Monday, November 1, 2004

When Mary Eberstadt listens to Eminem, she hears a conservative message:

“Don’t blame me when lil’ Eric jumps off of the terrace. You shoulda been watchin’ him. Apparently you ain’t parents.”

Those words from Eminem (real name, Marshall Mathers) and many other current pop tunes, Mrs. Eberstadt argues, point to the pain of a growing trend in American culture — absent parents.

“Eminem … is the Pied Piper of dysfunction,” Mrs. Eberstadt said. “What most baby boomers don’t know is that the best bands of today have one thing in common: All sing about absent adults, especially fathers. It’s really remarkable. Papa Roach, Pink, Good Charlotte … all of them are singing and screaming about what not having had a nuclear family has done to them.”

Why are millions of teenagers infected with sexual diseases? Why are children taking drugs to alter their behavior? Why are Dick and Jane so fat?

In her new book, “Home-Alone America,” Mrs. Eberstadt says the answer to such questions lies in the decision of parents — especially mothers — to choose career over children.

“The connection between those two facts cannot possibly be dismissed as coincidence,” she writes. “At a time when roughly half of all children have no biological father in the home and well over half of all mothers with children under the age of 6 are employed, it is time to stop talking of mere ‘correlations’ and start asking some questions about cause.”

Among the evidence cited by Mrs. Eberstadt:

• The percentage of overweight children and teenagers tripled between the 1960s and the late 1990s, according to a 2002 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

• Self-reported anxiety and depression among youths increased dramatically from the 1950s to the 1990s, according to a 2000 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

cIn 2000, about 9.1 million new cases of sexually transmitted disease cases were found in U.S. subjects between the ages of 15 and 24, according to a 2004 study from the University of North Carolina.

While Mrs. Eberstadt blames parents, author Elinor Burkett says other factors are involved.

“It’s not the only connection,” Ms. Burkett said. “There’s a lot of socially unproductive and dangerous behaviors that are not just the result of working mothers — the breakdown of the family … right and wrong, respect for age, racial problems and a general increase in violence. I think there’s a lot of other things than parents not spending time with kids.”

More mothers are choosing work, Mrs. Eberstadt says, because office jobs are less stressful than coping with screaming children.

“Some mothers absolutely have to work,” Mrs. Eberstadt said. “But for those who have a choice, I think there are two things that weigh in favor of choosing a career. Staying at home with children, especially young kids, is the most stressful job there is. Especially for educated women, office life is far more pleasant and organized than a day spent mopping spills and changing diapers. Then there’s the money, of course. Mothers who stay home sacrifice a lot financially.”

Ms. Burkett, author of “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless,” says although she understands the importance of raising the next generation, she doesn’t believe children should necessarily trump career.

“There’s no one right answer for this,” Ms. Burkett said. “Some families can handle two working parents well; others can’t. It depends on circumstances, how much money they have, the flexibility of their work and if they have grandparents.”

While documenting the problems caused by family breakdown, Mrs. Eberstadt says, she has no definite solutions.

“I’m not a policy expert,” she said. “I can’t say much about specifics, except for this observation: We should look for things that make it easier for mothers to stay home and work from home.”

But Mrs. Eberstadt does not place ultimate hope in the government to solve the problem.

“Most proposed ‘solutions’ … involve subsidized day care and the like. Those aren’t real solutions. They just make it easier for parents to spend even less time with their children, which just makes the fundamental problem worse.”

The real problem, she says, is that “the kind of parent-child separation we see today runs counter to human nature.”

“There’s always a chance we’ll see a backlash because of it,” she adds. “I think some of the undernurtured kids today are starting that backlash already.”

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