Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The two-income problem, absent parents and music

There's a wonderful discussion going on at 11D as a result of a three-part review she did of Home Alone America by Mary Eberstadt. I was going to post a comment over there, but I had too much to say, some of it personal (as an absent mom myself). I found an excerpt of the book which kind of outraged me (and reminded me how out of touch I am with contemporary music).

I'll get to the excerpt in a minute. First, I wanted to say a few things about the discussion of the book as a whole. I haven't read the book but from what I can tell, based primarily on Laura's review, Eberstadt raises the issue of absent mothers and its affect on children. The parents not being at home apparently causes obesity, depression and suicide among children. As Laura points out, some of Eberstadt's data is a little shady and she offers no solutions (the commenters do, however, and they are worth reading!) Working mothers have been seen as problematic for as long as I can remember. My first real memories of this were of the Murphy Brown episodes and the ensuing Dan Quayle commentary. I'm sure it had been raging before this, but I was just starting to think about having children then, so it hit home more then. As the commenters to Laura's review point out, the blame often gets unfairly placed on the mothers and solutions often center upon providing something for the mothers (tax breaks, subsidies, etc.) instead of reorganizing work life around the family as a whole allowing a family to make choices about how much they work and how much they are at home.

If any of you have read some of my earlier posts on the subject, you know I agonize over the lack of time I feel I have to do simple things like help my children with their homework. I often find myself asking questions like, "Am I being selfish to work just so we can have more stuff and force my kids to be in daycare?" Yes, I probably am to some extent and maybe some would argue that either a) I should have stayed home and accepted a life that would be less fulfilling (for me because I've done this and did find it less fulfilling) and less financially stable or b) not have kids. I agree with what a lot of people have said about there needing to be more part time work. I work 35 hours a week which is considered full time. I could cut back to 30 and arrange my hours to be at home in time to meet my kids at the bus stop. I would lose my full-time status and thus, my benefits: life insurance, a tuition reimbursement program (50% up to the value of an education at my institution), 401(b) plan and pension. That's a lot to lose just so I can be home. Now it's possible I could negotiate for some pro-rated benefits, but my human resources department certainly isn't advertising this as a possibility. Should I consider being with my kids more important than a benefits package? Perhaps, but I happen to think I shouldn't have to choose between the two.

Harry, in his comment at 11D suggests that two-income families have allowed middle america to pursue "the american dream" (my phrasing, not his) of bigger houses, more cars, college education for their children, vacations, etc. And that what might be suggested by some of us, to encourage somehow a parent to stay home, might cut of that upward mobility. No one really likes downward mobility. It's a difficult thing for people to buy into. I admit that this is part of why I work. I wanted to get out of my two bedroom apartment that I was sharing with my husband and two children and into a house. We couldn't have done that without my having a decent income. We also live in an urban area with a high cost of living. We could easily live on my husband's salary alone if we lived in the midwest or parts of the south (we've live in both areas before). But we have a lot of extras that we could probably live without and that might make it possible to live on a single income: cable, internet access, two cars, lots of books and gadgets. It's just that I've gotten used to being able to buy books without first balancing my checkbook to the penny. I like that we have a little financial breathing room and I'm not ready to give that up. But I've thought about it because I do think it would be better for my kids (not necessarily anyone else's) if someone were home after school. And together, my husband and I are planning for it. It's likely that he will be home if he gets tenure.

At any rate, back to the excerpt. I have to say that I found the whole thing read like a halfway decent composition assignment (I'd have to give in an A- for a freshman; a B for a junior or senior). She had a lot of examples to show that contemporary musical lyrics are full of rages against divorce and absent parents, but she didn't back that up with any real data to show that divorce has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. In a very quick search, I found one statistic that shows that since 1991, the per capita divorce rate has actually decreased (update: this page actually shows that the divorce rate was at its highest 20 years ago). This may be too late for the point she is trying to make, but at least it's some hard data instead of her conjecture and long list of examples. I would also like to have seen some hard data on the real effects on kids. Instead she uses fan letters to support her claim. Perhaps the answer is not to try to force people to stay together, but to provide more support for marriage and for families who do split. Help them stay involved as families.

A lot of good discussion going on out there. I hope it continues. I'm not sure we'll find an answer, but perhaps we can work toward some possibilities.