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A Discussion about Women’s Work Choices and Children Originally written in May 1990 Cheri Laser Has the “women’s movement” died after twenty-five years? Have the feminists lost all of their political clout? Were the issues somehow transferred from the public domain into one that is intensely personal and private? If, in fact, the answer to any of these questions is no, then where is everybody? Where’s the debate? And, by the way, what are today’s issues? A search for the whereabouts of feminist voices reveals three disparate groups. The first is the Old Guard. These are the women who paved roads for the rest of us with tenacious, strident determination. They continue to maneuver behind the scenes, lobbying, as always, for equality and choice. But their names no longer make headlines. Besides, they are tired. Many of them are grandmothers now. Hence, the Old Guard has opted to slow down—and they deserve to do so. Members of the second group, numbering in the tens of millions, are too busy working to be vocal. Once they’ve balanced their jobs, families, household chores, and checkbooks, there’s no time left for marching and carrying signs. I belong to this group. In 1970, at twenty-three, I had a baby. Out of economic necessity, I worked through eight months of my pregnancy and returned to the job market when my daughter was five weeks old. I considered myself a pioneer. Not everyone agreed. Some thought my reasoning was fuzzy. Others bluntly told me I was a bad mother. Still, I had a vision. My career in marketing accelerated. So did the child care bills and the length of my todo lists. Thankfully, by the time my daughter was in kindergarten, my husband’s business began to grow, but so did his extensive travel requirements. In the midst of our blurred schedules, I overheard my daughter refer to herself as a “latch-key child.” I’d never run across that strange term before—something she’d learned from one of her teachers. In those salad days, my energy was focused outwardly upon my job and inwardly on what the Old Guard said was my responsibility: the struggle to make life better for the next generation of women, of which my daughter was a part. She was not without exposure to tradition, however, regularly attending ballet lessons, junior achievement, and softball practice, frequently with someone other than myself providing the transportation. In August of 1988, she left home for college. Two months later I exchanged my fifteen-year career for one as a writer, after being diagnosed with cancer (thankfully under control now). There’s more time these days to see life’s colors, and they stand in sharp contrast to the black-and-white decisions I made in the past. I’ve also had an opportunity to observe my female contemporaries giving birth to their first babies, not at age twenty-three but in their late thirties and early forties. They postponed this event as long as possible, while they pursued professional alternatives. Many will be in their mid-to-late fifties when their children graduate from high school. Was it worth the wait? And what happens to their careers now that they have children—or vice versa? These questions must be addressed by the third faction of women—those on college campuses—who will ultimately play a major role in upholding the priorities of the original feminism. My opinion is that time and reality have already defined those priorities for all of us, and topping the list is the issue of our children. A recent PBS news forum explored the controversy initiated by 150 Wellesley College seniors who objected to the choice of First Lady Barbara Bush as their commencement speaker. Dissenters complained that, other than being the very public wife of a man to whom she’s been married for more than forty years (a man whose job is currently President of the United States), and
other than raising five children, Mrs. Bush has never accomplished anything “on her own.” She is thus viewed by a portion of the Wellesley seniors as an inappropriate role model for the “Wellesley Woman.” In the midst of the PBS panel’s dialogue, much of which dealt with children, a Wellesley graduate declared that she wanted no part of any deliberation on women’s issues which focused on day care and parental leave. That young woman made me angry. The early nurturing of our children—mother with child, father with child, or mother and father with child, at home—has been devalued. What was once preeminent within American families has become a second-rate occupation, and some won’t even grace the raising of children with the term “occupation.” But whatever the job is called, the effort ranks well behind “closing the big order” or “consummating the perfect deal.” Unintentionally, the Old Guard created the problem. They urged us to enter the business and professional arenas where the greatest inequities existed. Those of us who were listening went to work to gain economic and political advantage, leaving our babies in the care of strangers in day care centers. We lied to ourselves as we drove off to our new jobs. “That nice, gray-haired lady will read to my child and expand his or her young mind through creative activities.” Occasionally, I’m sure that vision materialized. But, in large measure, I’m equally as sure that it did not. And only now are we facing the truth. That “nice lady” spent her day managing a for-profit business. The real custodians of our babies were the nice lady’s minimum-wage employees—one for every twenty of our children—and a television set. We planned “quality time” with our kids, believing that such time would compensate for the fifty or sixty hours a week we spent away from them. We were wrong. We overdid our response to the Old Guard’s call for responsibility and road-paving as we worked twice as hard as the men, for half the pay, doing the same job. But we were at least being admitted onto the playing field—finally—and that was a huge accomplishment, for which we were told we should be immensely proud. Now a generation of working mothers (by necessity or choice) and absentee fathers (by abandonment or company travel demands) has produced a spate of adolescents and young adults who either cannot or choose not to read. Automatically selecting movies and television over any type of written material—a reflection of their early imprinting—they possess a limited scope of geography, history, domestic affairs, and international events. Declining SAT scores, as well as national surveys of high school seniors and college freshmen, stand in confirmation. And rather than giving our children time, we gave them things, neglecting to teach the value of those things or of the money behind them. Consequently, sociologists tell us this will be the first generation in our country’s history to have a lower standard of living than their parents. Do I feel guilty? You’re damn right I do! So, now what? An aspiring Southern actress, drawling through a recent interview, proclaimed, “Despite our conservative heritage, my girlfriends and I fully support the women’s movement and will do whatever is necessary to keep things moving forward—just as long as men still have to kill all the bugs.” Well, each of us learns from where we’ve been. While I was working and raising my daughter, my childless friends were working along with me—and they were watching. Suddenly, after becoming mothers themselves, those who can afford to do so are going home. They are sacrificing the momentum of their careers in order to personally nurture their children. Small wonder that men have toned down their rhetoric. The “natural,” male-dominated order of things threatens to be preserved after all—despite the Old Guard’s sacrifice and the sweat equity of my generation—without even a fight. Enlightened corporations are attempting to reverse this trend with innovative parental leave programs, for which both parents are eligible. But the men are digging in their heels. They’re not saying, “Honey, you take the first six months of leave, then I’ll take the second. We’ll alternate for
the next three years until the baby’s in preschool.” And the silence of those male voices is deafening. While some progressive new fathers would consider the shared approach, today’s societal attitudes toward child rearing hardly encourage them to do so. Instead, an old, hauntingly familiar double standard has resurfaced wearing a new hat. The name on the hat is “Mommy Track.” Noticeably absent is the commensurate “Daddy Track.” And unfortunately, economically disadvantaged women, or those who head households, do not have the option of stepping away from their work/careers onto any sort of track that would enable them to stay home with their children. Given these realities, Wellesley College women are scarcely representative of the average American female adult. Yet their favored posture confers upon them a visibility and an opportunity to arouse the public conscience. And I applaud their doing so with respect to the Barbara Bush controversy. For their consideration—and for that of the young Wellesley graduate who preferred not to include the issue of children in the PBS panel discussion exploring the measure of a woman’s value in contemporary America—I propose the following points: 1) Women without children have nearly as many options available to them as do men today. In fact, young women hired into professional positions frequently outperform their male counterparts through a combination of skill and gritty determination and are, therefore, actively recruited. Granted, a few brick walls still must be faced once a choice is made. Nonetheless, the choices do exist now, so the Old Guard and my generation clearly did something right. 2) When a woman has a child, however—and even the most ambitious workaholic among us is eventually nudged by the biological clock before the age of 40—the choices evaporate. In that regard, the women of Wellesley have more in common with Barbara Bush than they care to admit. If they do not learn to champion the cause of parenting hand-in-hand with that of careers and self-actualization, then they will not be enhancing the cause but will instead be applying self-imposed limitations on the choices available to women. And limiting choice will adversely affect the children of those women, whether the Wellesley seniors want to believe that or not. 3) The inevitable debate borne of the “Barbara Bush versus a real role model” confrontation is welcome and refreshing. At least we’re all talking again. But if the process is to be effective, a profound sense of urgency must be created. Our country needs a resurging emphasis upon the value of early childhood development and nurturing in the home—an emphasis that bestows this critical task with a status equal to that of the careers pursued by a child’s mother and father. This is not a “may-the-best-person-win” scenario. The battle should not be about which woman has more value, the one who has a career or the one who opts not to have one or to delay that endeavor. Nor should the battle be about whether the man or the woman will be more successful and victorious. What this is about is whether today’s children will be able to read when they grow up, whether they’ll be able to fill out job applications and carry on intelligent conversations, and confidently take their responsible places in society. And, if we fail to grasp and act upon this critical issue, a few years down the road we really will be asking, “Where is everybody?”
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?