Mothers today are under siege. Society belittles mothers at home while telling mothers at work they are blighting their children's lives. Susan Chira, a veteran New York Times journalist, separates myth from reality, showing how the media, the courts, and politicians have conducted a backlash against working mothers that hurts all women. Here, she reviews the latest scientific research and shows, contrary to popular belief, that children of working mothers turn out just as well as those raised by stay-at-home mothers. But instead of telling mothers where their place should be, Chira wants to reframe this distorted debate and help mothers get where they want to be, whether at home or at work.
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Susan Chira, New York Times deputy foreign editor, has written extensively on family issues. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Small wonder that I felt besieged before and after I became a working mother. The headlines blared the bad news: "The Myth of Quality Time: How We're Cheating Our Kids," "Working Parents' Torment: Teens After School," "Can Your Career Hurt Your Kids?" "Working Women: Goin' Home."
I watched as the trial of a nineteen-year-old English au pair charged with killing the eight month-old boy in her care turned into an extraordinary public indictment of the baby's mother, Deborah Eappen, and all working mothers. The verdict: Guilty--of careerism, of callousness, of hiring someone to do a job only a mother should do.
I listened to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a talk radio psychologist with a following second only to Rush Limbaugh's, and heard her rail against mothers who allowed their children to be "raised" by child care centers. By contrast, Dr. Laura declared in her signature slogan, "I am my kid's mom."
I saw audiences cheer movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, in which the working mother is heartless and shrill and the real mother is the nonworking, irresponsible father.
Wherever I turned, I could find articles and experts bemoaning the state of children and laying the blame at the door of two-career families--the 1990s' code word for working mothers. Journalists and judges, politicians and psychologists, moviemakers and myth-makers chanted in a grim chorus that the mother who works is the mother who fails.
They outlined the themes of a new conventional wisdom, which sounded much like the old one: When mothers forsake their rightful place at home, children are the victims. A working mother either allows her children to stay home unsupervised, where they drift into drug-taking, sex, and a life of crime, or she herds them into after-school programs, where they are deprived of precious time to hang out. Children are at the mercy of neglectful day care workers who may also be sexual perverts or a trusted nanny who beams on them when their mother is at home and beats them when she is away. Reluctant working mothers slave away at demeaning jobs, pining for the days when they could be at home waxing the kitchen floor and buffing their children's consciences.
Some of today's truisms are, in fact, true. There are legitimate reasons to worry about the plight of children, and plenty of evidence that much child care in the United States is absymal. It would be wrong to dismiss these concerns merely because working mothers may feel uncomfortable or slighted. One can find examples of every statement just mentioned. Yet there is no evidence that working mothers are the cause of these problems. The endless parade of examples amounts to a concerted attack on working motherhood that substitutes an ugly caricature for the light and shadow of a faithful and complicated portrait.
The good mother who sacrifices, the selfish mother who works, the evils of day care, the obsessions with men's and women's different natures, the public laments by mothers torn from the arms of their children by jobs, the breast-beating over the state of children--these are the themes of the chorus bewailing a lost paradise, the days when mothers stayed at home. Too often, the first impulse is to blame mothers for cultural corrosion, because they are still expected to be the ones shoring up civilization, inculcating the virtues that children and society need.
Although many of those who attack working mothers are political conservatives, they are not alone in seeing this society spinning out of control and children vulnerable to a culture saturated with gratuitous sex and violence. I share the yearning for vanishing hallmarks of a civilized society--respect, diligence, self-restraint, public safety, family ties. I agree that too many adults dodge their responsibilities to children and rationalize away their children's pain.
And yet, too many pundits reflexively seize on the quick fix: keep mothers at home. "The Motherhood Revolution has been a disaster for our children," declared the computer scientist David Gelernter in an article entitled "Why Mothers Should Stay Home." From the religious right to such mainstream publications as the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News & World Report come lectures to mothers that they do not really need to work, that they are abandoning their children not to help pay a mortgage but to buy fancy sneakers, VCRs, or trips to Disneyland.
In the superheated world of talk radio, Dr. Laura Schlessinger has won legions of fans with a snappy sound-bite morality, preaching that selfish adults have abandoned children. During one tirade at a 1995 book reading in New York City to promote her bestseller How Could You Do That?! she elaborated: "I remember one painful call I got from a woman who went so far as to adopt a kid and got this kid a full-time babysitter nanny and hardly ever saw this kid, because she came home later from work and left early, and on the weekends the kid wanted to go with the lady. That was Mommy. Who do you think Mommy is?"
By contrast, Dr. Laura is the good mother, the one mothers today should emulate. She described how when her son was little, he was playing with a ball and it rolled under a chair. Instead of picking it up for him, she encouraged him to get it himself. "The easier thing would be now if I were a day care person, I'd get the ball. So he finally got the ball and he turned and he looked at me with the greatest sense of achievement and pride. That's what we call a quality moment."
Working mothers also have their champions. Positive portrayals compete with the negative ones. Women's magazines and advertisements that virtually spoke with one voice championing the mother at home in the 1950s now speak with many, trying, with exquisite tactfulness, to offend no one and appeal to everyone. The April 1995 issue of McCall's featured a mother of a disabled child who left her job explaining "What…
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