A Woman's Place Is…?


A Mother's Work, by Deborah Fallows, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 243 pages, $16.95

Deborah Fallows strongly believes that mothers—professionally trained in careers or not—should stay home and take care of their children. And in A Mother's Work she strongly argues the case that only a parent, not a parent surrogate or a day-care arrangement, can serve the needs of a young child. 

This initial description of Fallows's views might lead one to assume that she is a traditional, "nonliberated," wife and mother who disdains the women's movement and despairs over the dramatic rise in the percentage of mothers of young children entering the work force. But this is not the case. Fallows, a 1967 Radcliffe graduate, firmly supports the growth in opportunities now open to women. Prior to the birth of her second child she derived great satisfaction from her professional work (she was an assistant dean at Georgetown University—a full-time job), done in conjunction with motherhood. Like many of us who were in college when Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was first published, Fallows always assumed that we would have it all—husband, children, and a fulfilling career. We were a generation of superwomen with all doors now open to us. So why not?

After all, the women's magazines made it seem easy. Only an incompetent would have trouble with this juggling act—and only a dull, introvertish boob would want to stay at home with the kids and TV all day when the "real world" out there beckoned us to greatness. The details and logistics of how we were somehow going to merge our mothers' nurturing role and our career goals were always vague. Before my daughter was born I remember puzzling over a Ms. magazine cover that showed women in an office, intensely preparing manuscripts, while babies crawled over desks playing with pens and papers. I was curious about how that worked—but I believed it must be possible.

Fallows was similarly gullible. With her first son, she worked and left her child in the care of someone else. She suffered the same emotional strains every working mother does—worrying about the quality of home care, regretting missing out on the precious, never-to-be-repeated moments of child development. But as I and so many others did, she clutched passionately to the basic ideological cornerstone of the Working Mother Rationale—quality versus quantity time. The rationale goes something like this: Sure, moms who stay at home have more hours with their children, but quantity really doesn't count, quality does.

But Fallows began to see fallacies in this rationale. And here, I must confess, her book made me nervous. I began to suffer from a classic case of cognitive dissonance when I gradually realized that she would make a decision to abandon her career in favor of full-time motherhood. Not only that, she was about to preach to me about it. Having not made that decision myself, I started to feel uneasy as I found the foundations behind my own choice challenged, and successfully so. But reassuring myself that different solutions meet the needs of different people, I read on.

Fallows presents a generally convincing case for the conclusion that only a parent understands and really cares about the needs of a child. (I would argue that there are some unique situations where a grandmother or loving nanny who is truly devoted to the child can develop an attachment very similar to that of a parent.) She bitterly criticizes feminist leaders and publications that disdain full-time motherhood, and she successfully defrocks those who pontificate to the effect that only that time spent 100 percent with the child (reading, down on the floor playing with blocks, feeding, etc.) counts as quality time. She argues that the only way surveys can possibly conclude that working and nonworking mothers have the same amount of "time" with their children is by claiming that nonexclusive time together (shopping, doing laundry, driving around accomplishing chores) doesn't count at all. It sure does, she argues. "What I needed (with my children) is time…in quantity, not quality."

With the birth of her second child, Fallows became a full-time mother. To her surprise, she found it in many ways even more rewarding than her professional career. A substantial portion of the first third of A Mother's Work reveals her comfortable transition. She is to be forgiven for the quasi-polemics that inevitably emerge as she reinforces for herself the correctness of her own decision.

But then the book takes a strange turn. What started as a personal discussion of her rationale for abandoning a career in favor of children suddenly becomes almost an investigative report on the quality and desirability of child care, particularly American day-care centers in the '80s. And while this perplexing change of gears still puzzles me, I found Fallows's survey of day-care centers revealing and very, very upsetting. She presents the most-convincing evidence I have ever seen that unless superior surrogate arrangements can be made, mothers should stay at home with their children. (Am I really saying this?)

I never thought a lot about group day-care arrangements. What Fallows described made me cry with pity for the young children she observed. As she reiterates throughout the book, all the "women's liberation" and "superwoman" talk in the past decade seems to have focused on the needs of the woman, not the child. No, she doesn't write about dingy, dirty conditions, with sexual abuse in evidence. She writes of seeing babies, toddlers, crying for their mothers; teachers who referred to each of them, not by their name, but with a generic "hey"; desperate notes from mothers pinned on babies' cubbies pleading for extra attention; teachers reading stories that obviously made no sense to young children. No abuse. Just emptiness, no individualization, no one really caring. Her recollections of repeatedly hearing, "Mommy coming? Mommy coming back soon?" still ring in my ears.

And then the book takes another bizarre turn. Having totally drained me emotionally, leaving me a forever firm believer that babies and young children should not be put in these anonymous group shelters under any conditions, Fallows describes at length how day-care remains necessary. She argues that increased funding (both from the private sector and from the government) is mandatory and that unique approaches (like recruiting senior citizens to participate in child care) are the means of increasing the quality of this care. Higher salaries, a better teacher-to-child ratio, and more regulations constitute the Fallows recipe for creating acceptable nonparent child-rearing facilities. But can all the funding in the world overcome what Fallows so convincingly shows to be the problem—the absence of the parent?

Fallows does an excellent job of critiquing the political right (which too often dismisses the real need of some mothers to work) and the left (as represented in the women's movement that will tolerate no criticism of day care; for example, taking offense at the American Medical Association's warning that day-care centers have become dangerous sources of infection and disease). And she has raised much-needed questions about how our society is to successfully mesh the quest for equal employment opportunity for women and our desire to give our children what Fallows says they need most: their parents' time as well as love. She writes, "Parents, as the unique and special people in their children's lives, need to spend as much time as possible with their children. By this, I do not mean that parents should spend twenty-four hours a day with children. But I mean most of the time. It seems to me that a good babysitter for a few hours a day, a few days a week, is reasonable even for infants…but I also believe that children do best when they have parents available after school most days."

How does this jive with the Superwoman Syndrome? How can day-care facilities provide this uniqueness? Why is it that nowadays so many of us feel we can have everything—at no cost to ourselves and our families? Are we the victims of a type of "liberation" that told us only half the story? In the end, A Mother's Work leaves us frustrated in grappling with these threatening but real questions. But at the very least, she does us all a service by raising them.

Elizabeth M. Whelan, executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, is a contributing editor of American Baby magazine and the author of A Baby? Maybe and The Pregnancy Experience.