American Children are doing badly. From drug use to suicide rates, from academic performance to the perpetration of violence, the numbers tell us that they are failing. “Practically all the indicators of youth health and behavior,” notes the education expert William Damon in his recent book, Greater Expectations1 “have declined year by year for well over a generation. None has improved.”
There is little disagreement about one major cause of this general failure. “American parents,” writes Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in her judicious and thoughtful Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life,2 “spend 40-percent less time with their children than they did only a few decades ago—down from 30 hours a week to seventeen.” And Karl Zinsmeister, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, elaborates:
We have kicked out a lot of the social supports that used to undergird child-raising in this country: decent public schools in the cities, strong “backdoor” networks among parents, extended families and relatives nearby to help out, a safe public environment that allowed children to play outdoors without supervision.
The decline that so many have noticed did not happen overnight. It coincided, roughly speaking, with the surge-tide of a Motherhood Revolution. Over two decades, the proportion of married women aged 24 to 35 in the labor force rose steeply: from 32 percent in 1965 to 39 percent in 1970, 48 percent in 1975, 59 percent in 1980, and 65 percent in 1985.
Could there be a connection between these two sets of facts? A substantial body of research suggests that, on the whole, it is better for children if their mothers stay home to care for them full time when they are small, and after school as they get bigger, than if mothers work and consign children to day care or nannies. As Todd Risley and Betty Hart point out in Meaningful Differences,3 a child’s intellectual development depends crucially on the amount of attention he gets from adults during the first three or four years, and one would be “hard-pressed” (Risley says) to locate a day-care center where attention is paid to children on anything like the level a full-time mother provides. Worse, the child psychologist Jay Belsky, once a leading defender of day care, conceded in 1986 that “a slow, steady trickle” of accumulating evidence showed that day care can do actual damage. Children in day care can develop weaker than desirable attachments to their mothers; and, according to a 1988 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they can also show “heightened aggressiveness and noncompliance.”
These findings are no surprise. They merely confirm what we already know: that, as Zinsmeister puts it, “someone caring for a child out of love will do a better job than someone doing it for pay.” What is surprising is that virtually no one is willing to say out loud something else we know intuitively: that the Motherhood Revolution has been a disaster for our children.
Nowhere, for example, in William Damon’s exhaustive catalogue of children’s problems and their possible causes does the Motherhood Revolution arise as a possible contributing factor. On the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Andrew Thomas, assistant attorney general of Arizona, discusses ominous behavioral trends; he warns that “if we care about our children as much as we say we do, then we must at least acknowledge that”—what? That white illegitimacy rates are high and growing, and divorce rates are high. As usual, the Motherhood Revolution is conspicuous by its absence. Even conservatives seem to believe that, to cite an article in the Public Interest, “the career of full-time wife, mother, and homemaker has simply ceased to be an adequate life project.” End of discussion.
And yet as a society we are plainly unsatisfied with this assertion. A vein of sad, desperate defensiveness runs through attempts to explain the Revolution. The main justification used to center on freedom and fairness: if men could have careers and families, women should too. “Most feminists,” reports Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “see paid employment as the bedrock of women’s new freedom.” Women, after all, are just as capable as men. “I had not spent all those days in classrooms and all those nights with John Donne,” writes Mary Cantwell of the New York Times in her book, Manhattan, When I Was Young4 “so that I could spend my time washing [my daughter] Kate’s little shirts and nightgowns.”
But recently this argument has lost ground. If the Revolution’s goal was to produce happier mothers, modern mothers ought to be a reasonably cheerful lot. Some indeed are happier on the job than they would have been at home. Many others, however, will recognize their own stories in Mary Cantwell’s:
I have never been there when Katie rushed home from school . . . nor have I ever seen Margaret flushed and sleepy after an hour on her little cot. I do not even know which blanket she took from home. . . . I am stuffed with memories. . . . But I do not have these.
Fox-Genovese summarizes her extensive conversations with working mothers:
Even when things go well, the pull between family and work can drive working mothers to distraction. When they go badly, the pressures and, above all, the feelings of guilt may become almost too much to bear.
In post-revolutionary America, happiness (it seems) does not abound.
And so our most-cited justification has changed; nowadays it centers not on freedom or the sanctity of careers, but on money. Here is Ann Hulbert in the New Republic: “the two-paycheck family, as even its detractors increasingly admit, is largely the product of economic necessity.” “Only the cruel or the ignorant,” writes Fox-Genovese, “would charge working women with selfishly choosing careers and self-realization over the interests of their families.” And elsewhere: “the global economy has left most men unable to support a family without a second wage earner.”
The Economic-Necessity argument hits home with a nice solid thunk. Yet ultimately it makes no sense: as a nation we used to be a lot poorer, and women used to stay home. Of course there are many working mothers who labor to put bread on the table or provide a minimal living standard for their families. But the United States is an awfully rich country, and cases of true economic necessity cannot possibly account for so vast a social change as the Motherhood Revolution.
We are far wealthier than we were in 1965, when far fewer of our mothers worked; and the Revolution itself got under way during boom years—the late 60’s and early 70’s. True, from the mid-70’s through the early 80’s, and again from the late 80’s through today, average wages stagnated or declined. But stagnation of averages does not mean that individuals fail to make gains as they work their way up. In absolute terms, moreover, Americans throughout the post-1965 years have been significantly richer than ever before in history.5
In practice, the argument from economic necessity probably means not that American families must have more money but that they could use more—to stave off decline or slower than desired improvement in their living standards. In decades past, families coped with hard (or hardish) times in other ways, or made do with less. In 1935, average per-capita incomes were less than half today’s, and food, clothing, and shelter accounted for almost 80 percent of the average American family’s income; yet the proportion of working mothers was under a third what it is now. (Yes, there were fewer opportunities for women back then, but there were fewer opportunities for Jews as well, and for blacks—which did not prevent male Jews and blacks from joining the labor force as best they could.) From the end of World War II through the early 1950’s, real wages fell as prices exploded. But the proportion of working mothers merely crept upward; there was no surge of the sort that began in the late 60’s.
The economic gain when mothers work can be important to modern families. And possessions have value, too, not just in themselves but in relation to what everyone else has. It would be far more painful for a family to live 1935-style today than it was then. Still: the Motherhood Revolution represents a new American ethic, a clear-cut change in direction.
A generation ago, the same woman who now spends her days processing claims (say) in an insurance office would have spent them rearing her children instead—and would have lived in a smaller home than she occupies today, or rented a smaller apartment, or shared a car with her husband, or taken her washing to the laundromat, or never visited Disney World. Notwithstanding the financial sacrifice, many of today’s mothers might well choose to stay home, too. What exactly has changed? Once, mothers were expected to stay home. Today they are expected to work.
Feminists like to argue that in 1935 mothers stayed home partly or mostly because of social pressure. If that argument is valid, it applies with equal and opposite force to working mothers today. Except for a few benighted precincts (the Mormon church, parts of the Orthodox Jewish community, parts of the Christian Right), society from Left to Right is lined up in force behind the idea of mothers taking jobs.
How this happened is a long and complicated story, but we can identify one big factor by asking simply who has benefited most from our present arrangements. After all, the woman’s movement might have pursued a very different set of goals. It might have struggled to open fields that had been closed to working women, and simultaneously sought to imbue with dignity the position of full-time mother. It might have championed a national corps of full-time mothers as the mainstay of community and civil society. It might have lobbied for mothers to take over central roles in running the schools and local government. No nation in history ever had the luxury of full-time, well-educated mothers; if we had put them in central roles, a cultural and civic renaissance might have ensued.
Sounds quaint today. In the event, feminists took inspiration instead from Clara’s song in Goethe’s Egmont: “Welch Glück sondergleichen, ein Mannsbild zu sein!” “What matchless luck, to be a man!” To be worthy of respect is to do what men do.
Notice here that the Motherhood Revolution has followed the same basic pattern as the sexual revolution—and no pattern is more important in understanding modern America. The sexual revolution erased a traditional social constraint against unmarried sex. Men were on the whole delighted with the removal of this constraint, and quick to benefit. Women have become increasingly open about their unhappiness. An implicit message of (for example) the anti-“date rape” campaign is that where sex is concerned, the level playing field is a myth.
In the heyday of liberation, it used to seem as if the old social rule prohibiting unmarried sex were like the airport barrier that separates arriving passengers from the long-lost relatives who have come to greet them. Remove the barrier and a joyful rushing together would follow. It has now dawned on many people that the prohibition was no airport barrier after all; it was more like a cage at the zoo. Men were fenced in. Women were protected.
The social rule decreeing that mothers stay home functioned in much the same way. Some women were indeed constrained; many others were protected. Most mothers, my guess is, have always valued the best interests of their children above money or power or prestige, and still do. (“In general,” writes Fox-Genovese, mustering Harris and Roper polls and expert opinion to back up her assertion, “women still feel bound to children in a way most men do not.”) And I would claim, too, that the typical husband would always have been happy to pack his wife off to work; he had no need of Betty Friedan to convince him that better income in exchange for worse child care was a deal he could live with. Society used to restrain husbands from pressuring their wives (overtly or subtly) to leave the children and get a job. No more.
Lifting the barrier produced basically the same effect on the labor market as it did on the sexual scene. The loudest revolutionaries went on doing exactly what they had been doing: casual sex goes way back, and working mothers do, too. But millions of others were left unprotected, without the barricade that used to shelter the typical woman from the predatory interests of the typical man.
I am a beneficiary of the Motherhood Revolution myself. It is a rare day when I do not gain directly from the presence of talented working mothers all around me (not to mention my large indirect gains from living in a wealthier country). In science and engineering, where women are especially rare, they are especially welcome. I would be in bad shape without my female colleagues—who are, as a group, significantly more interesting than the men. The scientist in her lab, the stock analyst making millions, the lawyer leading her team: do I want all those working mothers to quit and go home? Of course not. Neither do their bosses; neither do their subordinates; neither do their husbands.
Do their children? Should their children? We cannot quite bring ourselves to answer; so we never ask.
1 Free Press, 286., $25.00.
2 Doubleday, 275 pp., $23.95.
3 Brookes Publishing, 256 pp., $22.00.
4 Houghton Mifflin, 214 pp., $21.95.
5 See “Doom, Gloom, and the Middle Class” by Amity Shlaes, beginning on p. 19 of this issue.—Ed.