- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

The “mommy wars” have been raging for decades now, with seemingly no end in sight. Both sides — the defensive, righteous working moms and the superior, righteous stay-at-home moms — act the same. They trot out statistics to prove children grow up better their way: Day care either ensures your child will get into Harvard, or ensures he won’t. They celebrate their choices as best for all women: Getting out of the home and into the office is liberating and satisfying; staying at home with the children is the only path to female fulfillment.

Neither side asks the simple question, Is it right for mothers to leave their children regularly in the care of others? Even the promoters of at-home motherhood do not see the issue as a moral one. Like the feminists, they focus on two questions: Does traditional parenting provide better results in the end? And is traditional parenting more rewarding for the woman?

Which is why Mary Eberstadt’s “Home-Alone America” is such a surprising book. Unlike most entrants in the debate, she is unconcerned with whether children in institutionalized care (her apt phrase for day care) turn out better or worse readers than their home-parented counterparts. Her worry is how those institutionalized children feel. Her goal, lofty as it sounds, is to make the debate not about numbers but about the real children who live without their parents.

It may seem a bit counterintuitive to focus on the immediate effects of leaving your children for 10 or more hours a day, instead of the long-term effects. But Mrs. Eberstadt makes a compelling case that a sense of abandonment leaves scars that are not quick to heal. She often marshals those same statistics she decries to make her case.

Day care, a veritable breeding ground for bacteria and other nasties, makes children sick. It leads some children to become more aggressive. Stress levels, in most of us at their peak in the morning, actually grow as the day progresses for institutionalized kids. And statistics show compelling connections between maternal work outside the home and overweight children — kids fare poorly when mothers aren’t there to supervise eating and exercise habits.

We’ve all seen these arguments before. It is when she leaves the numbers behind that Mrs. Eberstadt transcends this overworked genre. Her chapter on music approaches a revelation. You are prepared for yet another socially conservative, pro-censorship, ineffective rant on how rock music is killing our youth. But she surprises by asking a different question entirely: “What is it about today’s music, violent and disgusting though it may be, that resonates with so many American kids?”

Bill O’Reilly, as she notes, calls Eminem “as harmful to America as any al Qaeda fanatic.” But Mrs. Eberstadt takes the rapper at face value and questions why kids buy his records — and those of other angry young men and women — in the millions. Her answer is simple: “If yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon, today’s is that of abandonment.” With an all-too-rare pop culture savvy, she examines the lyrics of many of today’s top-selling acts, in a refreshingly sympathetic way: “Contrary to what critics have intimated, the misogyny in current music does not spring from nowhere; it is often linked to the larger theme of having been abandoned several times — left behind by father, not nurtured by mother, and betrayed again by faithless womankind.”

Mrs. Eberstadt does fall prey to one of the same criticisms as many of her pro-home-parenting brethren, however. A well-known commentator, this research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and consulting editor to Policy Review works from home so she can spend more time with her four children. But how many other women have that option? Few jobs afford the flexibility that writing does. From her home office, Mrs. Eberstadt is able to tell other women that they should choose home over work. For most of them, it may not be such an easy — or available — choice.

That does not detract from Mrs. Eberstadt’s crucial point, however. Children are simply better off spending more time with their parents. No amount of data massaging can change that fact. “But what ‘meta-analytic’ could possibly measure, say, the emotional hole in today’s teenage music?” she asks. “What data do we use to capture the chronic low-intensity sadness of a yearning baby who just plain misses her mother day in and day out?”

As Mrs. Eberstadt understands, “the genies of modernity will not go back into their bottles.” But we can decide whether the huge social experiment we have conducted over the last few decades was the right thing to do. “Home-Alone America” is a fine first salvo in what may be a changed war.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a books columnist for the American Enterprise Online.

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