Our Endangered Children: Growing Up in a Changing World by Vance Packard; Little, Brown; Boston.

Who Will Take the Children? A New Custody Option for Divorcing Mothers—and Fathers by Susan Meyers and Joan Lakin; Bobbs-Merrill; Indianapolis.

Secular liberalism is the supreme doctrine of the sovereign self. As such, its failures are particularly obvious at the two end points of life, birth and death, when the limitations of the self are inevitably exposed. Though medical advances and Mediterranean cruises have reduced the humiliation of old age, death has not yet relinquished its absolute sway over the rights-bloated self. Without promising greater self-fulfillment or enhanced self-esteem, the grave continues to enforce its traditional claims, even upon the most liberated rebels against all tradition. All militantly asserted rights to choose among innovative “alternatives” disappear into a common hole in the ground. Consequently, many liberals have no idea about how to approach death, though death—the first true believer in equal opportunity—is quite sure about how to approach liberals.

By refusing to accept the strictures of religion during life, such individuals deny themselves any of its consolations concerning death, and therefore they often avoid thinking or talking about it at all. If the unpleasant topic forces itself into view, a panel of popular psychologists is summoned, whose discussion of how to “accept” death merely confirms the audience’s despair and low-grade depression.

Birth, the appearance of a new self, poses its own vexing problems for liberal orthodoxy. Just as liberal doctrine assumes the immortality of the gods, it also requires the Olympian mode of re production: autonomous deities leaping full-grown from their fathers’ foreheads. For how else can the needs of an infant or child be met by parents without sacrificing the sacrosanct autonomy of the self, especially the female self? Unable to answer this question, many self-centered Americans have either stopped having children or have refused to make sufficient sacrifices for those they do have. The result, as Vance Packard observes in Our Endangered Children, is “an anti-child culture.” The birth rate in the U.S. has declined dramatically since the late 50’s, while the number of deliberately “childfree” couples has skyrocketed. Californians have more cars than children, Mr. Packard explains, because “cars promise freedom and mobility; young children don’t.”

For Californians, as well as residents of other states, the means of producing children, sex, still ranks somewhere above cars as a means of achieving self-gratification. But thanks to contraceptives, coupling need create no lasting entanglements. And if an “accident” occurs, a little shot of saline solution will quickly make the undesired POC (“product of conception”) ready for suitable swaddling in a garbage can behind the nearest abortion mill. Both in numbers and technique, our society has so far out-heroded Herod that the Judean monarch’s crude slaughter of a few hundred unwanted babies in one small locale seems almost negligible compared to the current extermination of hundreds of thousands of the unborn.

Among those babies who survive until birth, almost one-sixth are now illegitimate, usually born to teenage mothers with neither the resources nor the education to provide for their offspring. Because, as Mr. Packard notes, “there has been a decrease in the stigma attached to having an illegitimate child,” few of these child-parents now elect to give their babies up for adoption into intact families. Despite all the feminist cant about “the strength of female-headed families,” children born into these circumstances labor under formidable handicaps. Not only do mothers command substantially less earning power than do fathers, but studies presented by Mr. Packard prove that regardless of economic advantages, the absence of a father often causes profound emotional, psychological, and social difficulties for the child.

Unfortunately, many of the children born to wedded couples will not be raised by those couples. Not only has the divorce rate more than doubled since 1960, but the divorce rate among couples with children has more than tripled. Parents don’t stay together “for the sake of the children” anymore. Because the autonomous self now recognizes no sake but its own, rationalization comes easy: “The kids will be happier when I’m happy.” Excepting the cases of an abusive parent, studies do not bear out this line of thought. Children are usually much happier growing up in an unhappy marriage, many researchers have found, than in experiencing a divorce. Young children are typically tormented by guilt and insecurity, while older children fantasize for years about Dad and Mom getting back together. According to a survey cited by Mr. Packard, one year after the event even most parents suspect that the divorce “might have been a mistake” and that perhaps they “should have tried harder.”

For many parents, though, divorce is now acceptable as an easy way out of unpleasant conflicts. In some circles, it is even hailed as a courageous act of self-assertion. The consequent split-parenting is generally painful for the children, however. The courts try to be equitable in awarding custody, but the whole process is often reminiscent of a badly done magic act in which the magician saws his stagebox in half only to leave a bleeding portion of his assistant in each half. From the turn of the century until recently, courts routinely gave mothers custody of the children on the assumption that they are better nurturers than fathers. In the post-Friedan world of feminist mothers, things are different. Mr. Packord reports an alarming upswing in mothers who simply desert their families in pursuit of less constricted horizons. Others, like Susan Meyer and Joan Lakin, voluntarily surrender custody of their children upon divorce.

The authors of Who Will Take the Children? claim they have compiled what actually amounts to a rather disjointed collection of statements by divorced women whose children live with their fathers in order to smash the popular “stereotypes” of such women as cold and unfeeling. Actually, it would be hard to imagine a work which more fully confirms stereotypes: first comes boredom with upper-middle-class life; then involvement with a feminist consciousness raising group; then campaigning for liberalized abortion; yoga and transcendental meditation follow; finally, the decision to part with burdensome children and a “conservative” husband. Of course, these women do profess love and concern for their children and offer some appropriately posed “anguish” over choosing to let them go. Nonetheless, it’s quite apparent that their primary concern is not the happiness of those children, who become merely an “issue” to be “dealt with” on the way to the satis faction and fulfillment of following “my own needs and desires.” In passing, Ms. Meyers and Ms. Lakin concede that the “ideal” home for children has both a mother and a father, but they are not much concerned with preserving such an ideal. They think that it is wonderful that our “culture has changed” so that “divorce is easier,” and they revel in the “positive results” achieved in their own cases. Indeed, after reassuring the reader about fathers’ ability to provide child care, they encourage other women in pursuit of education, professional advancement, and freedom to consider their options.

Given Mr. Packard’s discovery that three-fourths of single fathers feel “overwhelmed,” such advice is sound only as feminist ideology. In most in stances, fathers simply don’t make good mothers. Antimaternalism, moreover, can only swell the already-rising tide of custody cases in which neither parent wants the children.

Bias against motherhood has also affected the care given children in millions of intact homes. Because of the decline in prestige accorded homemakers, many mothers take jobs without any economic pressure to do so. Their children are then left at a day-care center, typically a “ware-house for children” chosen on the basis of cost and convenience, not quality, Mr. Packard finds. Even the best centers leave emotional and social scars less frequently found on children with an at home mother. Older children who come home from school to M*A*S*H reruns and frozen pizza also suffer and, in aimless destruction—for they have nothing else to do—cause suffering.

As he surveys “the modem form of damnation that confronts our children,” Mr. Packard is justifiably distressed. With teenage drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, and adolescent promiscuity all at unprecedented levels, we must conclude with him that “our society is seriously malfunctioning in its role of preparing children for adulthood.” But Mr. Packard’s analysis of this malfunctioning is finally unsatisfying. He knows why we are “blighting our youngsters”: he sees the damage wrought by feminism and by the “do your own thing” philosophy, and he recognizes the frightful effects of the “decline in religious belief as a force in daily living.” Like too many other sociologists, though, he is so daunted by the liberal zeitgeist that he will not trust his conservative impulses enough to confront the spiritual bankruptcy of our age squarely. His concluding chapter, which emphasizes corporate and governmental policies for support ing families, is superficial and disappoint ing. In it he praises Sweden for its long standing “family policy,” apparently oblivious to the fact that that policy has done nothing to curb Sweden’s astronomical divorce and illegitimacy rates. American efforts to help the family through state bureaucracies have so far proved just as ineffective, if not counterproductive. Certainly, the burgeoning family assistance programs have had no visible effect upon a dismal trend curiously overlooked by Mr. Packard: adolescent suicide in the U.S. has climbed 250 percent in the last 20 years. It is up to parents, not social workers, to rectify this calamitous situation by replacing the worship of self with devotion to spouse and family. If they do not, the answer to the question “Who will get the children?” will increasingly be “The county coroner.”