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Parenting: A New Social Contract
by Suzanne Braun Levine

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

Parenting used to be considered a Mom and Pop operation with a clear division of labor: Mom was the nurturer, Pop the disciplinarian. The trouble was Pop got to impose his will on everyone, while Mom couldn't impose her will on anything, even her own circumstances. Parenting used to be considered the result of a precise event, sex between a man and a women. The trouble was that if the "sanctity" of marriage was lacking, so was protection of the offspring, unless Pop chose to claim his property; Mom, needless to say, had no choice at all.

Today, family life is much more egalitarian. The designated "head of household" is no more, women are no longer defined by childbearing, and men are increasingly breaking free of the limitations of a paterfamilias role to discover the joys of nurturing their children. Today, men and women mix and match in a wide array of combinations, or go solo, and bring children into their lives in a range of ways made possible by scientific breakthroughs and social circumstances--adoption, in vitro fertilization, insemination, blending families. And marriage, the mainstay of tradition, is becoming a minority model. According to the millennium U.S. Census, the number of classic nuclear families has dropped for the first time to below 25 percent of all households, while the number of single mothers and single fathers has shot up, along with the number of cohabiting-parents and same-sex-parents family units.

One thing all these parents have in common is that they are dancing as fast as they can to support their children. In the majority of two-parent families, both are working outside the home. Over all, the vast majority of women with children in school are employed in the work force. But most jobs require longer hours--the equivalent of a month more a year than people worked in the 1960s--for barely more pay; the average median income has remained almost static since 1980, while income for the bottom 20 percent of the population has actually fallen in, as they say, "real terms." At the same time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture annual accounting, the dollar cost of providing the necessities of life to raise a child to age 18 keeps going up--to $165,630, or over $9000 per year!

These hard-working parents want desperately to do right by their children and would trade almost anything to do so. According to a Radcliffe Public Policy Center study released in 2000, 70 percent of women and men put "spending more time with my family" at the top of their wish list--ahead of success, power, and even more money. Across the country men and women are showing their willingness to trade raises for flexibility and to respond to family-friendly policies with loyalty and hard work, qualities that redound to their employers' bottom line. Yet all too few employers are taking them up on it.

The miracle is that despite their anxiety, parents are not spending less time with their children than previous generations (about 21 hours a week for single moms--as much as stay-at-home moms in 1981--and up for two-parent families to 31 hours for women and 23 for men). To accomplish this, they play a constant game of trade-offs, with time for themselves--particularly sleep- and for each other falling by the wayside.

Then why, pray tell, does school let out at three o'clock?

This is not a facetious question. It goes to the heart of the American hypocrisy about families. We know that parents spend an average of 8 percent of their annual income on childcare; we can assume that much of that goes to coverage during the after-school hours of three and six. Studies show that most teenage crime takes place and most teenage pregnancies originate between the hours of three and six; that many workplaces show a drop in efficiency as parents try to track their kids' after-school activities between three and six; that most kids are parked in front of the TV in an empty house--if their worried parents are lucky--between three and six. There seems to be a pattern here . . .

If this were an assembly-line glitch or a Martian enigma, the best minds would be on the case. Why, then, doesn't someone fix an outdated system that was set up to accommodate the needs of an agricultural society with chores every afternoon and a long summer harvest season? Because we don't want to. We (some of us more than others) have too much invested in the American Dream--the American Fantasy, really-- that grew from that real farm-family model to a much less real one based on an ethos both sentimental and heartless.

Ozzie and Harriet and Ricky and David were a TV institution of the 1950s, a nuclear family in which Father went out into the world and came back with a paycheck, and Mother waited at home for him and their two children to bound into "her" cozy kitchen for a dose of maternal indulgence. The Ozzie-and-Harriet fiction has become an ideal--unattainable and guilt-producing, but promoted as the best environment for children. Behind that pastel stage set, though, are the crude bricks of a "rugged individualism" that presumes those who can't build it on their own just didn't try hard enough. This has become the excuse for doing so little to help real families.

The mixed message of an unattainable ideal and a punitive reality has led to a bad case of double-speak. We can glance at just a few examples. While pundits deplore violence in the schools, at this writing, 23 states permit "paddling" of school children. Although activists succeeded, after seven long years, in winning family- and medical-leave legislation, Congress refused to require that the leave be paid--putting it out of reach of those who need it most, and leaving the U.S. lagging behind other industrialized countries. Parents are blamed when they don't provide adequate childcare, but are not offered the public alternative of universal and government-subsidized availability common in most European countries. Furthermore, Americans tolerate a childcare system that is haphazard, lacking in standards, and expensive--and one that pays the people who take care of our children less than those who take care of our cars. Then, when a study shows that a percentage of children in day care are slightly more aggressive than kids at home, mothers are blamed for not staying home with their children!

It isn't as though the facts of family life go totally unacknowledged in our culture. Marketers, for example, promote the works--from fast-food products to life-management services to one-stop everything for busy parents--because it makes sound economic sense to cater to their needs. Our policy makers, on the other hand, are reluctant to put their (our!) money where their mouths are. If our national budget is, as many have suggested, our only true statement of values, we don't yet value families-- no matter how much hot air is expended on promoting "family values."

Understanding that families do not fall under a singular definition and that they do not need "values" imposed on them but value accorded them has been the agenda of the U.S. Feminist Movement for 150 years. "Feminists are not concerned with maintaining the 'sanctity of the family,' a pleasant enough phrase that has been used to cover an awful lot of damage. . . .," wrote Barbara Katz Rothman in Recreating Motherhood (W.W. Norton & Company, 1989); "As feminists we are concerned not with the control and ownership and kinship issues of the traditional family, but with the relationships people establish with one another, with adults and with children."

Generations of feminists have made a great deal of progress in moving public consciousness and policy in that direction since Elizabeth Cady Stanton, writing in 1854, deplored the power inequities within the family: "If [a woman] have a worthless husband, a confirmed drunkard, a villain, or a vagrant, he has still all the rights of a man, a husband, and a father. Though the whole support of the family be thrown upon the wife, if the wages she earns be paid to her by an employer, the husband can receive them again. . . . The father can apprentice his child, bind him out to a trade, without the mother's consent--yea, in direct opposition to her most earnest entreaties, prayers and tears. . . . He may bind his daughter to the owner of a brothel, and by the degradation of his child, supply his daily wants."

A century later, the form of women's lives had changed dramatically, but less so the content. By 1970, women "had most of the legal freedoms, the literal assurance that they were considered full political citizens of society--and yet they had no power," wrote Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (William Morrow and Company, 1970), at the time. Even moreso within the family, where a woman's economic, social, and parental rights were tightly bound to her husband's will. Indeed, a woman who tried to earn a living could not find a job with a salary equal to a man's in the sex-segregated "help wanted--female" listings, and a woman who cared for her children at home and depended on the support of her husband was, as the saying went, "one man away from welfare." Ironically, if she was receiving welfare, the reverse was true; the discovery of a man sharing her home would cut her off from benefits.

Today, family life is more supportive of both parents' independence, and most women feel less terror at the prospect of managing on their own. But one assumption is holding families hostage to the Ozzie-and-Harriet model: women are still expected to be the caregivers of first and last resort. Even back when that seemed to be true, women had the support of a wide safety net of extended family and community institutions to fall back on. Today, parents are operating on their own to a heart-breaking degree, and even two parents can't do it all. Until that piece of fantasy is replaced with social policy that reflects and addresses reality, the stress parents are experiencing is going to intensify.

"When families cannot provide the various kinds of care that their children or elders or others may need, and when public supports are not available because families are supposed to take care of themselves, the unmet need for care has to go somewhere," wrote political scientist Mona Harrington, in Care and Equality [see Suggested Further Reading below], "Generally it spills over onto public institutions that were not designed--and are not funded--to handle it."

"The fact is," Harrington concluded, "the old formulas cannot yield both care and equality. They are bankrupt. And they are generating a social crisis that cannot be addressed realistically until we can remove the blinders of traditional thinking. . . . "

The most important blinder that must go is the notion that each family can take care of itself. On that count, the 2000 Census has two very sobering messages. First, the number of children living in poverty has reached 12.l million, one in six pre-voting citizens. Second, the percentage of the population living alone is increasing (due to extended life expectancy and more independent life styles); as their votes are weighed against families with children, it will be harder than ever to promote policies that support families--unless we change the mindset about whose responsibility it is to foster the next generation. (In fact, there's a growing anti-child movement among people who don't want to live in neighborhoods or eat in restaurants that cater to children. A group called No Kidding! arranges child-free social events. In five years it has grown from five to 47 chapters.)

The parenting issue of the future is nothing less than a mandate to rewrite the American Dream. And if anyone tries to sell the idea of going back to the traditional ways, let them consider the fact that while divorce is leveling off throughout the general population, it has risen 125 percent among the most conservative groups. "Bible Belt" women, in particular, are increasingly unwilling to accept the idea that they must grin and bear a life not of their own design: "I had this vision that this is just what people do: get married, have kids, and Christ comes back," an Oklahoma divorcee with a young daughter told The New York Times, "No one asked me, 'Are you sure this is what you want?'" And if anyone thinks that "fathers first" groups like the Promise Keepers can keep their promise of a groundswell of men making everything all right by reclaiming their patriarchal thrones, most American men will tell you, as they told me when I wrote a book about fatherhood, that their role model for the good father they want to be is "not like my father."

Furthermore, if you ask the children whether they long for the Ozzie-and-Harriet family model, they will tell you, as they told Ellen Galinsky in 1999 for her study Ask The Children [see below], they don't resent their parents working. In fact, they're proud of them and grateful for the material advantages provided. But they are concerned about the stress that the work/family tension puts on their parents--and the consequences for themselves. They know their parents need relief, but they buy into the same you-must-solve-your-problems-on-your-own ethic that their parents are too busy to question: "Don't work too hard. Know when to quit, because if you don't you'll get all stressed out and take it out on us," was the advice of a fifteen-year-old girl. Since American parents are running faster and faster just to stay in the same place economically, it would take not a parental decision, but a wholehearted commitment to the concept of a living wage and a living workweek, to implement her advice.

As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West pointed out in The War Against Parents [see below], what's needed is a lobbying powerhouse the size of the American Association of Retired Persons plus a national commitment the size of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which helped returning World War II vets get an education, start a business, and buy a house.

A new American Dream requires a new social contract based on the premise that support for caregivers is a right of citizenship, not a handout to the certified needy. And that our national public service system, not our beleaguered families, is the caregiver of last resort, and in some cases--particularly education and health care--of first resort. A good example of creative thinking in this area is the Caregiver Credit campaign, a project of Social Agenda, which is gaining national momentum. It modifies the current tax code with a modest proposal: to convert the child tax credit--currently $600 per child--to a "caregiver tax credit to cover the care of adults and children--anyone who gives care to everyone who needs it in families of blood or choice." And in order to cover those who care and give but earn so little they don't pay taxes, the legislation would make the credit refundable--in cash.

In the same vein, here is a vision of what could be happening at three o clock in school buildings across the country (and all day long during the summer). As the children are dismissed from their last classes, a fresh crew of teachers and other qualified adults arrive and begin sorting out sports equipment and setting up a variety of clubs, library projects, and quiet homework rooms. Some take up their positions as monitors in areas where kids can just hang out and listen to music or putter with computers. A public-health nurse opens her office for business, which includes keeping inoculations up to date and handling minor medical problems. A social worker has regular hours that run into the evening so that she's available to counsel kids and make sure families get any help they need dealing with the system. Throughout the year other specialists show up--a tax advisor in the spring, a continuing education counselor, a nutritionist--to brief parents when they pick up their kids.

Neighbors get to know one another as they show up after work or put in the requisite one or two days a year of volunteering with the program. On those days they organize a range of off-campus activities such as (this idea is my personal favorite) taking some of the older kids grocery shopping for the family dinner. Imagine what a relief it would be for an exhausted parent not to have to stop for last-minute items, and how proud their teenagers would feel of doing their share.

Somewhere around 8:00 P.M., things quiet down and the doors are finally locked.

With all this activity, elected officials would surely begin showing up, too, and their interest could generate political action. In other words, the school--the most extensive facility in most communities and the one with which most people have contact--could become the Town Well that was. In recent years, communities have lost their gathering places: libraries have had to cut back on hours; houses of worship have trouble getting people to give up part of their errand-crowded or second-job-filled weekends; people will do anything to avoid entering a municipal building, regarded as a nightmare of red tape and frustration, The pulse of a dynamic, continuing, school day could generate a revival of civic life.

If you think that's visionary, it's only as visionary as it was when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, herself the mother of seven, wrote in 1872: "In education woman should demand an extension of our common school system at both ends, to infant schools and public colleges. The children of women dependent on daily labor should be cared for during the hours of labor, including the noon intermission. They should be accounted as little cadets of the state and should be furnished with ginger snaps, milk, etc. . . ." I don't know about the "cadets," but the ginger snaps sound awfully homey.

When all is said and done, every mother and father knows that milk and ginger snaps at school can't replace parental love and attention. But we also know that all the devotion we shower on our children can't make up for a national mindset that doesn't consider parenting a public good. After all, depending on how they grow up, "other people's children" will be the ones writing our laws, curing our diseases, and making us laugh--or not.

Suzanne Braun Levine was chief editor of Ms. Magazine (1972-1988), as well as chief editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. She produced the Peabody Award-winning television special She's Nobody's Baby: A History of American Women in the Twentieth Century, and is the author of Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First (Harcourt, 2000), and of the forthcoming A Woman's Guide to Second Adulthood: Your Brain, Your Power, and Your Prospects (Viking, 2004). She has written and spoken widely about journalism, feminism, and family life, and she and her husband, Robert Levine, have two teenage children.

Suggested Further Reading
Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: HarperCollins, 1977.

Galinsky, Ellen. Ask The Children: The Breakthrough Study That Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting. New York: William Morrow and Quill paperback, 1999.

Harrington, Mona. Care and Equality: Inventing a New Family Politics. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Hewlett, Sylvia Ann and Cornel West. The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Huston, Perdita. Families As We Are: Conversations from Around the World. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2001.

Copyright © 2003 by Suzanne Braun Levine

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).


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