Raising Mom

Ann Pleshette Murphy spent 10 years as the editor of Parents magazine. For the last six years, she has been the parenting contributor to "Good Morning America." During the course of those two jobs, she's met and interviewed dozens of parenting experts, edited hundreds of articles on raising children, talked with thousands of mothers -- and raised two children of her own. It was only a matter of time before she turned all that fodder into a book. With the shelves of your local bookstore already groaning under the weight of parenting books, what can The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Making the Most of Your Life as a Mom (Knopf, $22.95) add to the mix?

Unlike most advice manuals, Murphy's focuses not on child development but mother development. Mothers are culturally conditioned to focus on the dramatic changes children go through, she argues, but we ought to be spending as much time "on our own physical, emotional, cognitive, and social growth to make the most of the years we spend raising our children." Parenting shapes a mother's life and outlook as much as it does a child's, but we're often too caught up in "this crazy, messy, really tough business of raising our kids" to register our own sea changes, she says. By examining the "seven stages" of motherhood -- ranging from "altered state" of new motherhood to "the gray zone" of raising a tween and beyond -- Murphy hopes to shed light on the transformative nature of parenting.

It would be too much to expect someone who has been the purveyor of advice for so long to totally avoid a chirpy tone, but Murphy gives it a good try. Where an expert touch is called for, she quotes parenting gurus like T. Berry Brazelton, Ron Taffel and Harriet Lerner. But she uses stories of her own life as a harried working mother to leaven the often heavy-handed "Let me tell you the right way to do it" tenor that can plague advice manuals. She also draws heavily on the experiences of her friends and colleagues. (She's mercifully restrained in quoting celebrity moms, though Cindy Crawford's sex life gets a mention.) If Murphy's experience has taught her anything, it's that empathy and solidarity among mothers can be more valuable than any advice.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Parents of young children inevitably spend time wondering what their offspring will do for a living: mechanic? artist? airline pilot? The flip side of that wonder is the desire to know how successful adults got that way: Was it nature or nurture?

John Brockman has taken the latter question and posed it to 27 leading scientists, with fascinating results. In Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist (Pantheon, $23.95), some of the biggest brains in the world turn their lenses on their own lives and, in first-person essays, answer Brockman's question: Why science? What was it about their parents, teachers, homes, schools, books or friends that led them to choose the lab over the assembly line or the ivory tower over the office block?

No two writers agree on the source of their love for science -- beyond an unusually persistent curiosity about the world around them. "I was born to be a theoretical physicist," believes cosmologist Paul C.W. Davies. "I had no scientific epiphanies until I was in graduate school," counters cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett. Several contributors, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann and neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, credit a rich home environment for sparking their love of experimentation and argumentation. In contrast, Columbia physicist Janna Levin says, "I watched TV all the day long if it wasn't a school day."

Two contributors challenge the entire premise of the book. Steven Pinker and Judith Rich Harris contend that any reason they or others might proffer for their interest and success in science would be mere rationalization. "We all maintain self-serving theories of how our lives unfolded," writes Pinker. We can never know what combination of genes, environment and random molecular events serve to make us what we are, they say, so there's really no way to pinpoint influences.

All in all, it's an invigorating debate. If parents insist on drawing a lesson from it, they could do worse than to heed Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. "My siblings and I weren't prodigies by nature," she writes. "We were ordinary children who had rich opportunities to learn and who were taken seriously by people who cared about us."

Women's Work

Women who opt out of the workplace to stay at home with their young children for a few years face a tough road when they want to opt back in. They often have a hard time convincing employers, especially in a down market, that they've got the skills necessary to make a meaningful (and immediate) impact on their business.

Journalist Ann Crittenden, author of the groundbreaking 2001 book The Price of Motherhood, which spelled out the financial sacrifices our society exacts from mothers, tries to counter those corporate naysayers in her new book. If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything (Gotham, $25) attempts to reassure women that they haven't really been losing brain cells and forfeiting skills during their sleep-deprived years.

Crittenden interviewed 100 successful women, including former Vermont governor Madeline Kunin, former Kentucky Fried Chicken CEO Cheryl Batchelder and CNN television personality Soledad O'Brien, as well as a rabbi, a college president, the highest ranking woman in the AFL-CIO and the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency. "Virtually all the highly successful mothers I interviewed for this book agreed that being a parent made them more proficient in their professions," Crittenden writes.

And how is that? According to one respondent, "A good leader, like a good parent, assumes that a person has an innate drive to be worthy or successful." Echoes a high official in the Justice Department, "My daughter needs a lot of reinforcement, and so do many employees . . . . We managed by modeling behavior, by inspiring, by appealing to mutual beliefs, through praise and approbation -- all the same tools that a parent uses." Ad agency CEO Shelly Lazarus says, "Unconditional love is a management concept."

None of these women, however, ever considered listing child-rearing on her resume. To Crittenden, this is a strong indication that women in the workforce are still playing by men's rules. "The fundamental issue, of course, is not resumes," she writes, "but . . . whether we have reached the stage in women's equality where the traditional female work of nurturing and producing the next generation is considered highly skilled labor, as worthy of serious respect as other life accomplishments." A very good question. But the truth about crossover between work and home skills is complex. Some parents are great motivators, multitaskers and mentors, and are empathetic and good at win-win negotiating. Others aren't. Crittenden slides too easily over that fact. While her book may serve to bolster the spirits of many a job-hunting mother, prospective employers who read it may be less persuaded.

Ms. Moffett's Education

In the spring of 2000, the New York City Board of Education launched an advertising campaign featuring a photo of a sad-eyed girl. The copy read: "Four out of five fourth-graders in our city's most challenged schools fail to meet state standards in reading and writing. Are you willing to do something about it?"

The ads promoted a radical new venture, the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, aimed at luring mid-career professionals away from cushy jobs and into teaching. It traded blatantly on people's idealistic view of teachers -- a "Welcome Back, Kotter" vision of making a difference in young lives.

New York Times reporter Abby Goodnough spent a year shadowing one of the first teaching fellows, a former legal secretary named Donna Moffett, as she took up the challenge of teaching first-graders in one of the worst public schools in New York. The result is an excellent book, Ms. Moffett's First Year: Becoming a Teacher in America (Public Affairs, $25).

Armed with only six weeks of training and the intermittent advice of mentors, Moffett plunged into a classroom of 20 kids, many of whom came from non-English-speaking homes, some of whom had behavioral or learning problems, and all of whom were poor. Stefanie never seemed to have enough to eat, Trevor babbled like a 3-year-old, Cindy seemed to come to school only when it suited her parents. It was trial by fire from day one. Moffett worked longer hours than she ever did as the secretary in a posh law firm but commanded less respect from the adults around her, including the career teachers who were wary of the teaching fellows plunked in their midst.

This kind of fly-on-the-wall reporting is invaluable. We can listen ad nauseam to the list of challenges facing inner-city schools: inadequate funding, crumbling buildings, pervasive poverty, fickle administrative policies. But it's far more effective to watch Moffett struggling -- equipping her classroom from her own purse, making home visits to troubled families or railing against an intensely rigid reading program mandated from a central administrative office. Moffett was no angel -- she stumbled, made mistakes, lost her temper -- but there is no denying her bravery and fortitude. Her connection to the children was powerful and transformative, just as the ads promised. We can't help but root for her and for them and feel grateful that, despite a dropout rate of almost 50 percent among teaching fellows, at the end of the book Moffett decided to return to the classroom for another year.

Helping Hands

James P. Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale, has been arguing for 35 years that public schools must serve all the developmental needs of children. Children from disadvantaged homes especially require support that goes beyond mere academics into psychological, ethical, physical and social realms. In his new book, Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today's Youth for Tomorrow's World (Yale Univ., $28), he argues that society is paying a high price for allowing children to fail.

As the product of a poor but loving environment, Comer traces his own rise from an impoverished neighborhood to one of the leading schools in the nation to his mother and his teachers' dedication to overseeing his total development. At the core of the Comer school development program, first implemented in inner-city New Haven in 1968, lies an emphasis on respectful relationships among teachers, students and parents, with a focus at all times on the personal growth of each student.

Two forces stand in the way of reform, Comer says: first, the unequal distribution of funding to schools (drawn primarily from property taxes) and, second, the myopic focus on testing and assessment that crowds out attention to whole-child development, a practice that's grown egregious under the Bush administration. (Comer's title, in fact, is an attempt to wrest the "No Child Left Behind" program from President Bush's misguided educational agenda.) Under Comer's program -- which is in use in 500 schools from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Portland, Ore., and which has successfully turned failing schools into winners -- schools are considered an extension of the home and vice versa. All stakeholders -- teachers, parents and administrators -- are involved in decision-making. Universal preschool, child psychology and development training for teachers, more and better after-school programs, health services, job preparation -- all are required, in all schools, at all levels. Though Comer's personal anecdotes and memories are by far the liveliest parts of the book, even the drier academic passages are a testament to his humane vision for America's public schoolchildren. *

Stephanie Wilkinson is co-founder and co-editor of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.