Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Raised by Strangers"

It's a mantra that I've heard repeated many times, especially in Christian circles.  "A good mother stays home full-time.  Don't let your children be raised by strangers!"

"Raised by strangers."  What mom would want that for her kids?  So I believed, as a young Christian married woman, that of course God would provide a way for me to not work outside the home.  After all, staying home with my kids full-time was what I wanted as a young mother, right?  I mean, if I were really following God's will for my life, this was what I should want.  And this was obviously what was best both for me and for my children, right?  I mean, if God designed it that way, then that's how it should work best!

The problem was that the only way we could have given up my income while simultaneously incurring the costs of infant care was by going on welfare, which (we were taught) was also totally a no-no for good Christians.  We had to choose, it seemed, between being out of God's will one way, or being out of God's will another way.  What was being demanded of us was actually impossible.

So I went back to work after maternity leave-- as part-time as we could afford, but I did go back to work. And I thought God had let me down, because He was supposed to provide so that I wouldn't have to work outside the home.  I also felt guilty because I really liked my job as a legal assistant, which meant, apparently, that I didn't love my kids enough to really want to stay home with them full time.

But working part-time seemed like the best thing to do in our situation.  So that's what we did.

I increased my hours gradually as the children grew up. And I'm very grateful to my boss for being so family-friendly. A lot of women don't have the options he gave me.

It ended up working out just fine for our kids-- and for us, their parents.

I'm not going to cite a bunch of statistics here, or sociological studies or expert opinions on children being in daycare.  Frankly, when I researched this on the Internet, I found that the whole thing is very complicated.  For every study or expert supporting one position, there's another expert or study supporting the opposite.  Practically speaking, the outcomes for children depend not so much on whether or not they're in non-parental child care, but on the quality of the care, the income and education of the family, and the quality of the parenting the kids receive when they're not in day care.

There is one thing I am certain of, though.  There's such a thing as prejudicial language, which is defined as "loaded or emotive terms used to attach value or moral goodness [or badness] to believing the proposition."  And if ever a phrase constituted prejudicial language, "raised by strangers" is such a phrase.

My children weren't "raised by strangers."  I mean, let's look at this practically.  Even with both parents working full time (which wasn't true in our house anyway until the kids reached school age), a child still is at home a lot.  There was breakfast time, dinner time, chore time, playtime, bath time, bedtime. And weekends. And holidays.  And sick days, when the day cares said, "Not in here. You have to keep your kid home."  Some parents risk losing paid hours, or even their jobs, in that situation!  I could only be grateful my boss was supportive and that I had plenty of paid sick leave and vacation time.

Also, guess what-- once you meet a person who is going to take care of your children, you begin to develop a relationship based around the commonality of that child, and she isn't a stranger anymore! I found it was important to me that the children be in home-based day care rather than classroom-type day care, so that's what I picked (and I was privileged to have this option-- a lot of women don't, so we need to cut them some slack!)  What I didn't have was any relative, any grandmother or aunt, who lived in the area and could watch the kids.  But the children grew to love their caregivers as they would a grandmother or aunt.  Did the lack of blood ties really matter?  Both children were happy and secure in their daycare settings, looked forward to going, and enjoyed coming home to be with me as well.

So why are we as Christians putting such burdens and laying such guilt trips on parents who are doing the best they can?

The Bible, in fact, never addresses how much time a mother is supposed to be home with her children.  The Proverbs 31 woman, who is held up so often as the example Christian women should strive to follow, apparently spent quite a bit of time away from home and family, doing things like buying fields, planting vineyards, and selling linen garments to merchants.

It's also important to remember that today's nuclear family was simply not what Paul had in mind when he talked about parenting in the New Testament, because such a thing didn't exist. I mean, of course there was such a thing as a mother, father and children, but they generally were just part of a larger household, and the majority of people were actually slaves. Almost everyone lived in household units that also functioned as economic units, with one older patriarch as ruler of the family, his slaves, wife and children (adult sons, with their wives, and minor children) who were all expected to obey him. Most mothers didn't and couldn't take care of their children full time. The patriarch's wife would spend most of her time managing the household and the servants. Slave women worked in the fields or took care of their mistress's children, presumably leaving their own young children to be cared for by older family members who were past the age of harder work.

This idea that a child can only grow up healthy if her mom is there 24-7 is really a fairly modern invention-- and even now is an option only available to fairly well-off families.  Most women throughout history have not been able to be full-time mothers.  Most women today are not able to be full-time mothers.  In fact, many women (like myself, I discovered, when I was honest with myself) end up discovering they're not suited for or happy staying home full time.

What if God didn't design all women alike?  What if "raised by strangers" is really just rhetoric being used to shame women into staying in a traditional role?

What I say is, no two families are alike, and we all need to just do the best we can given who we are and our situations, and not place burdens on ourselves or each other that are too difficult to bear.


Anonymous said...

I came across this article when looking for a book called, "Raised by Strangers". It was just released. Check it out.........

Kristen said...

Thanks for the notice, though it seems to be about an entirely different subject than the subject of this post. Still, readers might like to know about this book, so I'll leave it up.

Anonymous said...

I read this article in NLG blog and just loved it! Many stay-at-home-fundamentalists have created this illusion of the past that mothers had all the time in the world to take care of their children for thousands of years until the evil feminism came and made women work. My 93 year old granmother was 14 when she left home to work as a maid and her mum was always busy with farm chores so she remembers taking care of her younger siblings from a very early age and older relatives helped out too. I'm actually very thankful for feminism because in my little nortern european country it means that I can take long maternity leaves (up to 3 years/child and it can be divided between mum and dad). I stayed home for almost 3 years with my daughter, worked for full time one year and next few years I'll be working 3 days a week. I love that I have had the chance to be at home, but also work and that my child is happy in her day care :)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (Dec. 15)

In the United States working women don't get that luxury. We are allowed maternity leave is 12 weeks total. Many women can't afford to do this here because all of it is unpaid. (However, it used to be that there was no leave mandated at all.) There is no governmental support for child care for working families either.

Kristen said...

Well, there is a working family tax credit and a dependent care tax credit, but that's about all. On the other hand, employers with less than 50 employees are not required to grant maternity leave at all (though many do). Some employers grant paid maternity leave, but most do not.

I'm curious as to whether, in European countries with long maternity/paternity leaves, people who take such long leaves-- several years!-- find that they negatively affect their career advancement. Over here, leaving the work force for any extended period can make it very difficult to get back in!