These days it seems that Washington is a city of weary women, or more accurately, exhausted working mothers.
For the past several months I have been among those who rise at dawn to shower, blow-dry their hair, pack their lunches, do a load of wash, plug in the crock pot, and glance at the morning paper to make sure the world is not ending before 9 a.m.
Provided there is no last-minute scramble for missing shoes, homework or show-and-tell items, my three daughters are at school by 8:40 and I am on my way to "the real world."
My job is interesting, working on Capitol Hill, investigating the legislative process, interviewing members of Congress -- all described in my alumnae magazine as "glamorous." But most of the time I feel that I have one foot on a banana peel and the other on ice.
The balancing of marriage, motherhood and career has become the classic women's problem of the 1980s. For those who can pull it all together life is a first-class act. But from my own experience and after listening to other women, life is often a constant round of heartburn, ulcers and anxiety attacks. w
In the 50's my generation had a different set of pressures. Eighteen years ago I was a college senior. Romanticizing marriage and family life, we talked about weddings, not resumes. Shortly after graduation the rush began. One by one my classmates, star-struck lovers in wedding satin, stood at flower-decked altars and uttered vows, promises of eternal bliss. We were the color-coordinated generation, never thinking beyond silver patterns, Bermuda honeymoons and four-bedroom colonials.
In 1964 my views shifted when I experienced my first feminist stirrings on a Greyhound bus from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. I became engrossed in Betty Friedan's book "The Feminine Mystique." It was a page-turner. The happy housewife heroine was myth. Millions of college-educated women, despite career opportunities in a modern society, had been "brainwashed" to believe that their only purpose in life was to find a husband and bear children.
And countless women, unable to live up to the feminine ideal, suffered from depression, popping bonbons, booze or pills to ease their troubled psyches.
As the bus neared Washington it passed numerous suburban developments, clusters of ranch and split-level houses on treeless lots. I believed that behind all that aluminum siding dwelled miserable women wearing chenile bathrobes and muttering "Is this all?"
Times have changed and so have I. Now I ride the Metro into the city. Surrounded by grim-faced women wearing somber dress-for-success suits. I mumble "Is this liberation?"
During the past decade more and more women entered the labor force -- a million a year. The number of working mothers has grown more than tenfold since the end of World War II. Although much discussion about career opportunities for women focuses on personal growth and fulfillment, the fact is that most women work because they need the money.
Yet it seems that my generation has now romanticized careers as the cure-all for the identity crisis, the housewife blues, and the empty nest. Replacing the happy-housewife heroine is the successfull businesswoman who climbs up the corporate ladder without chipping her nail polish, who breezes through the day wearing immaculately tailored clothes, and who returns home, hairdo intact, to an adoring husband and two well-adjusted children.
But the sad and obvious truth is that a great many women are now finding what men have known: Dead-end jobs abound; most work eventually becomes boring; bosses, colleagues and clients can be demanding, irritating and nasty, and it is just as easy to feel trapped and unhappy sitting in a posh office amid the trappings of success as it is standing in the kitchen surrounded by whining pre-schoolers.
Career-oriented mothers confront still another reality -- children. In some circles it is not fashionable to discuss the dark side of the woman's movement and its impact on family life. After all, the experts assure us that it's only a myth that children of working mothers tend to be sullen, lonely and neglected. And I, like many, adopted as gospel the feminist pronouncements that if women were free to pursue their professional interests we would be more independent and interesting, more loving wives and mothers.
But the breezy you-can-do-it-all articles leave out an important factor: energy. "Motherhood," as someone recently observed, "saps the energy." And so does a high-pressure career where upward job mobility is a way of life. Marriage is also demanding, recently requiring inner strength and motivation to keep a relationship from growing stale. Simply put, when it comes to energy, physical or emotional, we only have so much.
So just as Friedan was tired of reading about the happy, energetic housewife, so I am weary of the slick magazine articles about the successful, dynamic mother-wife-career wonder woman. In both cases something is missing: The unglamorous parts are airbrushed out; The stories bear no relation to reality.
The tales I hear from women -- conversations on the Metro, concerns exchanged over coffee, instructions whispered over the phone to children, husbands, babysitters, teachers -- are the edited-out scenes:
Sick children sent to school or left home alone, babysitters who permit their charges to watch endless hours of television, no-show housekeepers, sleeping babies who are awakened at 6 a.m. and delivered to day-care centers at 7, the growing number of latch-key children, 8- and 9-year-olds who are left on their own after school, unsupervised until a parent returns home, the endless makeshift arrangements for the dreaded school holidays, vacations, snow closings and other realities that aren't cosmetically attractive for the woman's movement.
I suspect these are some of the reasons why feminism has not attracted the poor, the struggling, the blue-collar woman, like my mother who was a seamstress in a shirt factory. For they know all too well the dark underside of the world of working mothers. "Besides," my mother often says from the sidelines as I try successive variations of my marriage-children-career juggling act, "work is terribly overrated."
A growing number of weary women are returning home at dusk to hungry children and untidy houses. Are there other voices like mine -- as I struggle with uneasy stirrings of heart and mind about being a working mother -- daring to whisper, "Is it worth it?"