A few years ago I visited a Houston day-care center called Crème de la Crème. Experts define quality day care as clean and well-equipped centers, with sensitive, well-trained staff—but this, as its snooty name boasts, was to quality day care what the Plaza is to Motel 6. Past a lounge filled with overstuffed sofas, children walk into a Disneyland village of Victorian gingerbread storefronts, housing classrooms for Spanish and computer, a "Bibliothèque," and a shop selling Crème accessories. A bridge spanning a goldfish pond leads to a music room, a movement room, and a small library of curriculum guides for the professionally trained and unusually committed caretakers. Older kids can record themselves as they play-act at KREM-TV, the establishment’s media center. Outside, along with the usual swings and slides, I saw a "Tyke Garage" crowded with pricey tricycles, and an elaborate shallow water park, with a sandy "beach" shaded by tropical plantings. Staggeringly lavish, this royal pleasure dome seemed to bespeak a child-centeredness that only the world’s richest country could afford to build or even dream up. Only one sight seemed out of place: inside the door marked "Bébés, 0–12 Mois," were 30 cribs lined up in three rows of ten.
Not so long ago, the sight of 30 cribs, even supposing them tucked in with 300-count sheets, evoked gloomy associations of hospitals and orphanages. But for the past three decades, day-care centers have become the cheerful setting of a new life script for American women. Shortly after women have their babies, the script goes, they head brightly back to work. Just as brightly, their babies head off to quality day-care centers, where professionally trained caregivers nurture them. The result is fulfillment for everybody: women find new satisfactions in work while achieving economic equality; young children thrive even more than they would under the care of their non-credentialed mothers. As the having-it-all script gained a following, though, certain chinks appeared: for one thing, a lot of women eagerly following its scenario reported suffering from feelings that seemed like . . . guilt. But it was always assumed that a high-quality center like Crème de la Crème would solve this problem, guaranteeing peace of mind for women and success for their children.
Or at least it seemed so until this past April. That was when researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) released findings showing a link between long hours of non-maternal care for young children and aggressive behavior. Though this was not the first time research had raised questions about whether day care might be associated with problem behavior, it was the first time that a large, longitudinal, government-sponsored, and highly publicized study had done so.
That didn’t stop most opinion makers, including some of the study investigators themselves, from insisting that the findings were just not so: the research didn’t prove cause and effect; it was inconclusive; people just didn’t understand it. Furthermore, as far as they were concerned, even findings as carefully reviewed as these clearly were beside the point: after all, institutionalized care is now an established fact of contemporary life, and the only question worth considering is how to make it better. "Our job isn’t to dissuade mothers from using child care by sending up these horror stories," influential psychologist Edward Zigler, a Head Start founder, told the Christian Science Monitor in an extraordinary admission. "Our real task is to do a public education campaign with parents to get quality care."
Yet the profound question of how we rear the young will—and should—always be an open one, no matter how many experts declare it off-limits. And the truth is, the recent findings raise important questions about the choices young men and women face today. In a nutshell, the results indicate that the having-it-all script got some things wrong. Though promising fuller lives, it relied on an unrealistic, bloodless vision of both women and children, one that underestimated the passions of new mothers and minimized the complexity of socializing the young in an individualistic society. On closer examination, it seems that the script has not expanded the range of human possibility so much as it has demoted the values of love and interdependence associated with the home and family life, in favor of those values embodied in both the workplace and the day-care center: temporary relationships and individual achievement.
The day-care advocates, feminists, researchers, and sympathetic journalists who write the having-it-all script have always had one major public-relations problem: reassuring people that long hours away from mothers would not harm young children. Up until April, this had been a surprisingly easy sell, what with earlier study results showing that day care had no negative effect on infants’ trust in their mothers, and that three-year-olds in high-quality day care had better language skills than their peers. Yes, other research suggested potential problems, but it was ambiguous or hidden away in obscure journals.
But when Jay Belsky, one of the two dozen or so researchers involved in the NICHD study, announced some of the most recent findings at a press conference, it looked as if these reassurances were about to go up in smoke. The more hours children have been in the care of someone other than their mothers, Belsky stated, the more likely caregivers were to describe them, both at 54 months and at kindergarten age, as "aggressive"—a term covering a range of behavior from "demands a lot of attention" through "gets in lots of fights" all the way up to "cruelty." Whereas only 6 percent of the children in non-maternal care for less than ten hours a week were described as aggressive, 10 percent of children between ten and 29 hours were so rated and 17 percent of those children in care for over 30 hours. This increased risk of aggression, Belsky went on, cannot be chalked up to maternal depression, poverty, or poor-quality day care, all ways to explain away such findings in previous research; this study controls for all of these.
Asked by someone to expand on the implications of the findings, Belsky, who had been one of the very few psychologists in the field previously to have expressed serious doubts about the effects of long hours of day care, responded: "If more time in all sorts of [day-care] arrangements is predicting disconcerting outcomes, then if you want to reduce the probability of those outcomes, you reduce the time in care. Extend parental leave and part-time work."
Belsky could be accused of jumping the gun—all of the NICHD’s day-care research is observational and, strictly speaking, doesn’t by itself lead to conclusions about cause and effect or to recommendations about policy—but his proposals about what to do weren’t all that radical. After all, though mainstream feminists generally emphasize "full workplace equality," advocating quality day care so that Mom and Dad can work equally hard, unhindered by Junior, a sizable group of women have also been making a plea for the parental leave and flexible work hours Belsky recommends. No matter. Committed to the proposition that there can be no middle ground between a wholehearted embrace of the all-day institutionalization of infants and toddlers and the fetishizing of motherhood in the style of the 1950s, feminists have greeted any suggestion that young children might suffer from long hours away from their mothers the way they’d greet a Taliban pronouncement that women would no longer be allowed to drive or exchange money. In the Los Angeles Times, Peggy Orenstein blasted Belsky’s comments as "a 1950s-style attack." Even Belsky’s co-researchers were furious. His behavior was "completely unprofessional," colleague Sarah Friedman told the online magazine Salon. "I know he differs from the group," she continued remarkably. "But . . . I thought that, since he was invited to represent the story, he would represent the party line."
"Party line" is an apt term. Day-care researchers may be scientists by training, but they look more like professional advocates in their efforts to sugarcoat the effects of day care on children and so to smooth the way to the workplace for young mothers. Consider the way NICHD tried to spin its last big news, in 1997. It reported two major findings that year: first, children in high-quality care showed slightly larger cognitive and linguistic gains than children in poor-quality care. Second, the more time children were in day care, the less affection they showed to their mothers at 36 months, and likewise the less sensitive their mothers were toward them. By the time the findings were massaged into a press release, they had been creatively transformed into a toast to quality day care: "New research . . . indicates that the quality of child care for very young children does matter for their cognitive development and their use of language. . . . In addition, quality child care in the early years . . . can also lead to better mother-child interaction, the study finds." Only pages later did the press release mention—quickly and dismissively—the more negative findings: "Researchers found that the amount of non-maternal child care was weakly associated with less sensitive and engaged mother-child interaction."
The press happily colluded with the NICHD in headlining the good news for having-it-all script-lovers. "THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT," Time crowed. "DAY CARE STUDY OFFERS REASSURANCE TO WORKING PARENTS," the Washington Post announced. "GOOD DAY CARE FOUND TO AID COGNITIVE SKILLS OF CHILDREN" went the emollient headline in the New York Times. "These are heartwarming findings," Sarah Friedman—evidently satisfied that all of this toed the party line—told USA Today.
The press obliged no less readily when investigators tried to minimize this year’s findings, showing bad news for day care. Reporters sought out interviews with the most skeptical "experts" and listed the reasons not to take it all very seriously—something few of them had bothered to do in 1997. No one seemed to notice that researchers all but admitted that they had looked for ways to make the 2001 findings go away. "When you come out with a finding that is negative and scary, you want to make sure you’ve done every possible analysis," NICHD researcher Alison Clarke-Stewart was quoted as saying. "There’s more caution in the group in drawing implications that might be worrisome to parents," agreed her colleague Robert Pianta.
Reassuring the public that no harm would come to babies if their mothers left them for 40 or 50 hours a week or more may have been the most challenging of the scriptwriters’ tasks, but it was not the only one they faced. They also had to edit out any suggestion that women themselves might suffer from long hours away from their offspring. Gloria Steinem once said, approvingly, "We’ve become the men we wanted to marry." But some women found that, even so, they still had mothers’ hearts.
Woe to those who got in the way of the attempt to deny maternal urges that might conflict with the script’s fervent work ethic, however: as witness the reaction that greeted Felice Schwartz’s 1989 Harvard Business Review article recommending that companies should have two tracks for women—one for those who were childless or inclined to hand most of their children’s care over to someone else, and another (later dubbed "The Mommy Track") for those who wanted more time with their children. Those few mainstream feminists who didn’t blast Schwartz were content to leave the dilemma she had pinpointed as a problem with no name. According to Ann Crittenden, author of the recent The Price of Motherhood, the editors of women’s magazines like Working Mother and New York Woman told Schwartz: "It may be true what you’re saying, but we just can’t discuss these things in print."
Day-care researchers also didn’t want to discuss any strong maternal feelings that might make the having-it-all script seem less than happily-ever-after. In fact, they implied, women who suffered from such feelings were immature and neurotic. In one 1997 paper, NICHD researchers went so far as to hint that putting an infant into a day-care center was a sign of a mother’s psychological health. Mothers who went back to work when their babies were between three and five months, the paper reported, "scored higher on measures of extroversion and agreeableness" and—quelle coincidence!—were more likely to use center-based care. Those mothers who were reluctant to leave their babies, on the other hand, suffered from what the researchers condescendingly dubbed "separation anxiety" and tended to rely on relatives for care. Other experts, more commonly, reduced the emotional conflict between maternal love and career ambition to "guilt," the product of social demands unfairly foisted on women. "As a society," Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children told the Washington Post after the recent NICHD findings came out, "we’ve socialized women into feeling guilty." The experts’ memo to mothers who don’t want to leave their babies: Get over it.
But though mothers today might not want to return to life in the pre-script dark ages, clearly they don’t want to get over their babies either. In The Price of Motherhood, Ann Crittenden gives voice to precisely the sorts of messy maternal longings that script advocates, in Orwellian fashion, had sought to turn into non-feelings—feelings that are nothing like guilt and anxiety. An economics reporter for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, Crittenden should have been a poster woman for the having-it-all script. She was a success in a formerly male world; she and her husband had a comfortable income; she could have her baby, quality day care, and her glamorous job, too. Instead, she was "stricken with baby-hunger: a passionate almost physical longing for a child." And it didn’t stop after her baby was born. "I fell hopelessly in love with this tiny new creature," she continues, "with an intensity that many mothers describe as ‘besotted.’ "
"Besotted" she must have been, because, in an almost incomprehensible betrayal of the script, she left her plum job at the Times to raise her child. Nor is she an anomaly. According to a Newsweek article last year entitled "Revisiting the Mommy Track," mothers between 36 and 40 increasingly opt for part-time work when their first child is born and often leave the labor force altogether with the second.
And other, even more conclusive data suggest that many women are similarly besotted. Of course, that’s not the way these numbers usually sound. Almost every expert paper or news article you read about child care contains a sentence that goes something like this: "Close to 60 percent of mothers with children under a year are in the labor force, up from 31 percent in 1976." And that’s true—as far as it goes. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes anyone who works for an hour a week as being "in the labor force"—and this fact alters the picture of maternal employment considerably. Among those 60 percent of mothers in the workforce are freelancers working at home while their babies nap. Among those 60 percent are also people like Susan Deritis, the publicity director of Mothers at Home, a support group for women who have elected to stay home with their children. She grabs a few hours to work every day—at home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, she is a working mother, and, according to advocates, she is one of the reasons we should protect women from "worrisome" news about day care.
The real truth is that only 39 percent of mothers of children three and under, and only 43 percent of those with kids six and under, worked full-time in 2000. A Census Bureau pamphlet entitled "Who’s Minding the Kids?" reports that 42 percent of kids under five have at least one parent neither employed nor in school. Another 19.4 percent of those children have a parent working only part-time.
What all this adds up to is the fact that somewhere over 60 percent of preschool children have at least one parent, the vast majority of them mothers, who either doesn’t work or only works part-time. Given that close to one-third of all children in the United States are born to single mothers, who work at a considerably higher rate than married mothers, this is a particularly remarkable figure. It means that, despite the considerable financial sacrifice involved, a majority of parents of preschool-age children—and an even bigger majority of married mothers—are the primary caretakers of their preschool children. A 2000 survey from Public Agenda lends support to this picture: it found that 62 percent of respondents would like policies making it easier for one parent to stay home during a child’s first few years, as opposed to only 30 percent who want policies improving the affordability and quality of day care.
Yet according to expert opinion—and government-sponsored expert opinion at that—findings in support of these views and in support of mothers who act on them are deemed "worrisome." The only welcome results are those that pave the path to the workplace. A Marxist surveying all this from the purgatory of defunct ideas might accuse the experts not of protecting women from disturbing information, but of being tools of the corporate state attempting to expand and pacify the labor force.
But something very different is going on for today’s followers of the having-it-all script. They are not dupes of market forces, and, unlike the original scriptwriters themselves, they’re unlikely to be feminists. They are, instead, eager devotees of the contemporary creed of ecstatic capitalism ("Ecstatic Capitalism’s Brave New Work Ethic," Winter 2001). After years of taking A.P. courses and music lessons, listening to girl-power pep talks, and watching perfectly buffed and coiffed television-drama lawyers, they have learned to take for granted that job achievement is the primary arena for glamour, self-expression, and self-fulfillment. Of course, they expect to marry and have children, but they expect to consign them to a secondary role in the drama of life. After all, unlike dreary motherhood and housewifery, work for these young achievers promises public recognition, meaningful activity, creativity—maybe even adventure. Why, the workplace could even offer the camaraderie and friendships born out of intense devotion to a mutual cause, as on ER!
But as the Ann Crittendens of this world discover, there is an emptiness in the soul of woman under ecstatic capitalism. The office, with its ephemeral projects, water-cooler intimacies, and disposable employees, cannot satisfy the hunger for enduring connections, for the happiness that comes from the passionate love stirred by an utterly dependent being, for knowing and being known in ways only possible in the private space of family life, a hunger that neither 30 years of feminism nor ecstatic capitalism has been able to dispatch to a locked box marked Gender Stereotype.
The ideology of day care perfectly captures this revolution in values. Day-care devotees don’t give much thought to young children’s social and emotional growth, believing them to be relatively simple, even relatively unimportant, psychological matters. It is cognitive development, with its promise of future achievement, that really gets their juices flowing. In part, their enthusiasm is understandable. It is easy to quantify and measure things like vocabulary and short-term memory; when it comes to the social and emotional development of a two-year-old, say, it’s not even clear what scientists should be looking for, much less rating, outside of some gross maladjustment.
But children’s cognitive development is at the heart of the having-it-all script chiefly because experts and parents have concluded that, in an increasingly meritocratic and work-obsessed society, brains win. Therefore, infants and toddlers don’t need "besotted" mothers—or fathers and grandmothers, for that matter—so much as they need good teachers. Seizing on highly publicized research in neuroscience, today’s parents obsessively buy their babies Mozart CDs to improve spatial skills, French tapes to advance language development, crib mirrors to promote visual development, and textured teethers to stimulate the senses. For their part, experts willingly explain away research findings showing a link between long hours away from mother and childhood aggression, while they noisily rejoice over findings showing that quality day care boosts verbal skills a tad.
No wonder that experts cheerfully observe that infant and toddler care is becoming increasingly like school. "Preschool is child care. Child care is preschool," as Danielle Ewen of the Children’s Defense Fund told Newsweek. But day care doesn’t provide education in the humanistic or civic sense; it is all business: it is school in the vocational sense. The point is to train babies, yes—for the workplace. "Good-quality child care is education," according to a pamphlet on day care from the Child Care Action Campaign, whose title—"Preparing the Workers of Tomorrow: A Report on Early Learning"—apparently is not a joke. It makes a certain kind of plodding sense. After all, you go to school, you’re supposed to get smarter. You get smarter, you get a better job.
The problem with all this—aside from the absurdity of seeing a toothless infant batting at his crib gym as an executive-in-training—is that it slights the development of the young child’s individual personality in the broadest sense. Yes, the problem-solving brain grows exponentially during early childhood, but so does the conscious self, the individual person with an identity that is larger than cognitive skill. Selfhood of the sort Americans have long prized implies a personal history—with its unique places and people—and a distinctive way of viewing the world that evolves in large measure out of experience within a family and a home with its own character. Moreover, the experience of selfhood finds continual reinforcement from family members who affirm the child as an individual like no other. Collective care, by its very definition, cannot do this.
On the kibbutz famously studied by eminent child analyst Bruno Bettelheim in the 1960s, for instance, all infants were fed precisely the same amount, since "it was assumed their needs were entirely alike." In the seventies, sociologist Ruth Sidel found something similar in Chinese nurseries, where the group orientation was so deep that by the time children were toilet-trained, they had learned to move their bowels in unison. Of course, this uniformity offends the Western sense of what constitutes a fully realized human being, and American experts try to define quality care, with requirements like low adult-child ratios and "sensitive, warm caregivers," in a way that would assure individualized treatment even within an institution. Surely this is to be preferred over synchronized bowel movements.
But in the final analysis, "quality" care is still a pale imitation of what young children can get from besotted families. Even if the professional caregiver "responds to vocalizations" or "places infant near where she can see other infants"—two items on the NICHD researchers’ list of "positive caregiving behaviors"—she cannot represent a distinctive perspective or imprint her personality on the unformed child. Nor can she possibly have a deep commitment to—or love of—that child, with all his unique tics and tendencies. Not only does she have several other babies to care for at that moment; she knows that in short order each of them will be moving on to the pre-toddler or toddler room to a new set of sensitive, warm, but ultimately replaceable, teacher-caregivers.
Most important in the current debate, the having-it-all script, with its veneration of workplace and cognitive achievement, seriously minimizes the emotional complexity of the civilizing process in an individualistic society. Families not only nurture the child’s individual personality; they also teach the child how to moderate it. As today’s child-development experts ignore, but as generations of psychologists understood, the child does not simply learn self-control the way he learns to develop his fine motor skills. He must internalize the moral requirements of his culture, make them part of his very nature and identity, so that they feel as natural as breathing.
Of course, there are any number of ways this can happen. In many pre-modern societies, children learned to obey society’s rules because they feared the rod. In the kibbutz, according to Bettelheim, children behaved because they learned to identify closely with the peer group and didn’t want to let it down. But most Western bourgeois societies, especially ours, discipline children through love, a huge psychic undertaking. Out of love, parents, particularly mothers, devote themselves to nurturing the child’s individual talents, interests, and temperament. Meanwhile, the child’s desire to please the adored mother and his fear of losing her love when she disapproves of him make him want to behave as she wishes him to. This intense emotional stew has its dangers, but it has managed to cultivate individuals who can balance individual expressiveness with self-restraint. And it does suggest a reason why young children spending long hours away from their mothers might be more inclined to "get in lots of fights" and show "cruelty." They have not had the opportunity to develop with sufficient intensity the bonds that anchor the bourgeois conscience.
Though no one bothered to mention it during the latest NICHD fracas, experts have had evidence of something amiss in the having-it-all script’s view of how children become socialized for a long time. Ever since developmental psychologists began studying the subject in the late 1960s, as the first wave of postwar mothers started flooding into the labor force, they have persistently glimpsed indications of some link between day care and behavior problems. Alison Clarke-Stewart, one of the NICHD investigators, in a 1993 book that is otherwise so rhapsodic that you come away wondering whether institutionalized care should be mandatory for all infants, nevertheless had to admit that there were substantial findings showing day-care kids to be "less polite, less agreeable, less respectful of other’s rights, more irritable, more rebellious . . . more aggressive with their peers."
Clearly none of this means that day care is a training ground for the future Timothy McVeighs of America. Even the NICHD findings show only modest effects: children the study rated as more aggressive were still within the range of normal. Moreover, 17 percent of children in the general population are rated aggressive on the scale the researchers used, the same percentage as the kids in the longest hours of care. And, for some underclass kids, there’s evidence that full-time day care may provide nurture lacking at home.
But the widespread, relentless, high-pressure effort to deny that findings like these have any significance—or to put a mendacious positive spin on them—springs not just from an unwillingness to hear bad news about day care but from the broader tendency of our era to trivialize the deep problem of the socialization of children, especially thorny in a culture always needing to guard against the excesses of individualism. "Is it possible that kids are born aggressive, defiant, raring to talk too much at the first opportunity? Is that a bad thing?" Salon’s Jennifer Foote Sweeney wonders. "There’s no evidence to suggest that an aggressive kindergartener will grow up to be a bully," chimes in an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "In fact, she might just become a CEO. . . . Also largely overlooked was the good news that children in high-quality day care are academically advanced. . . . Make that a smart, articulate CEO." As long as the child grows up to be a high-achiever—meaning, it seems, that she escapes the Mommy Track—is it really so important that she is obnoxious or even vaguely immoral? Success trumps character and civility any day.
All this confirms what philosophers have known since the time of Plato, of course: how we rear our children reflects the kind of society we are. And here, the having-it-all script should give us pause. Its veneration of work and professional achievement over all other human goods pays insufficient attention to the well-being of children and the society they will inherit.
Our young mothers- and fathers-to-be face difficult choices, which they need to make with as much wisdom and understanding as possible. If the experts and the pundits would only let them.