washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Marjorie Williams

Mean, Mean Moms

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, May 16, 2001; Page A23

Bring out your gas-masks, girls: You wouldn't want to get near this thing without taking precautions. I speak of this week's Mother's Day stink bomb on the cover of the conservative National Review, penned by editor Rich Lowry: "Thanks, Mom! The Case Against Working Mothers." Inside, the piece is headlined "Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Children in day care -- and the mothers who put them there."

Lowry seems unacquainted with the fact that fathers, where present, usually also get a vote on how their preschoolers are cared for during the day. But never mind. Here is the flow of his argument:

Day care -- all day care, even high-quality day care -- is terrible for young children, and mothers who relegate them to it are right to feel guilty. Lowry doesn't just question the effects of working motherhood, and of the "variety of social ills" to which it has given rise: He actually defines it as a pathology. "Mothers who choose to work full-time jobs and routinely leave their young children with others for much of the day are not normal," he writes. The only working mothers he exempts from his contempt are single ones -- the only ones, in his view, who truly have to work for pay.

While he pays lip service to the notion that women's growing equality is a good thing, his language carries a nastier message: "Maybe a little stigma is exactly what [working mothers] deserve," he writes, for "abandoning their children." As a society, "we are committed to 'leaving no child behind' unless it is by his mother hustling off to make her career."

But just as he's finished describing working mothers as monsters, he reverses course and concludes that most are victims, of a combination of perverse economic incentives and brainwashing by "the feminist project." Most mothers, he writes, don't want to put their children into day care, but our cultural biases -- especially those enshrined in tax law -- force them to. If he really believes this, of course, then it's doubly insulting that he's gone out of his way to dump on working mothers. But he can't seem to make up his mind whether mothers who work by choice are a universal menace to America's future or a tiny, heartless minority who somehow hijacked and restructured the American economy so as to make it impossible for couples to get by on one salary.

The truth, of course, is that some women absolutely have to work for pay, some women do it for satisfaction, and a great many do it for some combination of those reasons, usually after careful and even anguished thought. The great variation in motive and means is one of the things that make our debates on this topic so murky. But Lowry has no use for the nuance that is the very essence of the decisions we make about our family lives.

Lowry does come uncomfortably close to the truth in describing the media's anxious reluctance to run bad news on the topic of day care. The subject of child care touches such raw nerves -- among both producers and consumers of news -- that we rarely discuss its drawbacks honestly.

Yet he is more guilty than anyone of cooking his research. In describing the ill effects of day care, for example, he cites "a 1994 international study [which] found that 50 percent of children in care full time had an insecure attachment to their moms." But he doesn't identify the study, which is way out of line with most research on attachment. More recent results from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that a mother's sensitivity to her child is a more important factor in the child's attachment; and even most critical studies have found far smaller effects than the figure Lowry cites.

Anyway, Lowry makes clear that he's not interested in research that might shed light on how to improve the quality of day care: All day care, he believes, is so bad that it's pointless to discuss how to fix it.

There are at least six or seven valid, important topics embedded in Lowry's screed. We are only beginning, in both the public and the private spheres, to frame accurately the questions of where the greatest social revolution of our time leaves which children. But Lowry is the last guide we need. Somehow, around the edges of her full-time work life, my own mama managed to teach me to mistrust people who trivialize important subjects -- especially when they lack the cardinal virtue of humility.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company