"I'm not your enemy," the psychologist said. He said this more than once, or something like it, and I was there to take notes, so I did. "I'm a scientist." "The evidence is there." He was a courteous man, careful, direct; behind him in his office, on the same shelf that held his hard-bound psychology texts, he had laid for display, in a single long line, the outgrown shoes of his two young sons.
I looked for some time at the shoes, which had Velcro straps and dirt ground into the cracks and so matched nearly precisely the gathering piles in my own son's closet. My own son: who is 5 years old, who still sucks the middle two fingers of his right hand, who can add 11 plus 7 plus 8 in his head, who for several weeks now has referred to many persons on first reference as "poophead." Who was placed, as an infant, in day care. Who was placed, indeed, in what the newest reports of Dr. Jay Belsky would not characterize even as day care of the highest "quality," a word that appears with much frequency in the psychologist's reports, along with "paradigm" and "developmental correlates" and "insecure infant-parent attachments."
We were sitting, Jay Belsky and I, in a small office on the campus of Pennsylvania State University. Belsky is a professor of psychology and the director of a Penn State unit called the Child and Family Development Project; he has published articles and edited textbooks and is, in the conventional assessments of these matters, an expert. If you had picked up an issue of Time magazine last June, the one that devoted many pages to the subject of paid daytime care for small children, you would have seen a photograph of Belsky's face. He was the one who said child care for infants was a bad idea.
What Belsky said, more precisely -- the academic version of it was laid out last September in the monthly bulletin Zero to Three -- was that ongoing examination of the scholarly work now leads him to believe that when infants are placed in child care for more than 20 hours a week, they face an increased risk of long-term psychological distress. There are various indicators of this distress, each of them undoubtedly the subject of some graduate student's thesis work, but the one Belsky cited most often was what his Zero to Three article referred to as "heightened avoidance of the mother."
A clinical test, you will be gratified to know, has been devised to measure this. The test is called the Strange Situation, a name of particularly chilly suitability, and in it the baby and mother -- evidently the fathers play a rather dim role here -- are placed together in an unfamiliar room. A stranger walks into the room, and after a while unsettling things begin to happen: The mother leaves, the baby is alone with the stranger, the mother comes back, the baby is left entirely alone, the mother comes back again.
On the other side of the one-way glass, of course, the psychologists are taking notes. Does the baby move rapidly toward the mother when she comes back in? Does the baby wish to be comforted right away? Does the baby avoid the mother, or gaze off into space as though nothing were going on, or crawl toward her and then veer away?
All of these gestures mean something, in the lexicon of child psychologists, and Jay Belsky was very patient about explaining this. He said the Strange Situation is now widely accepted as a psychological tool; "kind of like the emotional IQ test," he said. He said many psychologists believe avoidance of the mother, which is part of what the Strange Situation measures, is related to problems later on -- adjustment problems, insecurity problems, children who get into fights and cannot cope with ordinary frustration.
Thus the Strange Situation, Belsky said, has become the principal measure for the studies he cites, the studies suggesting that babies tend to test out badly when their parents have placed them in full-time child care. "Disturbing evidence keeps accumulating," he wrote in his Zero to Three article, and in that article he was very restrained, as he has tried to be when the lay press calls him up now in search of pithy anti-working-mother quotes. He does not think all women should rush to re-command the hearth. He is not even prepared to declare unconditionally that the child care is the direct cause of the problems. He is doing, he suggests, the work of a person of science.
"I don't think shooting the messenger is the answer," Belsky said.
Actually I was not thinking about shooting the messenger. I was not even thinking about the heated rebuttals to Belsky's thesis, many of them laid out in a follow-up Zero to Three article written by four psychologists from universities on both coasts; the psychologists, all of them women, accused Belsky of stirring terrific alarms with an ill-considered analysis that they argued "is at best selective, and at worst, misinterprets the available data."
So a fierce rumble is in the works over the now-public Belsky admonitions, but I was looking at the shoes on the shelf and what I was thinking about was children. My son was 6 months old when I enrolled him in a Monday through Thursday day care center so that I could begin writing again. The center was a neighborhood studio in which two young women, both of them displaying a cheerful cool that far surpassed my own, looked after six to eight babies from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. The babies slept on small labeled mattresses and ate with small labeled bibs around their necks, and I see now that what diminished the "quality" in the clinical eye was the uneven distribution of babies to grown-ups: The ideal arrangement involves a single caretaker attending to one baby, we are told, although based on Belsky's analysis of one Chicago-area study, even those babies tested out, as Belsky explained, as "significantly more insecure, when formally appraised as secure and insecure."
Thus my children -- both of them, since the second has been graced with a daytime baby sitter in the manner of the studied Chicago infants -- are in what I understand the professionals would view as the risk group. And I have to tell you this, but don't repeat it: Sometimes they seem to be insecure. Sometimes the 5-year-old starts to cry if you get mad at him. Sometimes he won't put on his socks for the longest time, and once in a while he acts like a jerk -- so do I, but then I was placed in child care at quite a young age too.
Jay Belsky's children, as it happens, were not. When his first son was a baby his wife carried him with her to work -- she provided support to family day care operations around the city -- and by the second son's infancy she was no longer working outside the home. Had Belsky ever considered, I wondered, staying home so that his wife might be the one to work for pay?
No, he said, he had not. "Neither Ann nor I, from the initial process of forming a relationship, defined ourselves in those terms," Belsky said. "The dual conceptualization was always that I would be working."
I want to be careful about this. I do not think Belsky is to be discounted because he is male and left his sons in the full-time care of their mother; I do not think he is cavalier in his analysis, and I do not believe, either, that one ought to ignore or distort one's conclusions in keeping with political fashion. But I wanted very badly, just at that moment, to haul Jay Belsky out of his office at Penn State University and prop him up in a rocking chair at 2 in the morning with a wrench in his viscera because he loves so deeply the baby he is holding and he needs so wildly to reclaim his work -- his other work, his paying work.
Come down to the doorway of the day care center, I wanted to say, and stand there yourself with the small blows of a hundred bits of conflicting advice hammering away at your shoulders. Stack the volumes up in front of you, all the counsel of the experts, and when the pile is taller than you are, then you too can watch your 4-year-old pour milk on the floor in what your mother would have called a snit but you now are invited to think of as "noncompliance, increased probability of."
Is it different, I wonder, when child psychologists wake in the middle of the night and listen to cries from the next room? Do they hear Penelope Leach urging them to go in, lest the baby learn no one cares, and Benjamin Spock urging them to stay out, lest the baby learn he can always have his way? It must be pleasant to dispense advice by way of the unsullied printed page; you can clear your throat, in a nation full of barely met mortgage payments and eight-week maternity leaves, and you can make announcements about the dangers of full-time infant child care, and then nobody makes you stick around afterward to clean up the mess.
I asked Jay Belsky about this, about whether he could really know the terrain of the working mother when he himself had never left the baby with the caretaker and walked from the room to go back to work. He said he supposed he could not, not beyond the intellectual understanding of it, and then he said immediately that this was no reason to shut out his voice. Well, the world can always use a good argument, and possibly laudable social policy -- support for "quality" day care, or longer paid American maternity leaves -- may emerge from what Belsky has to say. So I think he is right: That is no reason to shut out his voice. Sometimes I think there is no reason even to be particularly selective about the voices you shut out. Sometimes a person needs to shut them all out, all the experts, every chorus of learned alarm. Sometimes your own offspring will in a rush explore the range of human possibility from wondrous to awful and back again, and the noise those children make, the private noise that comes in the end from nothing but instinct and the fumbling efforts of the heart, is quite enough.