You have to hand it to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who has built an impressive career as the hectoring moral lightning rod of American family life, telling people what they don't want to hear about how they conduct themselves and especially how they raise their kids. Through her books and syndicated radio show (soon to become a TV show), Dr. Laura preaches a reactionary gospel, begging for a return to 1950s family values and dissing the choices of an entire generation--my generation--that wants to "have it all": fabulous careers, love lives and families. Dr. Laura is so ripe for parody that at least two characters on prime-time TV are clearly based on her. It would be easy to dismiss her except for this: she does score some direct hits, and let me tell you--the truth hurts.
Dr. Laura's latest book, Parenthood by Proxy, argues that parents should devote themselves to rearing their children, rather than farming the job out to nannies and teachers. At least one parent should stay at home full time, even if that means interrupting a career. Anything less, Schlessinger says, is selfish and neglectful. Dr. Laura hates the concepts of "dual-career families" and "quality day care," contending that not even the best hired caregiver can fulfill a child's emotional and moral needs.
There's obviously a lot of hyperbole here; we all know two-career couples who make plenty of time for their kids. And we've all seen studies that show that quality day care can enrich young children--especially those born into poverty. But underneath her attitude, Schlessinger is making an important point: too many "upwardly mobile" adults bear children not with a sense of lifelong commitment, but rather in the way they might buy a King Charles spaniel or some other neat accessory to their well-appointed lives. And too many assume that nannies can play the same accessory-tending role as dog walkers and gardeners.
If Dr. Laura's book does nothing else useful, it might at least prod prospective parents to explore their expectations, while encouraging those who already are parents to examine their decisions. Adults caught up in advancing their careers should ask themselves: Will I turn down a great job if it would cut into my time with my children? Will I decline a promotion if it requires too much travel? Can I insist that my employer respect my position as a parent? Will I work part time or leave a job altogether if that's in the best interest of my family? Prospective parents should also spend lots of time with other people's children. Parenting doesn't always come naturally, and it almost never works out the way you expect.
Dr. Laura reserves a special room in the underworld for people like me--single mothers who work. In fact, after reading her book, I'm half inclined to try to reconcile with my ex-husband, even if it would mean I have to move in with his new wife and kids. But in other ways I have, like many other parents, successfully built my life around my family. When I recently turned down a full-time job in order to be with my daughter after school, my prospective boss congratulated me for the "sacrifice" I was willing to make on her behalf. I had to laugh. He was offering me money, benefits, staff meetings and office politics. Being a parent gives me everything else. That hardly seems like much of a sacrifice.