I am not suggesting that women return to the kitchen. In fact, my wife and I are struggling with these very issues as we both juggle careers we value and the needs of our very young daughter. We have decided to juggle our work schedules (my wife works part-time in the office and part-time at home) around our daughter. This has come at a cost in wages, retirement benefits and medical benefits. It has also meant staying up late at night to work while our daughter sleeps, and it also means I have taken on many roles which have traditionally been done by housewives – cooking meals, cleaning dishes, vacuuming floors, changing nappies, etc. It’s exhausting work, but we believe it is in the best interest of our daughter. It’s also fun.
The point here is that if we value our children and we want to prepare them for successfully handling their futures then we must be prepared to alter our lifestyles to meet their needs. This is different to always expecting them to alter their needs to our lifestyles.
The debate about the impact of working parents and daycare on children is a vocal one. “The evidence is fairly compelling now that the mere fact of having working parents doesn’t create problems for children.” So said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who continues: “We’re clearly putting more structure in kid’s lives, but there is not much evidence that it’s hurting them.”51
In contrast, “The most recent study, by Professor John Ermisch and Marco Francesconi of the University of Essex, found that children whose mothers worked full time for long periods when they were aged between one and five were less likely than other children to achieve A-levels. They also had an increased risk of unemployment and psychological stress as young adults.” Recent research “suggests that the positive effect of high-quality daycare is not sufficient to offset the negative effect of intensive maternal employment in a child’s early months.”That’s one that people may not like but it’s what we’re finding,”52 says professor Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University.
Ellen Galinsky, President of the Families and Work Institute in New York City counters, “it’s not being in child care that is the problem, it’s that employed parents are tired and stressed.”53
Dr. Donald Cohen of Yale University has identified high quality care of children as simply “being there when (young children) need you. Sometimes when they need you is when they are upset and distressed. At such times, a lot of important work goes on between the parents, who are devoted to this child, whose primary preoccupation is this child. So, when the child is crying or is hungry or has fallen down or is disappointed, how the parent responds is critical. It makes an enormous difference whether it’s your child, a child you really love and care about, or somebody else’s child. It also makes a difference how awake you are, how stressed you are.”54
Professor Jay Belsky, director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck College, London, shared results of the largest long-term study of child care in the United States with the Financial Times. He said it “has found that the longer children spend in daycare from their first year of life, the more disobedient, defiant and aggressive they tend to become, irrespective of the quality of care.
He argues that his findings, for children born in the past 10 years, should not be ignored just because they are uncomfortable… ‘People say we can’t afford policies such as extended parental leave,” Belsky says. “But maybe as a society we can’t afford not to have them.” As the debate about working parents and daycare plays out it looks increasingly like go-go capitalism stresses parents and punishes both women and men who take time out of their careers to stay home with their children.
Yet, it is not just young children and their parents who are affected by go-go capitalism. There is much anecdotal evidence that adolescents are also hurt by a dearth of time with loved ones. The journalist Patricia Hersch recently wrote about adolescents in a suburb of Fairfax County. She wrote, “The most stunning change for adolescents today is their aloneness. The adolescents of the Nineties are more isolated and more unsupervised than other generations…not because they come from parents who don’t care, schools that don’t care, or a community that doesn’t value them, but rather because there hasn’t been time for adults to lead them through the process of growing up.”55
In one of the largest survey’s of young people ever taken the New York-based Public Agenda Foundation noted in late 1999 that 42 percent of teenagers “feel bored every day or almost every day,” and 74 percent spent their free time just getting “together with friends to hang out without anything specific to do.”56 Families are spending less time with one another. In a recent YMCA survey, American adolescents said, “not having enough time together” with parents ranked as their top concern. More than four in ten parents said they didn’t have enough time to spend with their kids – mainly because of work obligations.57
One can not help but wonder if there is a connection between children increasingly being by themselves, or in the care of professionals as opposed to loved ones, and an increase in depression and suicide among teenagers. “Between 1950 and 1995 the suicide rate among adolescents aged 15 to 19 more than quadrupled, while the rate among young adults aged 20 to 24, beginning at a higher level, nearly tripled. Most, though not all, of this increase was concentrated among young men, although young women attempted suicide more frequently…As the 20th century ended, Americans born and raised in the 1920s and 1930s were about half as likely to commit suicide as people of that age had been at midcentury, whereas Americans born and raised in the 1970s and 1980s were three to four times more likely to commit suicide as people of that age had been at midcentury.”58
However, there is a paradox here. Most parents in Fairfax County, and across the United States generally, say they want to spend more time with their children. A recent survey of public attitudes towards parenting revealed that, “At the most basic level, parents of young children believe that having a full-time parental presence at home is what’s best for very young children, and it is what most would prefer for their own family. The recurring, powerful refrain from the focus groups and survey findings is that whenever possible, nothing beats having a mother or father at home. Asked to choose among six child care situations that might be appropriate for children during their earliest years, 7 in 10 (70%) parents say the best is to have one parent stay at home.
Most parents with young children (68%) ‘would prefer to stay home with children when they are young,’with mothers (80%) far more likely than fathers (52%) to say this…Two out of three (66%) strongly agree that ‘if a family can afford it, it’s almost always best for the kids to have a parent at home full-time. More than half (56%) strongly agree that ‘no one can do as good a job of raising children as their own parents.’By an overwhelming margin (81% to 1%), today’s parents say that children who spend the day with a stay-at-home parent are more likely to get affection and attention than those who are in quality child care.”59
Recently, nearly two-thirds of American employees said they wanted to work less, an average of two hours a day less if possible. Meanwhile press accounts have begun to document the dizzying decline of down-time, as voicemail, email, and cell phones have created the expectation that frazzled workers should be constantly on call.60
Despite what people say they want for themselves and their families the reality is that they are trading in time with family for economic opportunity. Robert Reich believes there is an underlying economic logic in all this. He argues that widening inequality, or fear of falling behind, spurs hard work. He reasons that people near the bottom of the economic ladder have to work harder than they did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to maintain a decent level of income. In some instances this means working two or three low paying jobs and/or quickly getting both partners in the household into the workforce.
Those higher up the economic scale have more to loose in terms of real dollars and status, and consequently would make a bigger comparative economic sacrifice if they didn’t work as hard as those in similar positions. If the anecdotal evidence is to be believed this has a powerful influence on people in Fairfax County. A parent of a high school student recently told The Washington Post, “This is an area where parents don’t bat an eye over getting their kids BMWs to drive to school…They’re so busy keeping up with the Joneses, it’s incredible.”61
Go-go capitalism operates as an ever-quickening treadmill, and those who slow down risk falling out of the economy, or at least tumbling a couple of notches below where they were. Reich goes on to note that this also seems to be the pattern in other nations as well. He writes, “Looking at data from different countries, Professors Linda Bell of Haverford College and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard found that how hard people work is related to the extent of income disparities. Where the disparities are wide, such as in the United States, people put in more hours of paid work each year than do people in countries where the disparities are narrower, such as Germany.”62