September 20, 2005

Elite College Women Eye Motherhood

Marc Comtois

According to the New York Times:

Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children. Though some of these students are not planning to have children and some hope to have a family and work full time, many others, like Ms. Liu, say they will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment.

Much attention has been focused on career women who leave the work force to rear children. What seems to be changing is that while many women in college two or three decades ago expected to have full-time careers, their daughters, while still in college, say they have already decided to suspend or end their careers when they have children.

"At the height of the women's movement and shortly thereafter, women were much more firm in their expectation that they could somehow combine full-time work with child rearing," said Cynthia E. Russett, a professor of American history who has taught at Yale since 1967. "The women today are, in effect, turning realistic."

Dr. Russett is among more than a dozen faculty members and administrators at the most exclusive institutions who have been on campus for decades and who said in interviews that they had noticed the changing attitude.

Many students say staying home is not a shocking idea among their friends. Shannon Flynn, an 18-year-old from Guilford, Conn., who is a freshman at Harvard, says many of her girlfriends do not want to work full time.

"Most probably do feel like me, maybe even tending toward wanting to not work at all," said Ms. Flynn, who plans to work part time after having children, though she is torn because she has worked so hard in school.

"Men really aren't put in that position," she said.

Uzezi Abugo, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who hopes to become a lawyer, says she, too, wants to be home with her children at least until they are in school.

"I've seen the difference between kids who did have their mother stay at home and kids who didn't, and it's kind of like an obvious difference when you look at it," said Ms. Abugo, whose mother, a nurse, stayed home until Ms. Abugo was in first grade.

While the changing attitudes are difficult to quantify, the shift emerges repeatedly in interviews with Ivy League students, including 138 freshman and senior females at Yale who replied to e-mail questions sent to members of two residential colleges over the last school year.

The interviews found that 85 of the students, or roughly 60 percent, said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely. About half of those women said they planned to work part time, and about half wanted to stop work for at least a few years.

As Lee Harris might say, this confirms that there is something to be said for tradition. Uzezi Abugo's anecdotal evidence can be supported by others.

For instance, some actually consider being a stay-at-home Mom to be a "dream job," (gasp!). Also, Mary Eberstadt has given the topic a more scholarly treatment in her book Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes, which garnered a favorable review by F. Carolyn Graglia in the latest Claremont Review of Books. Graglia summarizes:

In her wonderfully insightful and eminently sensible book, Mary Eberstadt, a mother of four children who works from home for the Hoover Institution, sets forth evidence of the harm done to children by the maternal exodus responsible for the "Home-Alone America" she rightly deplores. Discussing many facets of children's lives, she may tell us what we already know, but she analyzes the subject with a fresh insight. She recognizes that her book violates a major taboo today about any discussion of "whether and just how much children need their parents—especially their mothers." This taboo seeks to protect working mothers from feeling guilty, and Eberstadt sensibly concludes her book by observing that those who "cannot choose otherwise," such as single parents, "have nothing to feel guilty about." As for those who do have a choice, perhaps the "continuing complaints about the guilt felt by absent mothers" may be "further proof of a social experiment run amok."

This social experiment is, of course, the mother-child separation required by the feminist notion that a woman's personal fulfillment requires her energetic participation in the workplace. Eberstadt calls defenders of this conceit "separationists": those who believe that women's freedom to work in the paid marketplace justifies separation from their children, and who refuse to consider whether the children and adolescents left behind by the adult exodus have suffered. She challenges a society, which only seems concerned with making it easier and cheaper for women to "combine work and family," to consider how small children actually experience being in daycare all day. She makes the very sensible point that the daycare debate is never about what it feels like for the infant and children in day care, but always about what the outcomes are in terms of personality development and cognitive ability. "The daycare proof," separationists believe, "is in the achievement pudding." Separationists, however, are often not around children, who, in their lives, have been made "someone else's problem."

This is more than another conservative hit-piece contra feminism. Eberstadt's examination of how children are affected by their mother's decision manifest their "personal fulfillment" in the workplace rather than the home is a worthy discussion. As Graglia, herself a stay-at-home Mom, continues:
Parental absence, [Eberstadt] demonstrates, is implicated in the savage behaviors of serial and teenaged killers and in increased feral behaviors ranging from elementary school violence to suicides (those born in the 1970s and 1980s are three to four times more likely to commit suicide than people of a comparable age who were born at mid-century). Parental absence is also implicated in the obesity epidemic among children, which occurred when adults were no longer around to police children's eating habits and when shorter periods of breast-feeding by working mothers deprived babies of the protection against obesity that breast-feeding affords. She connects parental absence to the explosion in the number of children diagnosed with mental disorders: depression rates in children have risen tenfold since the end of World War II and children in single-parent families are two to three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems. And parental absence is again implicated in the staggering increase in the number of children and teenagers diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism.

Eberstadt makes a powerful case that these disorders are overdiagnosed and that the psychotropic drugs used to treat them—which are so hard on the children, who are their harshest critics—are overprescribed. Prescription drug use is growing faster among children than among the elderly and baby boomers (Ritalin production increased more than 700% between 1990 and 2000). These drugs have been available for decades, but the revolution in their use began only in the 1990s. The reason, says Eberstadt, is that the too busy parents and teachers want to make children easier to deal with; "yesterday's children—which is to say today's adults—enjoyed the luxury of being considered 'normal' in ways that today's children increasingly do not." The parents of yesterday had a wider experience with their children and thus "a more expansive idea of child normality." Parents who spend less time with their children "find their behavior more problematic and in need of alteration." And so, encouraged by a psychiatric profession that refuses to consider a child's environment and believes that antisocial behavior stems only from an underlying disorder, parents acquiesce in what Eberstadt calls "the pharmaceutical outsourcing of childhood."

They also acquiesce in the ultimate outsourcing of specialty boarding schools, which arose, one operator explains, because of the breakdown in the family. Parents involved in messy divorces, bitter custody battles, and remarriages often send teenagers to these schools for behavior-modification through "tough love" and physical deprivation not because they are involved in drugs or crime or violence—as was the case with reform schools of yesteryear—but because "they were in the way of what adults needed or wanted to do."

These insights aren't really new. I grew up in the '80's and was inundated with movies about kids who were regarded by their parents as nothing more than trophies, better seen than heard or dealt with. In short, it seems to me that common sense indicates that there is a reason that women are Moms--and not merely another family revenue stream--and that it really is better for the kids if Mom can stay home. Having children used to mean that a certain amount of personal sacrifice went along with the bouncing bundle of joy. But in today's have it all society, too many try to have it all--the big house, big SUV, club memberships, high-paying dual incomes--at the expense of having a parent around for the kids. The Times article also portrayed an interesting disconnect between the mother's of these well-educated twentysomethings and the faculty and administrators at some of the institutions to which they attend. For instance, two examples were given of young women emulating their mothers in their attitude towards staying at home.
"My stepmom's very proud of my choice because it makes her feel more valuable," said Kellie Zesch, a Texan who graduated from the University of North Carolina two years ago and who said that once she had children, she intended to stay home for at least five years and then consider working part time. "It justified it to her, that I don't look down on her for not having a career."

. . . Emily Lechner, one of Ms. Liu's roommates, hopes to stay home a few years, then work part time as a lawyer once her children are in school.

Her mother, Carol, who once thought she would have a full-time career but gave it up when her children were born, was pleasantly surprised to hear that. "I do have this bias that the parents can do it best," she said. "I see a lot of women in their 30's who have full-time nannies, and I just question if their kids are getting the best."

Again, though anecdotal, the consternation among the academics that this attitude has engendered is telling (pun intended, btw). For instance,
For many feminists, it may come as a shock to hear how unbothered many young women at the nation's top schools are by the strictures of traditional roles.

"They are still thinking of this as a private issue; they're accepting it," said Laura Wexler, a professor of American studies and women's and gender studies at Yale. "Women have been given full-time working career opportunities and encouragement with no social changes to support it.

"I really believed 25 years ago," Dr. Wexler added, "that this would be solved by now."

Or how about:
"What does concern me," said Peter Salovey, the dean of Yale College, "is that so few students seem to be able to think outside the box; so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn't constructed along traditional gender roles."
Dr. Wexler's attitude hints at a sense of betrayal of a birthright given to these young women by she and her sisters. Dean Salovey seems to be unable to think outside of his own box in which success is defined only by dollar signs. They both come off looking like they think they know what's best for the young women. But wasn't the goal of feminism to provide equal opportunity and thus a better chance of true self determination for women, whether they want to climb the corporate ladder or stay at home and raise kids? Who are they to dictate the "why" and "how" of what makes a woman happy? Don't tell me they're being judgemental?

I'm sure some will argue that, "Well, of course, their rich kids, they'll marry rich guys. They can afford to stay at home." That is true. But we don't need all of the toys we think we do, no matter the size of our income. A family doesn't need two new cars, a 3000 sq. ft house and a 50" widescreen. These things are nice, but not essential. If a couple plans ahead properly, stashes a nest egg, and makes some sacrifices along the way, it is possible for the average middle-class couple to survive on one income while they bring up their kids. I know, my family is doing it now. Where there's a will--and the proper priorities--there is a way.