Curtailing the Idea. of What a Child Needs
Men who are greatly involved with their children react against two cultural ideas: one idea removes the actual care of children from the definition of manhood and one curtails the notion of how much care a child needs. As to the first idea, involved fathers’ biggest struggle was against the doubts they felt about not “giving everything to get ahead” in their jobs. But even when they conquered this fear, another cultural idea stood in the way—the idea that their child is “already grown up,” “advanced,” and doesn’t need much from him. A man’s individual defense against seeing his children’s need for him conspires with this larger social idea.
Just as the archetype of the supermom—the woman who can do it all—minimizes the real needs of women, so too the archetype of the “superkid” minimizes the real needs of children. It makes it all right to treat a young child as if he or she were older. Often uninvolved parents remarked with pride that their small children were “self-sufficient” or “very independent.”
I asked the fifth-grade teacher in a private school how she thought her students from two-job families were doing. She began by saying that they did as well as the few children she had whose mothers stayed home. But having said that, her talk ran to the problems: “The good side of kids being on their own so much is that it makes them independent really early. But I think they pay a price for it. I can see them sealing off their feelings, as if they re saying. ‘Thats the last time Г11 be vulnerable/ I can see it in their faces, especially the sixth-grade boys.”
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, as women were increasingly excluded from the workplace, the cultural notion of what a child “needs” at home correspondingly grew to expand the womans role at home. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English point out in For Her Own Good doctors and ministers argued strongly that a womans place was at home. The child needed her there. As the economic winds have reversed, so has the idea of a womans proper place—and the child’s real needs. Nowadays, a child is increasingly imagined to need time with other children, to need “independence-training,” not to need “quantity time” with a parent but only a small amount of “quality time.” As one working father remarked: “Children need time to play with other children their age. Its stimulating for them. Nelson enjoyed it, I think, from when he was six months.”
If in the earlier part of the century, middle-class children suffered from overattentive mothers, from being “mothers only accomplishment,” todays children may suffer from an underestimation of their needs. Our idea of what a child needs in each case reflects what parents need. The child’s needs are thus a cultural football in an economic and marital game.
An Orwellian “superkid” language has emerged to consolidate this sense of normality. In a September 1985 New York Times article entitled “New Programs Come to Aid of Latch-Key Children,” Janet Edder quotes a child-care professional as follows: “Like other child-care professionals, Mrs. Seligson prefers to use the phrase ‘Children in Self-Care’ rather than ‘Latch-Key Children,’ a term coined during the depression when many children who went home alone wore a key around their necks.” “Children in Self Care” suggests that children are being cared for, but by themselves, independently. Unlike the term “Latch-Key Children,” which suggests a child who is sad and deprived, the term “ Children in Self-Care” suggests a happy superkid.
Another article, in the August 1984 Changing Times, entitled “When You Cant Be Home, Teach Your Child What to Do,” suggests that working parents do home-safety checkups so that a pipe wont burst, a circuit breaker wont blow, or an electrical fire wont start. Parents should advise children to keep house keys out of sight and to conceal from callers the fact that they’re alone at home. It tells about “warm lines”—a telephone number a child can call for advice or simple comfort when he or she is alone. Earlier in the century, advice of this sort was offered to destitute widows or working wives of disabled or unemployed men while the middle class shook its head in sympathy. Now the middle class has “children in self-care” too.
The parents I talked to had younger children, none of whom were in “self-care.” The children I visited seemed to me a fairly jolly and resilient lot. But the parents I spoke to did not feel very supported in their parenthood; like Ann Myerson, many parents in the business world felt obliged to hide concerns that related to a child. Many female clerical workers were discouraged from making calls home. Many men feared that their doing anything for family reasons—moving to another city, missing the office party, passing up a promotion—would be taken as a sign they lacked ambition or manliness. As for John Livingstons coworkers, the rule was: don’t go home until your wife calls.
For all the talk about the importance of children, the cultural climate has become subtly less hospitable to parents who put children first. This is not because parents love children less, but because a “job culture” has expanded at the expense of a “family culture.”
As motherhood as a “private enterprise” declines and more mothers rely on the work of lower-paid specialists, the value accorded the work of mothering (not the value of children) has declined for women, making it all the harder for men to take it up.