Motherhood: The Untold Story

Why mothers have fled the home, what it’s doing to our children—and why you almost never hear about it.

A popular movie once told the story of an 8-year-old child who was accidentally left home alone by his vacationing parents. Audiences everywhere cackled at the wild antics of this amazing little boy, watching him repeatedly outsmart two would-be thieves. Being left alone turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the boy’s family.

But for real families, children do not benefit from being left alone. Yet numerous studies have found that parents are doing just that—leaving their children to fend for themselves. It’s not just fathers—mothers too. And unlike the Hollywood version, there’s nothing accidental about it.

The Unworkable Solution

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress’s Child Online Protection Act violated free-speech rights protected by the First Amendment. Free-speech advocates who attacked the 1998 bill have long argued that privately used filtering software and parental supervision are more effective means to control adolescent behavior on the Internet. Indeed, all nine justices unanimously agreed that parental supervision is the surest protection against children becoming addicted to pornography.

Yet, in writing for the dissenting minority, Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out the most significant flaw in relying on parental supervision: “As to millions of American families, that is not a reasonable possibility. More than 28 million school-age children have both parents or their sole parent in the workforce, at least 5 million children are left alone at home without supervision each week, and many of those children will spend afternoons and evenings with friends who may well have access to computers and more lenient parents.”

Parental supervision is the solution, the justices agree—problem is, parental supervision is fast becoming obsolete! And so what does the judicial branch of American government do to help protect unsupervised youth? Reject a law that would have simply restricted access to pornographic websites. Why? Because it would have unfairly encumbered access that adults have to Internet pornography.

So parents still have unfettered access to smut on the Internet. And so do children. And as a result, children have become the largest group of porn consumers on the Net. Approximately 11 million American kids ages 12 to 17 visit porn sites every week. And the average age for first-time viewers has now dropped to 8 years old (Fox News).

It would be impossible to break down all the specific causes for this problem, statistically speaking. Many children stumble upon Internet porn quite by accident. Others try to find it on computers outside the home—at school, in the library, at a friend’s house.

But how many become addicted simply because they are home alone—left without any parental supervision whatsoever?

Dwindling Family Time

In the May Trumpet, we referred to a story in the Wall Street Journal highlighting a new trend in modern home design. Instead of featuring “great rooms” in the middle of the house, some architects are designing labyrinthine layouts with more walls to satisfy the antisocial behavior of the modern family. One father said his two daughters “fight less, because their new house gives them so many ways to avoid each other” (March 26). Added to this trend, the typical American home—twice the size of what it was 50 years ago—averages two rooms per person.

These living space modifications highlight a much more disturbing trend about the traditional family: We’re not spending enough time together. According to one study, between 1965 and the late 1980s, the amount of time children spent interacting with parents dropped 43 percent. A 1992 study conducted at Stanford University found that parents were spending 10 to 12 hours less time with children each week, comparing statistics from 1960 and 1986.

Another study, conducted in 1985, found that fathers in England, compared to other nations, spend the least amount of time with their children. The United States was second worst on the list. With the growing number of single-parent households in society, it’s no wonder parental interaction with children is dwindling. Yet, incredibly, the chief cause of shrinking family time is not the fractured family. It’s women entering the workforce.

The Working Mom

The typical response for most women, when asked why they work, is that they have to. And in situations where the father is absent, that might be justifiable. But as much as divorce and illegitimacy have devastated the traditional family, the fact remains that more than half of females in America are married. There are a lot of broken families, to be sure. But there are also lots of families intact, even if patched together through remarriage after divorce.

Within these families, the exodus of mothers from the home has been massive. In 1950, 26 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 44 were employed outside the home. By the mid-’80s, the number of married women in the workforce rocketed to 67 percent. Today the figure is about 72 percent. While it is true that many employed women might work part-time or seasonally, studies show that the hours they invest in work outside the home continue to increase. According to the Economist, “[I]n the past half-century the average weekly hours worked by married women have tripled, while hours worked by men and single women have stayed about constant” (March 13).

Having small children at home has not deterred women from continuing their out-of-home careers. In fact, seven out of ten married women with children under the age of 6 are employed. Again, while a significant percentage of these women might only be employed part-time, this trend clearly points to a radical transformation in the mother’s role over the past 50 years. Caring for children while dad is at work is no longer the primary responsibility for most mothers.

And consider this: Among working mothers who believe they “have to” work, more than half admit they would continue working even if they didn’t need the money (Andrew Hacker, The Case Against Kids). Think about that for a minute. Half the working mothers in America freely admit they would rather be at work all day than at home with children. As Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote in her book The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, “The emotional magnets beneath home and workplace are in the process of being reversed.”

For her book, Hochschild spent three summers studying a Fortune 500 company, interviewing executives, factory workers, and all those in between. She found that the company’s “family friendly” policies, set in motion to enable mothers (and fathers) to spend more time with children, generally flopped. On the other hand, she wrote, “Programs that allowed parents to work undistracted by family concerns were endlessly in demand.”

Based on the “have to” excuse, you would expect the percentage of single moms in the workforce to far exceed that of marrieds. In fact, they are virtually identical, with the percentage of single moms only slightly higher. In Britain, however, the figures heavily tilt in the direction of married moms—60 percent of whom work, as compared to just 31 percent for single moms. The figures are similarly lopsided in Canada.

These statistics don’t lie. Some couples might tell themselves they need two incomes to survive, but these “needs” often fall into the category of luxuries, not necessities. As David Gelernter wrote in Commentary magazine, “[A]s a nation we used to be a lot poorer, and women used to stay home” (February 1996). Today, studies have found that the wealthier the family, the more likely mothers are to leave home for work. For many wives and mothers, a career over children is simply a choice they have made.

Consider this candid admission by Marjorie Williams in a Washington Post editorial: “After my first child, my son, was born, I thought that one day I would figure out The Answer: that once I had found the perfect child-care provider, and worked out the perfect schedule, and then got used to the perfect strangeness of this new life, it would all stop looking like conflict and begin to feel like fullness. It took me about two years to give up on finding the holy grail of perfect balance; for as long as I had both work and children, I finally realized, my task was not to figure out the one answer but to learn how to live with the knowledge that in pursuing my work, I am in some degree acting selfishly” (April 25, 2001).

At least she’s honest. As Stanley Kurtz wrote for National Review, in response to the editorial, “It’s not that Williams has decided to give up her work. She’s simply acknowledged the fact that there’s an inescapable trade-off between the fulfillment she gets from her work, and the happiness of her children” (May 12, 2001).

Child Pathologies

In 2001, Mary Eberstadt wrote an alarming, 9,000-word essay for Policy Review titled “Home-Alone America.” Citing numerous studies, she drew attention to a number of child pathologies that have increased significantly in recent decades. For example, the teen-suicide rate tripled between 1960 and 1990. Eberstadt wrote, “What makes this bleak development the more baffling, of course, is that there is no corresponding rise in poverty over these periods—quite the opposite …” (June-July 2001).

Between 1980 and 1997, reported incidents of sexual abuse in America rose by 350 percent. Many studies have shown that teens are much more likely to be sexually abused by a cohabiting male than by biological parents. Connecting the dots, Eberstadt explained that predatory males must first have access to vulnerable teens—and when mom works, at the very least, that access increases.

Another study reported by Hochschild in her book examined the weekly routine of nearly 5,000 eighth-graders and their parents. It found that “children who were home alone for 11 or more hours a week were three times more likely than other children to abuse alcohol, tobacco or marijuana.”

Teens who spend a lot of time alone are also more likely to engage in sexual activity. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, one third of girls age 14 and under have had sex. That compares to 5 percent in 1970. Approximately 3 million teens contract a sexually transmitted disease every year. Eberstadt wrote, “There is also the related question of what those hours of uninterrupted access to the violence and pornography of the Internet are doing to adolescents nationwide—a question only beginning to be studied, but whose seriousness is attested to by swelling ranks of school officials and therapists, in particular.”

Then there is the effect of absentee parental supervision on a child’s studies. In a book by Harvard School of Public Health researcher Jody Heymann, an examination of more than 1,600 children revealed that “parental absence between 6 and 9 p.m. was particularly harmful. For every hour a parent worked during that interval, a child was 16 percent more likely to score in the bottom quarter of a standardized math test. … The results held true even after taking into account family income, parental education, marital status, the child’s gender and the total number of hours the parents worked” (The Widening Gap). These findings are especially interesting in light of a more recent study referred to in the Christian Science Monitor (June 2). It found that 40 percent of American employees now work evening hours or on the weekend—or both.

When you step back and compare the academic performance of American children with other nations, it tells the same story—American children are not receiving enough supervision and guidance. Commenting on the higher academic performance of Korean and Japanese children in school, Francis Fukuyama concluded, “Part of the reason that children in both societies do so well on international tests has to do with the investments their mothers make in their educations” (The Great Disruption).

Pressure From Feminists

In a Commentary article written in May 1995, Mary Eberstadt revealed how the most recent versions of popular books on childcare and development have been significantly revised on the subject of working moms. For example, the 1969 edition of the well-known Infants and Mothers, by T. Berry Brazelton, said that early separation between mothers and infants should be avoided. In another book, written in 1974, Brazelton suggested that such separation could be harmful to the child’s development. “In recent years, however—years in which Brazelton became a target of criticism—he has largely dropped his admonitions.”

Another example is Penelope Leach, formerly a strong proponent for one-on-one motherly care for children. Yet, in her more recent work, Eberstadt quoted her as saying, “The necessity for full-time exclusive mothering has been exposed as a myth of the postwar West.”

Even the famous Benjamin Spock caved in to the pressure of modern feminism. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Dr. Spock’s strong recommendation was for mothers to stay at home with their young children. In 1977, he said this was more important than earning extra money. In 1992, however, he amended his previous views considerably: “Parents who know that they need a career or a certain kind of work for fulfillment should not give it up for the sake of their children. Instead, I think such parents should work out some kind of compromise between their two jobs and the needs of their children, usually with the help of other caregivers …” (Baby and Child Care; emphasis mine throughout).

Why are these so-called experts in parenting and child development revising their own work so dramatically? For one, it makes their messages more palatable for the ever-growing number of working moms. The revised texts are much less likely to make mothers feel guilty about working. It also protects the authors from being attacked and ridiculed by feminists who insist that mothers should not give up their careers for children, that working outside the home actually makes you a better mother, and that child-care facilities are a totally acceptable means for raising young children. Some have even argued that child care is good for the children.

Thus, most of the popular information out there for modern mothers has been purged of these old “attachment theory” ideas that many writings were grounded in a generation or two ago. Today, psychologists, feminists, politicians, professors and journalists choose more working-mom-friendly language, like “bonding” in place of “attachment.” And, not surprisingly, “experts” continue to discover less demanding, less time-consuming ways for mothers to “bond” with small children.

What the experts won’t tell you is the effect all of this is having on our children. The alternative to loving, motherly supervision is to be watched by someone paid to do so (and usually at a very low wage)—or to simply be left alone.

Not Up for Debate

Fukuyama blames America’s family meltdown on two factors primarily: the birth control pill and the entry of women into the workforce. Author Robert Putnam called this flight of women out of the home “the most portentous social change of the last century.” Bernard Goldberg said this movement was “arguably one of the biggest stories of our time” (Bias).

Yet, as Gelernter noted in his Commentary piece, “What is surprising is that virtually no one is willing to say out loud something … we know intuitively: that the Motherhood Revolution has been a disaster for our children.” This mass exodus, and its effect on children, according to Eberstadt, is “off-limits for public debate” because “there are the letter-writers and reporters and opinion leaders who will rise in opposition to any study that impinges on parental (i.e., maternal) autonomy” (Policy Review, op. cit.).

Three years ago, researchers for the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development released data showing that kindergartners who had spent their early childhood in day-care facilities were three times more likely to be aggressive and disobedient than those who had stayed home with their mothers. While the study did receive abundant news coverage, the way mainstream media covered the story is revealing. All three big news networks featured the story on the nightly news April 19, 2001. Peter Jennings complained about lack of government funding for new mothers. On cbs, Dan Rather turned to an “expert” who made a similar point—more “choices” for mothers. On nbc, another “expert” said the real issue behind the new study is that we must improve the quality of day-care. All the suggested solutions were aimed at making it easier for moms to work.

Yet the networks completely ignored the most obvious and practical solution of all: That mothers should set aside career goals, forget the extra money and instead spend time at home with the children.

At other times, the media will just ignore an important story altogether, like in the case of Eberstadt’s Policy Review piece, quoted above. In an editorial response to Eberstadt’s essay, columnist Susan Reimer said the article “suggests every ill that afflicts children can be laid at the feet of working mothers like kindling for St. Joan’s execution.” Of course, Eberstadt wasn’t blaming everything on working mothers, but that’s beside the point. Reimer was deeply offended by Eberstadt’s essay, considering it a direct assault on women’s rights. “I’d love to spill my drink down Mary Eberstadt’s dress,” she wrote.

Here is what I found to be the most interesting in Reimer’s column: “Eberstadt’s essay might have died a dusty death in a library graveyard if the bow-tied pundit George Will hadn’t picked up her banner and regurgitated her theories in his syndicated column.”

On that point, Reimer is absolutely correct. The Washington Times excerpted portions of Eberstadt’s essay. A columnist who writes for the Sydney Morning Herald referred to the article, as did Stanley Kurtz in the National Review. Besides that, however, the media ignored it. It was not featured on network newscasts, nor reported on by wire services. If not for George Will’s column, most people never would have heard about it.

There are several reasons why the media usually avoid such topics. For one, the opinion leaders who decide upon what stories to report are afraid of feminists. In fact, most of those responsible for reporting the news are themselves highly educated feminists—or else married to one. Realistically, we can’t expect them to hold up stay-at-home motherhood as the ideal model for moms to strive for. We shouldn’t expect them to denigrate child-care services when many of them rely on child care themselves. If anything, we should expect them to repeat stories that portray child-care services and working mothers in the best possible light.

But if the press truly wanted what was best for our children, then it would be advising mothers to quit their jobs and go home, if at all possible. As columnist Betsy Hart wrote, “[M]oms who have any choice at all about the matter should feel guilty about dumping their little ones into institutionalized care” (May 3, 2001). Instead, she went on to say, those who don’t really need to work are the ones who most often defend child-care services. “All these other centers are awful, don’t you know, but theirs, well theirs is terrific. It’s filled with loving providers, and high-tech equipment, and state-of-the art blah blah blah and ‘Johnny just loves it.’ I’ve heard more mothers than I can count say ‘they take better care of him than I could.’”

Here is what the debate should really be about, she concluded: “Why, as a culture, do we put blinders on as we pursue the unobtainable goal of ‘providing quality child care,’ an oxymoron if ever their was one, instead of making our goal ‘more kids at home with their moms and fewer in child care.’ The deep, dark secret that few in polite society dare mention is that that’s where young kids—and the vast majority of moms once they listen to their hearts instead of elite culture—want to be anyway. So why not make what is just about everyone’s first choice the most socially acceptable one?”

Bringing Shame on Mothers

Let’s conclude by getting God’s perspective on this all-important subject. In Genesis 2:18, after creating the man, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” God didn’t want the man to be alone—it wasn’t good. He knew the man would need help. But why did the man need help? How did God intend for the woman to help man the most? The Hebrew word for “meet” in verse 18 means opposite. In the same way men and women are altogether different physically, their roles within the family are profoundly different. Absolutely equal in importance, God meant for both roles to perfectly complement each other, not to compete with one another. Each role enables the other to accomplish much more than either could alone. But again, how can a wife best support and assist her husband?

The Apostle Paul answers that in Titus 2. He admonished the older women in the Church to teach the younger women “good things” (verse 3). In verse 4, he explains—teach the younger ones to love their husbands and to love their children! Verse 5 continues the thought: “To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.” This is how she can best help her husband and family, and women would be wise to heed it: Love your husband, love your children and keep the home, or as it says in 1 Timothy 5:14, “guide the house.” This is a woman’s highest calling in life.

Feminists cringe at the thought. They are not satisfied with their God-ordained role. Instead of teaching young girls about it, they ridicule and mock the way God organized the family. They view any attempt to persuade working moms to return home as an attack on women’s rights. They would rather compete with men to prove they are every bit as capable of holding a successful career.

And while they have proven that, it has come at considerable cost. Our children have suffered immeasurably.

Commenting further on Eberstadt’s article, Reimer wrote, “Her essay is infuriating, first and foremost, because fathers are as absent from it as they are from many of the households she criticizes.” Yes, fatherlessness has done more to destroy the institution of family than any other single factor. But what about the households where fathers are present? What about a household where a father, fulfilling his God-given obligation to love, lead and provide for his family, determines that his wife will not work so that she can stay home with the children? Would this satisfy Ms. Reimer?

It would infuriate her more.

Proverbs 29:15 says, “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.” I’ve often wondered why God would single out mothers in this instance. Generally speaking, of course, a child left to himself brings shame on both parents.

But maybe God gets specific in this proverb for a reason. After all, one of a man’s God-given responsibilities requires that he work—usually outside the home. Paul said that if a man won’t provide for his family, he is worse than an infidel (1 Timothy 5:8). And if a mother is to be the “keeper at home” while the husband is away at work, she obviously will spend more time with the children. It doesn’t mean the father is without responsibility at home. Not at all! He’s the head—he’s an involved father who hurries home after work to spend time with the family. He’s in charge while at home. He’s not a workaholic, but when he is at work during the day, mom is in charge. And because of the time spent with the children, she is more directly involved in their training and development—especially when they are young. Perhaps this is why God singles out the mother in the proverb.

If a father abdicates his responsibilities as loving head and provider, if he abandons his wife and family, forcing mom to go it alone and to step outside her role as a woman, it brings on him the greatest possible shame.

In like manner, when a mother chooses to abandon her children—leaving them alone—it brings great shame on her.

God never meant for us to be alone, whether father, mother or child. He organized the family so that no one would be left alone, so long as everyone willingly accepted their roles. In the case of mothers, the best way by far they can help their children is to stay at home with them, providing constant care and loving supervision.