Columnists > Judgment Calls

Not so swift

See Jane run (Massachusetts). See Jane neglect her kids.

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

Only a nitwit would stay home with her kids." We don't hear insults like that anymore. Stay-at-home moms may not get a lot of respect, but at least they don't have to put up with the open contempt so popular in the bra-burning days of the late '60s.

No, today the insults are subtler-and often arrive masked as compliments. As evidence, consider the hullabaloo surrounding Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, who recently gave birth to twin daughters. Ms. Swift lives three hours from the state capital, which means she gets home only every second night-a schedule she plans to continue. Her 2-year-old daughter has spent the last year in day care (when she wasn't being babysat illegally by state employees), and Ms. Swift says that's where the twins may end up, as well. Nevertheless, feminists are shocked, shocked, that anyone would dare suggest that Ms. Swift cannot simultaneously be both a great governor and a marvelous mommy.

"You'd think Swift had been indicted as a contract killer, the way conservatives are carrying on," snarled Cate Plys in the Chicago Sun-Times.

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"I hope by the time (the twins) are grown, the idea that their mother ... was expected by some to relinquish her job responsibilities ... will be an antiquated notion that ... all of society will view with disbelief," huffed Illinois Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood.

Put aside for a moment the fact that most of these feminists are probably itching to smack Ms. Swift, a Republican who opposes much of their radical agenda. What are they really saying when they claim that a woman can simultaneously juggle two newborns, a toddler, and an incredibly demanding job?

What they're saying is that mothers who sacrifice a paycheck and a rewarding career for a few years are wasting their time. That they are, in fact, nitwits.

But can a mom who doesn't even come home every other night, and when she does, exhausted, with a briefcase full of work, 50 e-mails to read, and her cell phone ringing off-well, not off the hook, because it doesn't have one-really be as effective as a mom who spends her days feeding, rocking, diapering, disciplining, and playing with her children?

Most parents would instinctively answer no-and they'd be right. In her book Love & and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work, economist and libertarian Jennifer Roback Morse says the combination of a child's helplessness and neediness gives him an instrumental need for other people. The child has a need, cries out for help, the need is satisfied, and the baby returns to a state of contentment. "In the process," Ms. Morse writes, "the baby becomes attached to his mother and comes to trust her."

But what happens when the mother is not there to meet these needs? A good many studies provide the chilling answer. In his book There's No Place Like Work, Brian Robertson concludes that children who grow up in day care "exhibit some of the same debilitating emotional, psychological, cognitive, and even physical problems displayed by children adopted from Romanian orphanages."

Ms. Morse-who DID adopt a child from a Romanian orphanage-says families must think about how they came to accept a way of life that inflicts such damage on children. The libertarian view of personal freedom-the right to do as we please-is dear to Americans of every political stripe, Ms. Morse says. But we have taken this philosophy where it was never intended to go: into the heart of the home. The result, she says, is the "laissez-faire" family, in which each member pursues his own self-interest rather than the good of the others. A family in which children's critical needs go unmet.

"Parents spend a lot of time wiping noses and tying shoes, which might seem to be menial chores that any idiot could do. But as a by-product of fulfilling these mundane tasks, parents convey to the child that he matters to them, and he allows them to matter to him as well." There are, Ms. Morse concludes, "no suitable substitutes for the family in performing this task."

Which is why I hope Gov. Jane Swift will decide not to run for governor in 2002, as she plans. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, for everything, there is a season: a time to nurture children, and a time to run for governor-say, in about 10 years.

Don't be a nitwit, Jane. Stay home with your kids.


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