The Baby Boom by Elinor Burkett
The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless
by Elinor Burkett
Free Press. 256 pp. $25.00
The American workplace has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past decade. In order to accommodate working parents—in particular, working mothers—many companies now provide their employees with generous maternity leave, day-care centers, flexible working hours, and time off for school functions. Still others offer such benefits as $1,000 gifts upon the birth of a new child, financial help for adoption, and interest-free loans for college tuition.
For the corporate managers who have brought about this transformation, as for the politicians who have encouraged it by word and legislative deed, such policies demonstrate their strong commitment to the American family. But for Elinor Burkett, a journalist who has specialized in criticizing feminism from within, the new “family-friendly” workplace points to something else entirely: a growing indifference to the needs and interests of those who have chosen to remain childless. The Baby Boon is meant to serve as a manifesto for this long-ignored and, we are told, increasingly disgruntled class.
As Burkett sees it, today’s America consists of two distinct nations, one inhabited by parents and the other by the childless. Indeed, in her view, those without children—or the “child-free,” as one of her interviewees proudly calls herself—are an oppressed minority, victims of a society run by self-involved baby-boomer parents.
Forced to endure a range of indignities in their private lives—having to shop and dine in the company of minors is on their list of complaints—the childless are most putupon, according to Burkett, at work There they are expected to put in longer hours, to skip weekends and holidays, and to cover for colleagues whose parental responsibilities pull them away to confer with a teacher, attend a little-league game, or stay home with a newborn. Even more galling is the fact that the childless are the ones who ultimately pay for their employers’ family-friendliness, since the expensive perks enjoyed exclusively by parents tend to depress wages across the board.
To make matters worse, parents show no gratitude for the special privileges they receive. They treat the childless with ill-disguised scorn and, filled with an invincible sense of entitlement, continually demand still more concessions to their family needs. One woman, Burkett relates, sued her employer for failing to provide a private room in which she could pump breast milk—a violation, she claimed, of both her civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Though a feminist herself, Burkett places much of the blame for this situation on contemporary feminism. Willfully blind to life’s inevitable trade-offs, the movement’s leaders have failed to speak common sense to women, instead promoting unchecked career advancement as the absolute right of every working mother. Those who do not toe the movement’s line—like Joyce Purnick, the New York Times editor who recently scandalized a graduating class at Barnard by telling them that her own success had come about only because, being childless, she was able to give all her energy to journalism—risk ostracism from the fold. Their crime, according to feminist doyenne Betty Friedan: “pitting women against women.”
Having come of political age in the 1970’s, Burkett finds it ironic that a movement whose original appeal rested in large part on questioning the primacy of motherhood has now embraced “the maternal mystique,” accepting motherhood as “the highest idea.” Feminists may attempt to disguise this fact by speaking in the name of “parents” or “families,” Burkett writes, but in reality they have simply imported into the workplace the “rigid female stereotype” that a woman is, above all, a mother. Little wonder, she archly observes, that in advocating “affirmative action” for mothers, feminists have often found themselves in league with the benighted conservative advocates of “family values.”
The Baby Boon is a lively read—too lively, in fact, for its own good. Filled with overheated prose and exaggerated examples, it is the sort of book that may rally sympathizers but nevertheless leaves one wondering about its author’s reliability.
Burkett is unconvincing, for one thing, in her effort to portray a simmering class divide in the workplace. After all, it is not just the childless who fill in when a parent takes time off from work—colleagues with grown children or with less urgent family concerns carry the load as well. Nor is it true, as Burkett asserts, that girls are now being taught “that women cannot be happy or fulfilled without children.” To the contrary, the clear message being communicated to girls today is that they should set their sights on a high-powered career; marriage and motherhood are, at best, an afterthought.
Where Burkett does perform a useful service is in reminding us how much family policy in the U.S. has been transformed over the last generation—and how powerful are the forces working to accelerate the pace of change. In much of Europe (as many American feminists accusingly point out), all parents—and not just those working for progressive corporations—are given twelve months of paid leave when a baby is born, subsidized day care, and a generous allowance for each child. If the present trend holds—and there is no reason to think that American women will somehow stop wanting to “have it all”—this may be the shape of things to come here as well.
Unfortunately, Burkett is as ill-equipped to evaluate this change as are the feminists she criticizes. She, too, operates by a moral calculus based almost exclusively on the welfare of adults. If parents want to leave their two-month-old in day care for ten hours a day, that is okay with her so long as no one asks her to pay for it. Having children, Burkett avers, is simply another “lifestyle” choice, one that differs little from any other expensive hobby.
The unspoken and, to say the least, highly dubious assumption here is that whether children grow up at home with their mother, in the keeping of a nanny, or in one of the many institutions that now serve in loco parentis for working couples, they will somehow turn out just fine in the end. The resilience of this self-serving idea, not only among contemporary feminists but among critics like Burkett, suggests that despite the newfound “family-friendliness” of the American workplace, we still have a long way to go in recovering the most basic wisdom about the needs of children and families.