Parent Power

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, PhD*

In the mid-1990s the Larry King Radio Show was one of those hugely popular call-in radio shows that reached vast numbers of people across the country. It aired between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. and all kinds of people called in to talk to Larry: lonely truck drivers spinning along interstate highways trying to stay awake; security guards and insomniacs killing the dead hours at the middle of the night--and new moms and dads struggling to deal with 2:00 am feedings.

One particular Monday night "Gary" called in to the show to talk to Larry King. He was 27 years old and lived in Phoenix, Arizona. Gary wanted to talk about what was going on in his family. He and his wife had just put their three-week-old baby daughter in a kennel.

"A kennel!" Larry was shocked and disbelieving. 'You put your baby in a kennel?'

"Hold on," Gary said, becoming defensive. "Let me explain."

Gary and his wife Brenda both worked full time. He was a maintenance person at a local office complex; she worked as a check-out clerk at a convenience store. Together they earned $23,000 a year, a sum of money that 'didn't go a whole distance in Phoenix.' After taxes their joint take-home pay was just over $400 a week, half of which went to pay the rent. When their daughter Jenny was born, they found themselves dealing with some heavy duty problems. For starters, neither of their jobs carried medical insurance, and, consequently, Jenny's birth triggered some huge bills. $3,930 to be precise. As Gary put it, 'Jenny will be three years old before we have paid off the obstetrician.' Another problem they faced was neither of them was entitled to parenting leave. They worked for small employers and did not qualify for job protected leave under the terms of the Family and Medical Leave Act--which excludes businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Brenda couldn't simply quit her job as Gary's paycheck did not even cover rent and utilities.

They coped with the actual birth by fudging and lying through their teeth. Brenda called in sick for ten days and then used up a week of accumulated vacation. When Jenny was two and a half weeks old they hit the daycare market in Phoenix and found that the only thing they could afford was 'informal' family daycare, which in their neighborhood boiled down to a private home where two elderly women--unlicensed and untrained--looked after eighteen babies and toddlers. When Gary dropped Jenny off, he discovered to his horror that the other children were strapped into car-seats, watching television, dirty and disconsolate. Despite a frantic search Gary and Brenda had so far failed to find something better. Their budget was $40 a week--tops--and this is what it bought you on the private daycare market in Phoenix. In Gary's bitter words "Dogs and cats have a better deal, at least kennels are tightly regulated in this city and are require to live up to some kind of standard of cleanliness and care."

Gary's parting shot was bitter: "We're not welfare cheats, We're just regular Americans working as hard as we know how to do the right thing for our kid. Why is it so difficult? why is everything stacked against us? We feel such shame that we can't do better by our baby." Gary's voice rose in raw, sharp pain as he faded off the air.

There was a short silence as Larry King struggled to absorb the meaning of Gary's poignant words. He then cleared his throat and offered some tentative sympathy. What a stressful situation. How could any family deal well with such an impossible set of circumstances?

Gary's story is far from being exceptional. In a nation of plummeting blue collar wages and thread-bare social supports, hundreds of thousands of Americans are in precisely the same situation as Gary and Brenda when they embark on the serious business of raising a child. Unlike new parents in other rich nations, American moms and dads are expected to do a stellar job without the benefits of a living wage, medical coverage or parenting leave. In 1996 there were six million American families where two adults held four jobs in order to keep the show on the road. Falling wages and heightened insecurity are forcing more and more parents to work longer hours. Like hamsters on a wheel they are running harder and harder to stay even.

The War Against Parents

Despite the importance of parents we have made it extremely difficult for moms and dads to do a good job by their kids. For thirty years big business, government and the wider culture have waged a silent war against parents undermining the work that they do. Mothers and fathers have been hurt by falling wages, pounded by tax and housing policy, undercut by divorce laws and invaded and degraded by the media. Our leaders talk as though they value families but act as though families were a last priority. We live in a nation where market work, centered on competition, profits and greed, increasingly crowd out nonmarket work, centered on sacrifice, care and commitment. In the late 1990s, what really counts in America is how much you get paid and what you can buy. Small wonder then that parenting is a dying art. Small wonder then than that parents have less and less time for their children. And time is, of course, at the heart of the child-raising enterprise. Being a good parent requires providing a child with the gifts of love, attention, energy, and resources, generously and unstintingly over a long period of time. It involves nourishing a small body, but it also involves growing a child's soul--sharing the stories and rituals that awaken a child's spirit and nurturing the spiritual bonds that create meaning and morality in that child's life. None of these tasks are easily undertaken by stressed out contemporary parents.

A Shared Struggle

One of the greatest surprises of my work with Cornel West over the last three years has been the discovery of powerful common ground. Despite our obvious differences--and what could be more different that a black father from a blue-collar neighborhood in Sacramento and a white mother from a working class community in South Wales--we share the bedrock stuff: We are crazy about our kids. This might not be obvious every hour of every day, because our teenagers are capable of being as exasperating and challenging as any others, but when push comes to shove, we know we would give our lives for them. There is not a whole lot in life that can compete with this commitment.

We also share a load of frustration and guilt. For two decades we have been on the frontlines wrestling with the enormous challenge of trying to be a good mother and a good father in this parent-hurting society of ours. We have dealt with the same problems as millions of moms and dads across the country--too much work, too little support or recognition, and never enough time or energy for our kids.

For me the most painful crunch came with my second pregnancy when I discovered I was carrying twins. I gave serious thought to taking a leave of absence from my job, but my place of work had no maternity or parenting leave policy. In fact my boss told me if I took time off I would lose my job. Twelve years of grinding work had gone into this career of mine and I just couldn't toss it aside--my paycheck was just too important to my growing family. So I decided to stick by my job and stamp down my worries.

When I was six months pregnant I was sitting in my office in a state of utter exhaustion after a ten-hour work day, trying to summon up enough energy to go home, when liquid began to trickle down my legs. As the trickle turned into a stream, I realized in horror that my waters had broken and that it was much too early to go into labor. I was rushed to the hospital and two days later I gave birth to twins. One baby was dead, the other was dying. For a long time afterwards life was truly hard to bear. I mourned my children with an intensity that frightened me. I felt I had failed to protect my babies and therefore had no pity on myself.

That dark winter of 1979-80 put me in touch with the significance of social supports. The right to parenting leave would have made an enormous difference to the life chances of my babies. At the time I wondered how other women dealt with hostile work environments. And the fact is they don't. The sad fact is millions of American women are pushed to the edge when they give birth to a child. Despite the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 30% of working women still have no right to time off for pregnancy or childbirth because they work for a company with fewer than 50 employees. They are in precisely the same position I was in when I lost the twins: they have to choose, either their baby or their job.

Parents Make a Difference

Parents are an enormously powerful force in the lives of children. Whether Johnny can read, whether Johnny knows right from wrong, whether Johnny is a happy, well-adjusted kid, or sullen and self-destructive, has a whole lot to do with the kind of parenting Johnny has received. If Johnny's mom and dad have been able to come through with sustained, steadfast, loving attention, the odds are Johnny is on track to become a productive, compassionate citizen. If they have not, Johnny is in trouble--and so is our nation.

Thirty years ago Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman showed that parental involvement mattered far more in determining school success than any attribute of the formal education system. Across a wide range of subject areas, in literature, science and reading, Coleman estimated that the parent was twice as powerful as the school in determining achievement at age fourteen. Psychologist Lawrence Steinberg, who recently completed a six-year study of 20,000 teenagers in nine different communities, confirms the importance of parents. Steinberg shows that one out of three parents is "seriously disengaged" from his or her adolescent's education, and this is the primary reason why so many American students perform below their potential-- and below students in other rich countries.

A weight of evidence now demonstrates ominous links between absentee parents and a wide range of behavioral and emotional problems in children. A 1997 study of 90,000 teenagers --the Add Health Project undertaken by the Carolina Population Center and the Adolescent Health Program at the University of Minnesota--found that youngsters are less likely get pregnant, use drugs or become involved in crime when they spent significant time with their parents. This study found that the mere physical presence of a parent in the home after school, at dinner and at bedtime significantly reduces the incidence of risky behavior among teenagers.

Parents Strive to do the Right Thing

Parents are not less well-intentioned than they used to be. They do not love their children less. They are as passionately attached to their children as they have ever been. In their gut they understand that they are indispensable--that three weeks old infants should not be in "kennels," that eleven-year-olds should not be home alone--and they strain and stretch to buck the trends and come through for their children.

"You have to work more than one job just to keep up with where you were three, four, five years ago," said Ed Gagnon, a New York City police sergeant who moonlights at two other jobs because of mortgage payments and tax bills.

Ed has spent sixteen years on the force and now earns $65,000 a year, but that only brings in $3,000 a month in terms of take home pay. Of this Ed shells out $2,100 a month in carrying charges for the modest home he bought five years ago. "We don't have a huge mortgage by New York City standards but the rate is high (8%) and our property taxes are crazy--they just hit $700 a month. I reckon I spend close to 70% of my sergeant's pay on housing. With a wife and two kids there is just no way that I can make the $900 left over stretch an entire month.

So four years ago I took on a second job--working nights as a security guard at a shopping mall. Then that wasn't enough, so last year I took on this third job at the weekends--I load passengers and luggage for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

I try real hard to see my kids in the afternoons. I just got my police shift changed to the 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. slot so I can pick up my 11-year-old from the bus stop. Now that's made a difference. You should see his eyes light up when he sees me waiting there. He's handicapped and goes to this special school and he kind of relies on his dad to be his buddy. It would be great to have more time for him at the weekends."

What To Do?

So how do we turn this thing around and give new support to parents? Over the past three years we have gathered testimony from parents in communities across America and constructed a Parents' Bill of Rights--a document imbued with healing and hope for beleaguered mothers and fathers everywhere. Whether you are black, brown, male or female, whether your family income is $23,000 or $85,000 a year, these measures can help you come through for your children.

The Power of Collective Action

Which brings us to a crucial question. How do we turn this Parents' Bill of Rights into a reality? The answer lies in collective action. There are 62 million parents in America and the vast majority are desperately worried about finding enough time and energy for their kids. (According to a survey undertaken by the National Parenting Association in 1996, 91% of parents see the time crunch as a huge problem). If moms and dads were to join together and speak with one voice we could produce new clout for parents in Congress and in board rooms around the country. An AARP for parents could make sure that American parents finally get the support they need and so richly deserve. We are not talking selfish, special interest group politics here. Children are not some bit player. They are 100 percent of our collective future and it behooves us as a nation--parents and non-parents alike--to make sure that moms and dads do a good job.


* Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and founder of the National Parenting Association, lives in New York City with her husband and four children--ages twenty to fourteen months. A new book by Hewlett and Cornel West entitled The War Against Parents has just been published by Houghton Mifflin.

Copyright © 1998 Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

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