The Washington Post Magazine
  A War Inside Your Head


'But I asked myself: When I'm 90
years old and dying,
what choice could
I live with?
What am I going to
feel less guilty about?'

40 years from now,
you'll realize
your time would
have been much
better spent
playing jacks
with your


| Jayne Lytel distinctly remembers the day she went back to work after her son was born. Her boss at a trade publication, which had hired her to create a newsletter for the financial services industry, called her in to tell her that her job had just moved to Manhattan, and that she could either move with it or quit. She quit. It wasn't even a tough decision. Her son, Lucas, was only 3 months old at the time, and if finding good day care for him had been hard, leaving him there had been harder. She had some severance pay, and a husband whose job as an online business consultant would keep the roof over their heads. So at 42, Jayne decided the next phase of her career would be at home.

In doing so, she joined a group of women the Department of Labor is having a hard time tracking.

According to the department's statisticians, Jayne falls under the broad category of working mother -- one of a group of women whose numbers have swelled every year for roughly the past 20. In 1997, 65 percent of women with children under 6 worked. Thus, the public perception that the "working mother" is the norm.

What, then, is a "stay-at-home mom"? Jayne would call herself one, and so would I. So, in fact, would every woman in my eight-member new-moms support group, a group that includes two technical writers, one journalist, a nutritionist, a sign language interpreter for the deaf and a schoolteacher. All but two of us are doing some kind of work on a freelance or part-time basis at home. But, because we are working and getting paid for it, the Department of Labor counts us as being in the labor force -- just as if we were punching a time clock and working 50 hours a week in an office.

The department's mandate is to keep track of people who work, regardless of how they choose to participate in the labor force. By its definitions, I've never left the work force: People who are on leave -- like me -- count as being employed, because we have jobs to return to. Women on maternity leave count, as do people on sick leave, seasonal workers, people who work without pay for a "family-operated enterprise," and women who provide child care in their homes for other mothers, among other categories.

This way of counting the labor force -- which doesn't distinguish well between part-time and full-time, home-based and office-centered -- is an increasingly bad fit with the real world. More people are using untraditional arrangements to structure their workweek. The line between work and home is being blurred by voice-mail pagers and portable faxes and laptop computers. Upheavals in the corporate world, combined with "family friendly" company policies that exist mainly on paper, have created an incentive for people like Jayne -- with the skills and savvy and confidence -- to become self-employed entrepreneurs and resign from the ranks of the commuting hordes.

This could explain why conversations at my play group center as much on software and modems as they do on teething and ear infections, and why every parenting magazine in my pediatrician's office has at least one article on running your own home business. Put simply, the term "stay-at-home mom" is much more a matter of self-definition than of government statistics -- and there are a lot more out there than you might think.

One conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the more divisive Mommy Wars stories -- from the stay-at-home mothers who gripe that office-going neighbors never pull PTA duty and the working moms who get irate when their kid and nanny can't join a moms-only play group -- will remain a social undercurrent, but perhaps a less virulent one. These corrosive battles do happen, I know; a book agent friend who has a son a year older than Emma tells me about trying to deal with the other mothers in her son's day-care center, who are all stay-at-home-moms. "They all know each other, and they're home all day, and I work," she says, sounding disheartened. "And I feel that there is this door that is closed to me." It gnaws at her; these seemingly trivial social interactions determine who her child's first friends will be.

But, increasingly, such combatants will have a hard time choosing uniforms: Today's working mother may, like me or Jayne, be tomorrow's stay-at-home mom, and vice versa.

So, will the future bring us millions of moms cycling in and out of the labor force as they please? Yes and no. The millions of working mothers who, like Ana, make their money in the service industries will still find themselves at the mercy of clients and corporations; only the technologically elite will be able to surf the waves of change. And even then, it will take a lot to succeed. Jayne Lytel will be able to walk up to the second-floor office in her Northwest D.C. town house and pursue a career as an Internet columnist for women's magazines because she has extensive experience as a financial journalist and as the creator of an online newsletter. She also has a husband with a stable job to provide a financial cushion. "It's a seller's market out there," she says, curled up in an overstuffed chair in her living room as Lucas, who is teething, contentedly gnaws his fingers in a bouncer at her feet. "There's a big demand for people with my skills. I'm not worried about finding work." There's just one major downside, she said: no co-workers. The new world of stay-at-home working moms is, at the moment, looking pretty lonely. But I wonder how long it will stay that way.

Marian Gormley is convinced change is on the way. She is the part-time public relations director of Mothers at Home, a nonprofit organization founded in 1984 by three stay-at-home moms in Northern Virginia. Mothers at Home publishes Welcome Home, a monthly magazine with a circulation of 13,000, and employs a paid staff of 25 people -- all, naturally, part-timers. It is one of roughly half a dozen national organizations for stay-at-home mothers that have sprouted in the last 10 to 15 years. In some circles, Mothers at Home has an anti-feminist reputation, which Gormley says is unfair, and which may simply be a reflection of what feminist writer Anne Roiphe calls "this hard uneasy tension between motherhood and feminism."

Mothers at Home has no polling data, but its anecdotal evidence indicates that attitudes toward stay-at-home mothers are changing profoundly, says Gormley. The Internet enables women to work at home and still maintain a moment-to-moment connection to the outer world. Changes in the workplace will result in most workers switching jobs five or six times in a career, meaning women who cycle in and out of the work force to have babies will no longer be a special group. More women are having babies later in life, which means the creation of a group of mothers who have achieved enough clout in their careers to demand flexibility from their employers. These women are a select few, says Gormley, but she thinks there's bound to be a trickle-down effect.

When Brenda Barnes, the president and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America, left her job to stay home with her kids, some people saw the adulation she received as part of a backlash against working women and the feminist movement. Gormley sees a woman using her freedom to make a choice -- and that, she says, is what feminism is supposed to be about.

"For some women," she continues, "work is easier. Home is hard. Raising children today, trying to keep marriages intact, trying to find downtime for yourself -- it's not easy. And when women make the choice to be at home, you have to redefine success." Those words undoubtedly will enrage thousands of office-going mothers who do not think their lives are one bit easier. But they also remind me of a colleague who, on the day she was supposed to return to work from maternity leave, made it as far as the Red Line subway platform, turned around and went home. And I wonder: How did we get here? It's not as if having babies is some astounding thing that just recently began to happen; it's not as if the phenomenon of working women has just been hatched. So how did we wind up here -- so harried, so pressed, making momentous life choices between the 8:11 and the 8:17 train?

The solution to my work/home dilemma, which had tormented me for so many months, arrived one day through the office grapevine: There was about to be a job opening on The Post Magazine. I immediately made a phone call. One week later I had an informal agreement to spend the next year writing articles for the Magazine, working from home. There was one drawback: I would not get paid as much as I'd hoped. David and I were dipping now and then into our savings, we had long ago eliminated luxuries like the health club membership and fancy meals out, and when I went to Nordstrom these days it was to use the baby-friendly ladies' room, not to shop. Clearly, we couldn't continue on this financial course forever. But the money was enough to make it feasible for now -- and, most important, there would be lots of time with Emma. I got my formal leave from the newspaper extended, and it was done. Not a permanent solution, but a huge weight lifted nevertheless, and one I felt incredibly lucky to have found. I drove home that day laughing.

One night not long after this, I received a visit from the spirit world.

Or maybe it was just my subconscious being interesting. At any rate, it was a dream, and in it I found myself standing in some public place; the surroundings weren't clear. When I happened to look off to my right, I saw three rather frumpy middle-aged ladies, two of them white and one black. There was nothing out of the ordinary about them. They might have been waiting for the bus, except for one detail: They were standing in midair, about three feet off the ground.

"You're angels, aren't you?" I asked, when I noticed this, and one of the three ladies turned and nodded curtly at me, as if to say, Yes, but please keep your voice down. Then she said, "You will see us again in your life, but for now we want you to continue on your journey, which is important." And then they left.

What a strange dream, I thought when I woke up. (I don't normally dream about angels.) But it was clear to me my subconscious was just trying to tell me to keep going. There was no point in trying to find some big answer to the question of how to fit life and child and work into one perfect piece again. "Women's careers don't go in straight lines," Madeleine Albright once told a Time magazine interviewer. "They zigzag all over the place."

And maybe that's the best image. Motherhood these days is like zigzagging around in bumper cars, except ours have kiddie seats. We're all behind the wheel -- Ana, who worked too hard to breastfeed her baby as she wanted; Cheli, who made her choice not knowing how much harm it might do her career; Jayne, whose solution is probably going to be lonely; me and a million other women, struggling to figure out a way to be good mothers and still stay connected to work we love. The fun-house music keeps getting louder and faster, and the moms in the bumper cars keep going in tighter little circles, and though some cars are fancier than others, we are all prisoners of the apparatus, which is a culture that treats children as sentimental objects or consumers or inconveniences -- as anything but people. And I wonder: How do you stage a bumper car revolt?

Tracy Thompson is on leave from The Post's Metro section.

    Page One     |     Page Two     |     Page Three     |     Page Four

Back to the top   |   National Section

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help!