- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2000

Today's newest mothers say goodbye to the "supermom" lifestyle and say hello to June Cleaver, the 1950s cookie-baking, stay-at-home mom of "Leave It to Beaver" legend.

A survey shows 80 percent of mothers between the ages of 18 and 29 would rather stay home and take care of their young children than work full time.

The survey, released in August by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public policy group in New York City, showed the new generation rejects its own parents' ideas of "having it all."

The survey also revealed that 81 percent of parents with children 5 and younger believe a stay-at-home parent is best able to give children the "affection and attention they need."

The survey reveals a new trend in minding children, researchers say, reversing three decades of increasing reliance on institutional care.

"The pendulum is swinging home," says Brenda Hunter, a developmental psychologist and author of numerous books on the subject of mothers and child care. The trend is toward "mother care, not other care," she says.

"The survey clearly indicates that today, many Americans want to seek a balance between work and family because there is a real concern about the way children are turning out," says Jean Johnson, senior vice president of Public Agenda. "Parents, themselves, want to give children the right values because they feel a personal sense of responsibility and obligation to society."

Mrs. Hunter, whose latest book is "Home by Choice," says today's parents are reacting to three decades dominated by popular images of the supermom balancing family with a full-time career and of "children that are hard as steel."

Today, these stereotypes have left society with "insecure children who lack the emotional attachment with their mothers that they so desperately need," she says.

Mrs. Hunter contrasts today's trends with those of the early 1970s, a period she says was marked by high divorce rates. Many women were forced to drop off their children in day care centers in order to maintain jobs that could support themselves and their children.

"This period marked the beginning of the devaluation of motherhood. Famous feminist activists, who had a wide influence on mothers, called the home a 'prison' and called children an 'albatross,' " Mrs. Hunter says.

By the mid-1980s, the myth of the superwoman had begun to predominate, according to Susan DeRitis, personal relations director for Mothers at Home, an advocacy group in Vienna, Va.

"During the '80s, there was a great explosion of freedom and opportunity," says Mrs. DeRitis. "Women finally had a great chance for employment, and the media made it seem like everything else was secondary to going out and getting a job."

In a 1980 Harris Poll, nearly 70 percent of adults said that having both parents work outside the home had either no effect or a positive effect on the upbringing of their children.

By the 1990s, the "myth of the resilient child" had become popular, says Mrs. Hunter. "The belief was that children were more like plastic than glass. Parents thought that their kids could educate themselves and come home from school and take care of things on their own."

Yet by the late 1990s, research pointed out errors in this myth, said Dr. Joseph Zanga, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"By every measure, our children are physically healthier today than they have ever been," Dr. Zanga wrote in 1998. "But their emotional health is poor and getting worse. That's reflected by the rising tide of substance abuse, violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and teenage pregnancies."

Today, the children of the "supermoms" of the 1970s and '80s are grown up, and many are facing choices with raising their own children.

Fifty-two percent of parents are dropping off their children age 5 or younger in day care centers or with nonrelatives, according to Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center in the District of Columbia.

Yet 71 percent of today's young mothers say that when it comes to raising children, day care centers are their "option of last resort," according to the Public Agenda survey.

"It's hell. Your child screams," Marybeth McMahon says of her first day care experience, when she left her 19-month-old daughter in Georgetown University's Hoya Kids Learning Center.

"It's the hardest thing to hear your child crying and think your child is suffering. But it slowly got easier and better," Mrs. McMahon said.

Mrs. McMahon, who works full time for the university, has been using Georgetown's day care service for three years.

She says mothers do not have to sacrifice their jobs for their children and believes the two should be balanced, because both are important and each provides a different sort of fulfillment.

Yet most mothers, especially those of lower-income families, consistently assert that day care centers leave their children with little one-on-one attention, promote bad manners and expose children to possible physical and sexual abuse.

The Public Agenda survey showed most parents distrust day care centers: 62 percent of young couples felt that children placed in centers could be left unsupervised or neglected. A similar percentage 63 percent worried that children could suffer physical or sexual abuse in day care centers.

"The problem is that day care is not regulated for the most part," said Lisa Shulman, director of communications for the Child Care Action Campaign, based in New York City. "There is nothing helping the parents because there is no [governmental] support for quality care for children."

Mrs. Shulman says parents would have more trust in day care if greater funding and support were provided to create quality centers.

Still, 63 percent of mothers assert that even a topnotch day care center cannot provide children with the same quality of care that a stay-at-home parent could provide, the Public Agenda survey found.

Perhaps that is why parents rated improved day care low on priority issues they believe employers and the government need to address. Health care benefits weighed in as far more important for these young parents, as revealed by the survey.

Analysts say the thriving economy has made it easier for mothers to stay at home. Improved telecommunications technology such as cellular phones, the Internet and beepers means more mothers are able to work at home and care for their children simultaneously, marking a new definition for the "working mom," Mrs. DeRitis says.

More mothers are beginning to stay at home well into their children's teen-age years, Mrs. Hunter says.

"Teens still need a stable figure," she says, "who can guide them through important long-term decisions about taking drugs, premarital sex and their education."

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