Moms in the Rat Race

I spoke at a White House conference some years ago at which the other speaker was Dr. Armand Nicholi, a psychiatrist from Harvard University. His topic that day, like mine, was the state of the American Family. Dr. Nicholi explained how a frazzled existence that isolates us from each other produces much the same effect as divorce. Parents in the United States spend less time with their children than those in almost any other nation in the world. The result: No one is at home to meet the needs of lonely preschoolers and latchkey children. Dr. Nicholi stressed the undeniable connection between the interruption of parent-child relationships and the escalation of psychiatric problems that we are now seeing. "And if the trend continues," he said, "serious national health problems are inevitable."8 Ninety-five percent of all hospital beds in the United States will be occupied by psychiatric patients if the incidence of divorce, child abuse, child molestation, and child neglect continues to soar.9

Busyness and family isolation aren't new problems, of course. Moms and dads have struggled to control the pressures of living since World War II, but their approach has changed. Most mothers in the fifties and early sixties gave priority to their families, no matter what the cost. That's why so many of them stayed at home full-time to care for their children. They also served as "managers" of the home, keeping everything orderly and clean. With the arrival of the sexual revolution, however, mothers with more liberal perspectives began to reconsider their options.

An article published in the May 1981 issue of Vogue presented some of the revolutionary ideas gaining acceptance at that time. It was called "The New Sanity—Mother's Lib," by Deborah Mason. According to Mason, mothers of the eighties no longer felt the need to live up to the "unrealistic" expectations of motherhood and would be the first generation to do away with the idea of "Supermother," the "saint/tyrant who is all things to her child—and whose child is all things to her." In the article, Mason interviewed Dr. Phyllis Chesler, a psychologist who encouraged mothers to pursue and protect their own individuality by becoming more "separate" from their children. Chesler believed the idea of the "ever-present mother" was a "relatively modern insanity" and urged moms to share their parental responsibilities with others, including grandparents, aunts, siblings, and neighbors. "My son, Ariel, always had four or five adults who were important to him," she said. "For a period of two years, [my assistant] was like a second mother to him."

In keeping with the philosophy of the times, the article urged mothers to be more open with their children, both emotionally and sexually. "The idea persists that somehow you have to give up sex in order to be a mother: you shouldn't do it in front of the children; you shouldn't do it instead of being with the children," she wrote. "There's the idea that once you're a mother, a sex life is frivolous, self-indulgent, and slightly decadent. But women are learning. . . . Married mothers are telling their children, for instance, that on Saturday mornings their parents' bedroom is off-limits until 10:00 A.M. Single mothers are allowing themselves the freedom to invite a man to spend the night."

I find myself in sharp disagreement with almost everything said about motherhood in this article. It is not that easy—or desirable—to become liberated from children. Dr. Chesler's comments in particular have a tinge of sadness to them. Concerning the assistant who became Ariel's "second mom," we can only guess what must have happened when the woman to whom he had become attached went on with her life and left the little boy in the care of his distracted mother. As for the parents' bedroom being off-limits until 10 A.M. on Saturday, I wonder who fixed breakfast for the child, what television programs he watched, and who kept him from doing something dangerous while Mom and perhaps a boyfriend were sleeping. In short, this article reveals the conflicts that were beginning to brew in the eighties and the illogical conclusions that sprang from them. Some women convinced themselves that their children could get along quite well without so much attention and that they actually did better when Mom was more disengaged. Angry mothers told me at the time that they resented the obligations of child rearing and didn't want kids hanging around their feet.

Please understand that I am not unsympathetic to the frustrations and pressures that produced those reactions. They were precipitated, in fact, by the same rat race I described above. And as I acknowledged in the previous chapter, many women must work outside the home today, whether for financial or emotional reasons. Still, I am here to express in the strongest possible terms the belief that mothers are just as necessary to healthy child development as they have ever been and that kids cannot raise themselves. They require enormous amounts of time and energy throughout childhood. Any effort to become liberated from them will be done at the children's expense.

Book: Bringing Up Boys

By Dr. James Dobson

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