"There are enough women to do the childbearing and childrearing. I know of none who can write my books," said Australian writer H.H. Richardson, quoted in Tillie Olsen's "Silences." And Olsen remembers "thinking . . . yes, and I know of none who can bear and rear my children . . ."
For Olsen, however, this isn't a simple choice; nor is it for Deborah Fallows, who in 1980 left her job as assistant dean of the School of Languages and Linguistics at Georgetown University to raise her 3-year-old son and new baby. Fallows' book acknowledges the complexity of the decision for mothers about whether to work in or outside the home, while clearly developing her own convictions. She believes strongly that young children thrive best in their parents' care, but she is also an articulate advocate for improved day care. Her work is well argued and sensible, forceful without being judgmental. It requires us to look honestly at the way child-rearing choices affect children's lives and asks that individually and as a society we place greater value on family life.
Fallows feels "our public discussions about raising children are becoming too abstract, theoretical, and removed from attention to the details of how a boy or girl spends the five thousand days of childhood . . . I sense that the home is unknown territory to many who are involved in today's debates." She draws from her own experience and research into institutional child care to redefine the terms of the emotional, often politically charged issue of whether mothers should work or be at home. Instead, she focuses always on the consequences of different choices for children, and the nature and quality of their daily lives.
Fallows made the decision to leave her job because she came to believe that the best way to know her sons and influence their development was, simply, to spend more time with them. "What we needed most in order to understand each other was a lot of experience in dealing with one another." She believes that parents build a deeper relationship with their children in the accumulated hours of daily, often mundane events they share together at home, and that this also gives children the time and opportunity to grow and explore following their own rhythms.
She finds even the best of institutional child care has "more rigidity" and "is also more homogeneous" than life at home. The core of her book deals with group day care centers, research into their effects and the need for improvement. Fallows did find a few excellent centers with small groups and teachers focused on engaging children and responding to them personally. Far more often, she found mediocrity in ironic contrast to brochures claiming warmth and stimulation: "One of the classroom's three teachers was with the 27 children . . . The head teacher was out on his break for the first forty-five minutes . . . He came back to help during lunch and headed out again quickly for a meeting. The third teacher was a single-handed, nonstop diaper-changing brigade . . . The teacher . . . tried her hardest . . . She put on a record and started to dance. One . . . boy started dancing . . . A few others joined the group. Five or six gathered by some swinging cabinet doors . . . One little girl sat by herself, crying softly in the corner. The rest wandered around."
This is not an exceptional portrait, and it is not there to make working mothers feel guilty. Fallows' aim is to improve day care, not to condemn it, and she feels we can only do this by being honest about the ways it can fail children. She understands the problems of the industry: Staff is poorly paid, often young and untrained, with high turnover; groups are too large; resources to improve care are limited. She argues for government standards and a greater financial investment by parents, business and government.
Fallows is also concerned that at-home mothers develop lives as rewarding and challenging as those of working mothers. She wants to change the image of them as narrow traditionalists or losers, leading lives of "limitation, defeat, and drudgery," an image even she herself held. She is aware of "the depth of feeling and the scope of the ambivalence that many women have about their desire to broaden themselves beyond child rearing" and also of the unique satisfactions of working outside the home.
She surely is on the right track when she challenges women to look for meaning in their lives at home, and for society to accept their work as something valuable. She differs from feminists, whom she generally supports, because they have focused on equality in the workplace and have "not included, at least in spirit, an embrace of women at home." Her book will disturb those who insist on seeing the issue of working and at-home mothers in absolute terms. Its value lies in its focus on children, and its insistence that a mother can actually grow from the experience of raising them at home.