Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Book Review: No Exit

In No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents, Anne Alstott tackles the hot topic of parental politics. No Exit is a good follow up for Ann Crittenden’s book, The Price of Motherhood . Crittenden excels at describing the many disadvantages that parents face, and Alstott attempts to find a policy solution. This policy solution is only fair, according to Alstott. Because society demands much of parents, parents are entitled to some support from society.

If you like your writing about parenthood to encompass all the emotion and conflict that surrounds this topic, then Alstott is not your author. Unlike Caitlin Flanagan who tackles this same subject, Alstott writes without the benefit of adjectives, anecdotes, or examples. The wrenching decisions that most women make about career and family are absent from this book. No Exit is written like a lawyer’s brief.

The first part of Alstott’s book is devoted to explaining why society should care for its parents. She says that society expects parents to care for their kids in an intensive manner for 18 years. They must provide a “continuity of care” and can’t abandon their responsibilities for even a day. Without this care, a child grows into a troubled, damaged adult with few options and little opportunity for personal contentment. And society penalizes and even jails parents who fail to provide this care.

As a result, parents have to make enormous sacrifices and severely curtail their own individual freedoms. But there is little reward for these sacrifices. Children no longer help out in the family farm. And there is no assurance that kids will provide for you in retirement.

Alstott recognizes that the biggest obstacle that parents face is the resistance by the childless to provide social policy or make work accommodations for those with families. Her argument is designed to meet the challenges of the childless.

Her rationale for why society must provide for parents is heavily based on the theories of John Rawls. Rawls just isn’t my cup of tea, so I won’t critique her rationale here. I’ll leave that to Harry at Crooked Timber, the Rawls expert.

After she has set up her reason for creating a support net for parents, she moves on to her policy proposal. She says that every caretaker (be it the mom or the dad), should be entitled to a yearly grant of $5,000 that can be spent in one of three ways: on childcare, on education for the parent, or a retirement fund for that parent. That money cannot be used to pay the rent or the child’s education or the groceries. In different years, the money can be used in different ways. There is no income cap for benefits.

Alstott correctly identifies some major problems that face parents, who are usually women. Parents who take time off from work face a heavy penalty in terms of lost wages and lost promotion opportunities. Mothers make substantially less than their single counterparts. Women are frequently left impoverished by divorce, especially those who take off time to raise the kids and support their spouse’s careers. Child-rearing is an expensive proposition with little financial reward. Caretakers have little money for retirement, especially after divorce. Childcare expenses can exceed salaries. Parents of children with disabilities must make especially high sacrifices.

Her plan attempts to lessen these inequities. It specifically helps those who work full time, but for relatively low wage jobs. It helps those who need a degree in nursing or engineering to improve their wages in the long term. It helps women, who need some security from a cheating husband with a good lawyer, by providing them with a retirement fund.

Her plan would not help the SAHM in lower to mid income range. There are many families can’t buy a house or maybe pay for groceries, because one income is no longer enough. They make enormous sacrifices because they don’t believe that childcare is good enough. A retirement plan is nice, but groceries are even better for those in that situation. Alstott is not sympathetic to families in this boat.

Her plan doesn’t help create more part time jobs. It doesn’t change the anti-family attitude at the workplace. It doesn’t help all the women, with or without an education, who can’t get jobs later in life.

It wouldn’t help me. Childcare funds wouldn’t hurt, but childcare in the city far exceeds $5000 per child. God knows I don’t need any more education. A retirement fund is nice, but I need some changes right now. I would like academia to offer more part-time positions; adjuncting doesn’t count. I would like to scale up my work responsibilities as the children grow older. I don’t want to have to pretend that I don’t have family responsibilities, that I am just as unencumbered as my single co-workers.

Alstott quickly dismisses the workplace changing or the interest of husbands in participating in a more equitable distribution of family responsibilities. Surprisingly for a law professor, she doesn’t even recommend altering divorce law.

For any real change to occur in society, there has to be an across the board shift in attitudes towards family. Instead of just pushing more women into workplace, which her plan would accomplish, there needs to be an appreciation of caring work. An advertising agency recently broke down the different types of moms, those that lunch and exercise, those that work and hate themselves, those that dress up their kids. Each characterization was derogatory, and was ridiculed by a mothers rights organization. Nobody will fork over $100 billion per year on Alstott’s program, while such attitudes exist. Perhaps it will take some generational disaster, like the one predicted by Philip Longman, to bring about this revolution.

Simply handing over our children to childcare professionals and carrying on with highly demanding jobs, I don’t believe will improve the lives of parents or children.

Alstott starts off her book explaining that her second child has severe asthma. So severe that she and her husband had to reduce their responsibilities at work to care for their son. She and her husband worked in a workplace that was flexible enough to allow them to scale back. Her husband did his share. This is the solution: having husbands that contribute and workplaces that adjust. I’m not sure why Alstott didn’t advocate that all workplaces operate in the same manner or have confidence that other men would make such sacrifices. This would be a less costly, more humane solution to the work/family dilemna.

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