that the initial wave of reactions to the controversial government-funded
study has run its course, it's
time to take
a step back. Why is day care a problem in this country? Why has
this study ruffled so many feathers? Is it possible to speak truthfully
about what's at stake in the day-care dispute? And what are the
prospects for a solution?
To answer these
questions, we need to recognize that the greatest threat to day
care is love. I know that sounds like old news — and totally smarmy
to boot. But the challenge posed to day care by love is deeper than
you might think.
and feminists usually line up on opposite sides of an argument about
human nature. Conservatives insist that children have a natural
and irreplaceable need for their mother's love. Feminists answer
that a restructured society can find new ways to meet children's
needs. After all, there are plenty of countries where children are
raised cooperatively by relatives, neighbors, and mothers. If it
takes a village to raise a child in Africa, why not here? There's
an answer to that question, and the answer is "love."
correct to say that children outside of Western society are raised
by multiple caretakers. But the twist is, cultures that rely on
large groups of caretakers treat their children in ways that we
never would, or could. In non-Western societies, precisely because
so much of life revolves around groups, one-to-one bonds of love
are downplayed — even feared. That's because intense romantic love
tends to break couples away from the group. These are the sorts
of societies that practice arranged marriage.
And it isn't
just romantic love that gets downplayed in group-oriented societies.
There's also a tendency to play down the attachment between a mother
and her child. Since a child is thought of as belonging to the entire
group, parents are often discouraged from making too much of their
offspring — particularly when neighbors or kin are around. Childcare
researchers who travel to non-Western societies are often struck
by how little eye contact, cooing, and empathic attention they find
between mothers and children. Mothers feed their children frequently
in these societies, and hold them continuously, but they often don't
interact with them emotionally and verbally the way we do in the
West. Mothers in these cultures may still feel a strong emotional
connection to their children, but in both childrearing and in marriage,
the one-to-one empathic relationship we call "love" tends
to be discouraged.
That has everything
to do with the reasons why day care remains controversial for Americans.
Individual freedom is the key to American life, and free individuals
build families through one-to-one love: love that is freely chosen,
and love that is based upon the appreciation of one unique individual
for another. Unlike mothers in many parts of the world, American
mothers are preoccupied with, and delighted by, the unique characteristics
of their babies. They talk to their babies, watch them, and echo
their coos and moods in ways that mothers in traditional parts of
India or Africa generally do not. Instead of teaching their children
to feel like responsible members of an honorable village or kin
group, American mothers teach their children to feel like uniquely
loved individuals. So there really is something "cultural,"
and not just "natural," about the way we raise our children.
But everything about America's individualist and love-based culture
of child rearing makes it harder — not easier — for us to put our
kids into day care.
in India, by contrast, are known for having a relatively easy time
of it. That's because they're used to being one of a number of caretakers,
and can generally leave their kids with someone else in the extended
family. But American mothers are far more likely to be troubled
by day care — precisely because the way we Americans raise our kids
depends upon knowing a child — and being known by him — as a unique
and irreplaceable object of love.
So the ultimate
irony is that the very same American individualism that has feminists
demanding absolute equality with men makes it almost impossible
for women to achieve it. Our individualism drives our ever-more-radical
demands for equality, but it also makes us build our families upon
love. And love is a jealous mistress.
want equality with men, but they also want to express their unique
personalities through the way they love and raise their children.
That means it's hard to give those kids up for as long as it would
take to get to the top of the corporate ladder. Even if a woman
were convinced that spending the larger share of the week in day
care would do her child no harm, it would still be difficult to
give that child up. That's because day care isn't her care.
And especially nowadays, the whole point of raising a child is to
express your individuality through the unique and irreplaceable
bond you cement with your child. So, the cultural argument here
actually tells on the side of the conservatives. Precisely because
of our democratic, individualist culture, we Americans will never
fully reconcile ourselves to day care.
thing about the day-care fracas is how little it took to ignite
the tinderbox of working-mother guilt that's been lurking just out
of sight for decades. Feminist critics of the newly released day-care
study have written as though this research was merely the culminating
moment in a near-constant bombardment of social messages meant to
condemn working mothers for their shirking. But the truth is, there
have been only two major studies — released 15 years apart — that
suggest serious potential problems with day care. There might easily
have been more, but the firestorm of criticism provoked by the first
study sent a very clear warning to any researchers thinking of putting
feminist orthodoxy on this subject to the test.
not all. Far from condemning working mothers, nearly all advice
books on child rearing available today have been scrupulously purged
of anything that might sound a discordant note on the subject of
day care or working mothers. This was established in May of 1995
in a wonderful article in Commentary by Mary Eberstadt entitled,
"Putting Children Last." In that article, Eberstadt shows
that even those child-rearing experts most inclined to be skeptical
of extended early separations between mothers and children — people
like Dr. Spock and T. Berry Brazelton — were long ago forced by
feminist critics to remove any suggestions from their books that
early extended day care might be a problem. In fact, Eberstadt shows
that most popularly available writing on mothering now claims that
day care is not only equal to home care — but actually better.
As to how much maternal absenteeism might be too much, according
to Eberstadt, none of the advice books any longer dares to say.
So in reality,
criticisms of working mothers have long since been banned from our
magazines and bookstores. How, then, can the furor over the latest
day-care study be anything but a manifestation of the silent guilt
of working mothers — guilt that derives, not from negative "social
messages," but from a disturbance in the unique and irreplaceable
relationship of love at the heart of our practice of mothering?
offered two sorts of reactions to the recent findings on potential
risks to children left in day care for extended periods. By far
the most widespread response has been a lawyer-like attempt to deny
or mitigate the obvious implications of the findings.
feminist attack on the NIH study, for example, highlights the fact
that the jump in the aggressiveness of children in prolonged day
care "falls within the normal range" of childhood aggression.
That makes it sound as though nothing disturbing is going on. It
may be true that kids left in day care for most of the week aren't
being turned into psychopathic killers, but that's not the point.
It may be entirely "normal" to have classroom bullies,
but who wants their child to be that bully?
Ah, but then
there was Washington Post columnist Marjorie Williams's extraordinary
column, "Mommy At Her Desk." For all the feminist obfuscation
and denial, Williams's column was that rare, honest response that
quickly takes us to the heart of the matter. After ticking off the
usual happy-faced rationalizations for day care, Williams came back
to the "persistent private kernel of doubt and remorse that
almost 40 years of social change have left pretty much intact."
Williams said she'd finally given up on finding The Answer — that
perfect balance between work and mothering that would at last relieve
her of her guilt. "... I finally realized, my task was not
to find out the one answer, but to learn how to live with the knowledge
that in pursuing my work, I am in some degree acting selfishly."
It's not that Williams has decided to give up her work. She's simply
acknowledged the fact that there's an inescapable trade-off between
the fulfillment she gets from her work, and the happiness of her
That is the
truth. And as I've
said before, it isn't necessary for a child to manifest empirically
measurable levels of classroom bullying for that trade-off to be
real. Simple but persistent disappointment will do.
feminists attempt to bury the relevant research or writing, the
day-care debate is not going to disappear. This is one of those
areas where the culture wars are doomed to lurch on, unresolved,
for years. Again and again, feminists tell their conservative critics
that the toothpaste isn't going back in the tube. Women are working,
and that won't change. Maybe not. But that "persistent and
private kernel of doubt and remorse" isn't going anywhere either.
Our internal conflicts over day care are ineradicable. That's because
the same irrepressible yearning for individual freedom and equality
that powers feminism also puts a single mother's love at the soul
and center of childcare. There may be no easy way — as individuals
or as a society — to strike the balance. But let's begin by admitting
the truth. The trade-off between a mother's workplace fulfillment
and the happiness of her children is real.