Check your 72-hour kits, everyone. Over the weekend I bought and started reading a book because Adam linked to a positive review of it in the National Review.
The book was Mary Eberstadtâ€™s Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes. According to the NRO, Eberstadt argues that we ought to reframe some debates around social issues–divorce, daycare, women’s employment, etc.–in terms of their impact on children, instead of on the adults involved.
I couldn’t agree more. There’s no way to put the genie of second-wave feminism back in the bottle, even if we wanted to–most people have come to believe that women are capable of performing well in any profession, that women should have the right to some economic independence from their men-folk, etc. Unfortunately, this recognition of women’s capacities coincided with the rise of an economic order that requires wringing every last drop of productivity out of every worker to maintain constant growth. Women’s newfound equality has freed them to get sucked into the economic engine along with everyone else, and the “unproductive” labor of running households, caring for children, tending to the elderly, etc. has either been outsourced to low-wage workers or just isn’t getting done. Rather than having the hidden costs of supplying the ideal employee (i.e. someone who can work 10-12 or even 14 hours a day without being interrupted by the demands of humanity) borne by women at home, we’ve shifted them onto our children. And I think the only hope of re-framing the issues is to start talking about the needs of children, instead of about the rights of their parents and the needs of their parents’ employers. So I’m willing to go that far with Eberstadt.
Where I differ from her, and also from many church members, is the proposed solution. Eberstadt’s primary solution to the problem seems to be shaming mothers into leaving the workforce. This will not work. And it’s stupidly uncreative. We *have* to move past nostalgia for a largely imagined past and start thinking about ways to restructure the American workplace in a way that allows, even encourages, *both* mothers and fathers to fulfill their obligations to their children. As Laura puts it, in a post I wish I’d written (part of a series on the book, with really interesting comments–read the whole thing!), “if you want a return to Jeffersonian America, you’re going to have to use Hamiltonian means.”
Mormons should be at the forefront of this rethinking, re-visioning, instead of at the tail end of the inconsistent family values crowd that supports free-market exploitation of workers and tries to make up for it by shouting at women to give up their non-maternal aspirations. The scriptures are clear: parents are exhorted to bring up their children in light and truth; they simply cannot do that if one of them is working at a high-powered, high-income job for 12 hours a day, and the other is isolated at home, dealing with the frustrating demands of children alone all those hours. The economy of Babylon is directly in conflict with the family. The world needs the example of Mormon families who find a creative balance between developing the talents of, and requiring Christian sacrifice from *each* member.
As much as we would like to think it does, the Proclamation on the Family doesn’t go any farther than Eberstadt’s book towards answering the hard questions about how families can work in a postmodern, post-industrial capitalist society. While we speak of the family as the “fundamental unit of society,” and claim to be absolutely committed to parents viewing their families as their first, even their only, priority, we seem to also want to participate in the larger society in ways that the isolationist, self-sufficient family model precludes–we want fathers to excel in their professions and at their church work, mothers to be well-educated and participate in Church and civic life, children to get the most and best education they can afford, etc. All of those goods come with a price: fathers have to work insane hours to excel at most professions; educated mothers will not necessarily want to devote all of their time and energy to childrearing and housekeeping, and may end up with student loan debt that absolutely requires them to spend some time in the workforce; getting a good education for children generally means having the purchasing power to get housing in desirable school districts and paying college tuition.
All those things do not collapse into a single, cheap model. There are, it seems to me, several possibilities for creating the kinds of families that can be engaged in the goods of civic life and still seriously focused on the life of the family: 1) we could let go of the Victorian rhetoric about women as the angels of the house, and let them participate more fully in the economic life of the family (which might, after all, be read as part of “helping each other as equal partners” in the responsibilities to provide for and nurture children, and which has precedent in the history of the church), 2) we could get really serious about creating a civic society that would meet the needs of children–start campaigning to pour a lot of public money into excellent, affordable, and flexible childcare possibilities, parks, supervised recreation programs for kids, libraries, preschools, arts programs, etc., as well as getting serious about improving public schools and creating access to them that doesn’t depend on housing purchase power, 3) we could truly reject the demands of the economy, and start encouraging a counter-culture of Mormons, particularly Mormon fathers, who drop out of the rat race and figure out ways to get by on *a lot* less money, with less participation in the wider society, so that they can really do what is right for their children. What we can’t and shouldn’t do is to keep telling women that they are failing *our* children.