My Mother, My Bodyguard

The tug of war behind letting your kid ride the subway alone.

In a provoking (in a good way) account in the New York Sun, writer Lenore Skenazy outs herself as a mother who let her 9-year-old son ride home by himself on a New York subway and bus. Yes, he transferred. She reports that her son arrived “ecstatic with independence.” And also that half the people she has told “want to turn me in for child abuse.” Only half?

Skenazy understands why other parents recoiled at a decision that wasn’t all that daring, rationally speaking. It’s not simply that parents think of every horrendous kidnapping story and so decide not to take any chance—however tiny—that something unspeakably awful will happen to our children. It’s also that, should the worst happen, “We even run a tape of how we’d look on Larry King.” There’s taking a risk that lies outside the social norm, at least for middle-class families, and then there’s taking the fall for taking that chance. It goes without saying, as Skenazy puts it, “These days, when a kid dies, the world—i.e., cable TV—blames the parents. It’s simple as that.”

So when did the notion of parent-as-bodyguard begin to prevail, and does it connect to the endless tug of war over where and how mothers should spend their time?

According to Peter Stearns’ Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, the idea that a bad parent stood behind every child accident—that there were no accidents, in fact—dates from about the 1920s. Nineteenth-century parenting manuals focused on health, not the risk of accidental calamity, Stearns writes. But, in 1922, people such as journalist and author Ida Tarbell were warning, “By analyzing some of the accidents to children, the mother’s responsibility is clear enough. None but she could have prevented them.” The timeline matches a small revelation I had when I read my kids the beloved All of a Kind Family books. The series, first published in 1951, is set on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1910s. When the family’s small son hurts his head badly after playing at a street construction site, his parents are naturally upset. But there’s no self-flagellation. They don’t berate themselves or even mention their own role, or lack thereof. The norm was so different that I had to stop myself from pointing it out to my kids, who don’t really need me to reinforce the notion that it’s parents who are at fault.

Why did this incarnation of parental responsibility, so ingrained now, come to life in the 1920s? When I asked my colleague Ann Hulbert this question, she reminded me of Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer’s work about how childhood came to seem sacred at this time, because middle-class kids were no longer expected to labor in the cash economy. The turn of the century also marks the rise of the playground movement: Advocates tracked child death and injuries from street-car accidents and started agitating for safer play spaces. Ann also pointed me to a third historical factor: women’s suffrage. The 1920s were a time of anxiety about women’s roles and how they might infringe on the spheres of men. If mothers could be convinced that they had the power, and the duty, to save their children from all harm, then wouldn’t they be more likely to stay at home with them?

I’m not sure how to weigh this question in historical terms, but surely the degree to which we’ve come to blame parents for accidents is part of what pulls women toward home and away from work when they have children. Or so I thought as I read and found myself arguing with A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life, a new book by Neil Gilbert, a UC Berkeley professor of social welfare. Gilbert’s argument is that feminism and the unyielding demands of employers have propelled women away from taking care of their small children during the day and toward jobs that they don’t necessarily like much. Gilbert thinks that “an intellectual elite of well-paid professional women” make paid work seem better than it is for many women, and household work more “servile, tedious, mind-numbing.”

Given this tilting, he thinks, the government should help rebalance the ledger. If mothers are to be really free to exercise their preference, tax and employment policies should better support women who don’t want to work when their children are young. This way, “women who want to combine a life of motherhood and employment could have it all—one step at a time.” Gilbert’s proposal is a “home-care allowance”—presumably cash from the government—for women with children up to the age of 5. Maybe this would be offered in tandem with universal preschool. Or maybe on its own.

Gilbert promises that his home-care allowance “would not mean a return to traditional family life as it was practiced a half century ago.” From his perspective, that’s a credible claim, because Gilbert thinks he’s pushing back against great and powerful forces, the exigencies of the labor market and the call to equality from elite feminists, arrayed in favor of women working. But I’m not convinced. I see the benefits, for many families, of an arrangement in which one parent devotes himself or herself full time to childrearing until the kids are old enough for kindergarten. (Though let’s admit that the “him” in that last sentence is largely aspirational.) But what’s the evidence that feminists and the market have tilted the work/don’t work seesaw to the extent that Gilbert thinks? Women of means aren’t necessarily working in ever-greater numbers. The data is as yet inconclusive; the numbers may be falling or static rather than rising.

Let’s not underestimate the countervailing domestic pressures that help nudge middle-class and wealthy women out of the work force when they have kids. (Mothers in lower-income families, of necessity, face a different calculus.) As Gilbert acknowledges, for women whose husbands make good money, employment can already seem to have marginal economic value, once they subtract the cost of child care. Another attraction is the real pleasure of the rhythm of more constant togetherness with your child and the dense stay-at-home web of activities and friendships that many mothers weave.

And finally, what about the specter of accidents, of a solo subway ride that’s not a lark. What if you put your child on public transportation because you can’t pick him up—and the ride ends not in the joy of self-reliance, but in tears or worse? The odds of real harm are low, and yet Ida Tarbell’s finger points at us across the decades. Gilbert, however, ignores it. In building up professional, work-driven feminists as the ones who are calling the shots, he discounts both the personal guilt and the societal guilt (should something happen to your kid) that also sits heavily on the scale.

Even if Gilbert doesn’t make the connection, evidence of maternal guilt is easy to discern in his research. In discussing child care, he points out how hard it is to find high-quality preschools and day care centers. For Gilbert, that’s all the more reason for a government-funded home-care allowance. But for mothers who want to or have to work, mediocre child care is the gift of guilt that never stops giving, the equivalent of the subway ride that could go wrong. The day my son broke his leg on the playground after school, while a babysitter was with him, I ran out of my office so the ambulance taking him to the hospital could pick me up en route. I tried not to blame myself for not having been there, and maybe the accident would have happened just the same if I had been, but it wasn’t easy. Maybe the government could swoop in evenhandedly, with good universal preschool and a home-care allowance, and soothe the anxieties on all sides. Or maybe these policy choices are never so straightforward.