A new backlash

November 16, 1997|By Elise Armacost

WHEN I WAS in high school in the late 1970s, the end of the era of the stay-at-home mother, a teacher of mine became pregnant. I remember asking if she planned to leave her job. I don't remember her precise words, only that she made it seem old-fashioned even to suggest that one should have to choose between children and a career.

She was a smart and caring person, so I'm sure her kids turned out fine. But I'll bet that somewhere along the line she found the family/job conundrum less easily resolved than she seemed to think it would be.

The era of the two-income family is two decades old. We are well past the point of being cavalier when it comes to work and children, and well into the backlash phase. I am glad that this is so. The idea that parents could be painlessly exchanged with other caregivers was flawed from the beginning. The quality time instead of quantity time argument was always bogus.

We working parents cannot deceive ourselves into thinking our children need little from us. My experience these days is that fewer and fewer of us do. We constantly assess them and angst over them, even when they are thriving.

So we should. No parent should take his child's well-being for granted, but we least of all. A growing mound of research shows that the amount of time a child is held, rocked, cooed to and talked to from birth to 3 is critical for emotional and intellectual development.

But the backlash has also spurred nasty condescension toward parents who work -- specifically, toward those who are comparatively well-off. We saw this during the Massachusetts au pair trial. Poor Dr. Deborah Eappen was vilified, even though she worked only three days a week. There's a tendency, especially in politically conservative quarters, to stereotype working parents of young children as selfish and materialistic unless they do whatever it takes so that one of them can quit working.

Parents care

But it is unfair and overly simplistic to say that if working parents cared about their kids, they would simply quit. People work for complex reasons, not the least of which is the fulfillment that comes from doing a job well -- something men have always known and women have more recently discovered. Economic factors are more complicated, too. While families making a combined income of, say, $60,000 are affluent by most Americans' standards, many are financially burdened -- and not because they live lavishly. The Eappens certainly earn more than that, but live in a modest house and are saddled with medical school debts.

Most working parents I know, including the affluent ones, are motivated not by a yen for luxuries, but by the desire to give their children a good life: A neighborhood where they can feel safe, a college fund, a family free from the stress of financial insecurity, an occasional vacation, the pleasure of being indulged every so often. I do not think parents are selfish if they are reluctant to give up the means to provide these things.

Many of us striving for the right relationship between work and family see our children doing well, thanks to flexible schedules, help from our families and, yes, good child care providers -- though they are not always easy to find, not always easy to keep and more expensive than many families can afford.

The debate over child care should target these problems, not parents wrestling with difficult choices strangers should not presume to judge.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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