problem."

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We have long known that being in day-care centers increases illnesses among children, but Eberstadt analyzes this problem from the child's, not the adult's, perspective. What must it be like for a sick child, dosed with Tylenol to disguise an illness before being dropped off at the center? "Anyone actually charged with the care of little children," she observes, "knows that a sick baby or toddler is a uniquely pitiful thing, in part because such a child is too young to understand why." Through the eyes of children, Eberstadt details the numerous areas in which their lives have worsened during the period when increasing numbers of mothers left the home, and she establishes the connections between parental absence and children's present afflictions.

Parental absence, she demonstrates, is implicated in the savage behaviors of serial and teenaged killers and in increased feral behaviors ranging from elementary school violence to suicides (those born in the 1970s and 1980s are three to four times more likely to commit suicide than people of a comparable age who were born at mid-century). Parental absence is also implicated in the obesity epidemic among children, which occurred when adults were no longer around to police children's eating habits and when shorter periods of breast-feeding by working mothers deprived babies of the protection against obesity that breast-feeding affords. She connects parental absence to the explosion in the number of children diagnosed with mental disorders: depression rates in children have risen tenfold since the end of World War II and children in single-parent families are two to three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. And parental absence is again implicated in the staggering increase in the number of children and teenagers diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism.

Eberstadt makes a powerful case that these disorders are overdiagnosed and that the psychotropic drugs used to treat them—which are so hard on the children, who are their harshest critics—are overprescribed. Prescription drug use is growing faster among children than among the elderly and baby boomers (Ritalin production increased more than 700% between 1990 and 2000). These drugs have been available for decades, but the revolution in their use began only in the 1990s. The reason, says Eberstadt, is that the too busy parents and teachers want to make children easier to deal with; "yesterday's children—which is to say today's adults—enjoyed the luxury of being considered 'normal' in ways that today's children increasingly do not." The parents of yesterday had a wider experience with their children and thus "a more expansive idea of child normality." Parents who spend less time with their children "find their behavior more problematic and in need of alteration." And so, encouraged by a psychiatric profession that refuses to consider a child's environment and believes that antisocial behavior stems only from an underlying disorder, parents acquiesce in what Eberstadt calls "the pharmaceutical outsourcing of childhood."

They also acquiesce in the ultimate outsourcing of specialty boarding schools, which arose, one operator explains, because of the breakdown in the family. Parents involved in messy divorces, bitter custody battles, and remarriages often send teenagers to these schools for behavior-modification through "tough love" and physical deprivation not because they are involved in drugs or crime or violence—as was the case with reform schools of yesteryear—but because "they were in the way of what adults needed or wanted to do." 

Because they are relieved that the teenage birth rate has declined since 1992—although the proportion of young people who have had sex at an early age has increased and rates of both pregnancy and childbearing among U.S. adolescents are still substantially higher than in comparable countries—parents seem unconcerned with the great increase in sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents. Except in the case of male homosexuals, STDs hurt girls far more than boys and can lead to infertility and cancer. Condoms will not stop the human papillomavirus "from causing its signature problems" of recurring genital warts and cervical cancer (99.7% of cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus). Most teen sex occurs in the home after school so that, just as with substance abuse, the controlling factor in prevention is parental presence.

Pervading Eberstadt's analysis is her acute insight that our culture's embrace of the separationist ideology and women's acceptance of daily separation from their children has desensitized adults to what babies and children need. Adult moral sensibility has been coarsened, says Eberstadt, and parents refuse even to consider that their disorderly children "might actually have authentic reasons for doing what they do [and] might be responding rationally to arrangements that look irrational, wrong, or stressful from their point of view." Some of their actions may be "the normal reactions of youngsters to the arguably inhuman rhythms of their days." Perhaps "some babies and toddlers just aren't cut out for spending most of their tiny lives in a room filled with unrelated children and unrelated adults." Eberstadt's discussion makes me think that perhaps the behaviors of these children are the only way they can exercise what Lionel Trilling called their biological right to judge and resist a culture that is treating them in such an unnatural, inhuman way.

Yet as shown by Eberstadt's analysis of parents' reaction to the music that appeals to teenagers today, parents seek to shift responsibility away from themselves. They deplore the themes of violence, misogyny, sexual exploitation, and child abuse, but avoid asking what this "primal scream of teenage music" tells us about today's teenagers. This, she says, is the music of abandonment, compulsively insisting "on the damage wrought by broken homes, family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and (especially) absent fathers." In answer to the feminists who excoriated "Ozzie and Harriet as an artifact of 1950s-style oppression," the children raised according to separationist ideology have "enshrined a new generation of music idols whose shared generational signature in song after song is to rage about what not having had a nuclear family has done to them." 

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The goal of Eberstadt's book is to convince some women who have a choice to raise their children at home and some parents to stay together for the sake of their children. If the number of women at home increases and the number of absent fathers decreases, their own children will have fewer problems and society will improve: elementary school classes, which suffer from the large number of children whose stay in day care has made them belligerent and aggressive, will become more manageable for teachers and less stressful for students. If more mothers are around the neighborhood in the daytime and more fathers are there to play ball at night, it may improve the lives of even the children in the neighborhood with absent parents. Eberstadt hopes that her evidence and argument will help raise the moral bar regarding how the stongest members of our society treat the weakest. This is an optimistic hope, indeed, in a society that has the highest abortion rate in the Western world and watched for 13 days while Terri Schiavo was allowed to dehydrate and starve to death, over the objection of her parents and at the behest of a husband who was living with another woman with whom he had two children.

Will Eberstadt persuade some mothers to stay home? Surveys show that most people think that schools in general are bad today, but that the schools their own children attend are good. In my experience, most mothers employing nannies seem to think that they have found a Mary Poppins, who is better-suited to raising children than they are; most mothers whose children are in some other form of childcare seem satisfied with their arrangement as well, except that it would be better if someone else paid for it. Eberstadt, herself, is satisfied with her arrangement to work at home while her youngest child is cared for there by a baby-sitter or relative, even though the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, the largest long-term study of child care in the United States and one that she cites, finds that the harms resulting from child care are the same whether care is by a nanny, a relative, or institutional day care—i.e., the controlling variable is maternal care. 

In 1977, Selma Fraiberg's Every Child's Birthright: In Defense of Mothering argued that children needed a continuity of mothering that was sorely lacking in the "child storage houses," where children were warehoused like little packages while their mothers worked. Earlier, Harry F. Harlow's famous experiment substituting cloth and wire monkeys for mother monkeys demonstrated the devastating effects of separation from the mother and the fact that holding and cuddling the infant are as important as feeding. Yet as Eberstadt amply documents, this information did not prevent the influx of women into the workplace. Perhaps our responses to our children are not based so much on factual information as on emotions and biological urgings, and these can be repressed and molded by a society as deeply committed to the feminist goal of separation as ours has become.

Some women, of course, will respond to maternal yearnings. For them, Home-Alone America is a great gift. Any mother who wants to raise her child at home should show this book to her husband if he has any qualms about the value of his assuming the breadwinning role. Many, like myself, will surely find it a valuable resource when arguing for the reform of no-fault divorce laws and when countering the arguments of separationists that it is in the best interests of women, their children, and society that all mothers work outside the home. If the culture can be revised so that it again respects and supports mothers who devote themselves to childrearing, more mothers may have the courage to respond to that most natural, humane yearning within them to be with their children, and then fewer children will suffer the injuries to their soul so movingly described by Eberstadt.