F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
September 9, 2001
Day Care: the Ideology vs. the Reality

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

How could millions of mothers be persuaded that their children would be better off being separated from them for great periods of time?

"Day-care centers have become the cheerful setting of a new life script for American women," observes Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute. "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." Hymowitz, however, points out "certain chinks" in this "having- it-all script." She notes, for instance, that "a lot of women eagerly following its scenario reported suffering from feelings that seemed like . . . guilt."

In the summer issue of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute (manhattaninstitute.org), Hymowitz records the reaction that occurred earlier this year "when researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Development released findings showing a link between long hours of non-maternal care for young children and aggressive behavior." She reports that "most opinion makers, including some of the study investigators themselves," insisted 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."

Hymowitz affirms that day-care advocates "have always had one major public-relations problem: reassuring people that long hours away from mothers would not harm young children." They also scrupulously avoid discussing "any strong maternal feelings that might make the having-it-all script seem less than happy-ever-after. In fact, they implied, women who suffered from such feelings were immature and neurotic." She insists, nevertheless, that "the recent findings raise important questions about the choices young men and women face today." Hymowitz concludes 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." She argues 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."

According to Hymowitz, "Selfhood of the sort Americans have long prized implies a personal history, 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," she adds, "the experience of selfhood finds continual reinforcement from family members who affirm the child as an individual like no other. Collective care," Hymowitz concludes, "cannot do this."