7:00 a.m.: Run one mile with the dog, help the kids dress, get breakfast (raisin bran, grapefruit), then make the beds.
ON A hankerchief lawn is a small brick house, deep in the comforter of Northwest Washington. Inside, 6-year-old Ruben won't finish his milk. Lucas, 4, isn't brushing his teeth. The dog is everywhere, but mostly underfoot. Karen Fleischer, mother and endurer, packs a Mighty Mouse lunch box.
"I don't like tuna fish," Ruben announces.
"I'm not giving you tuna fish."
"I don't like baloney."
"You're getting Salami."
"I'd rather have tuna fish."
In the bathroom, Lucas stares at the sink. He needs poking.
"BRUSH!" says his mother.
He does, soft and sleepy.
"Come on, Lukie," she says, "we're going to be late." He finishes slowly. Then stands there.
"Wipe your face!" she says, exasperated. "Wipe your face!"
Her husband, David, is out of town for the week. Normally he'd be at work by now.
After the toothbrushing comes the scramble for jackets, followed by pandemonium on the way out the door. Lucas trips over the dog on the first porch step, falls into the azaleas, then starts sobbing.
The day is just dawning.
Tuna fish, soccer practice, fingerpaints on the dining room rug, umhemmed pants, Spaghetti-Os -- flat entries from the diary of a sane housewife. Karen Fleischer, 36 and Vassar-educated, is one by choice.
"This is the happiest I've ever been at home," she says. "Although I think anybody who says, 'Boy, I love it' has got to be out of their minds. But I like the freedom of it. And I'm lucky we're able to do it."
Her husband supports her decision, although his justification sounds like the man of a decade ago whose spouse had gone to work after years at home. "As long as she feels good about what she's doing," David Fleischer says, "I don't need to feel apologetic or embarrassed about it."
His wife's occupation seems as rare as her moments of solitude, as odd as "the career woman" was 20 years ago. Certainly she is unfashionable -- particularly in a town where conversations often start with "What do you do?" and abruptly end after "Stay at home."
Karen Fleischer's job of homemaker and mother is based largely on the premise that rearing children full time is a more worthwhile endeavor than, for example, writing a legal brief. It doesn't seem exotic, but statistically she's in a minority. This year, American working wives actually outnumber housewives. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 45 percent of married women -- those living with their husbands -- list their primary activity as "keeping house." Ten years ago, the figure was 57 percent.
To watch one Monday of one Washington housewife is to see the kitchen floor mopped and the dishwasher unloaded, the children's tears dried and the trivia endured. It is also a diary of a woman's enigma, marked by a mix of joy, doubt and pride.
8:50 a.m.: Walk the kids to school.
Mom, says Lucas, swinging his lunch on the five-block walk to first grade, "did you put in Doritos?"
"Oh, no, I forgot."
"What's for dessert?"
"Slim pickings on the dessert. I decided the cake was too gooey, so I put in a Danish."
What's a Danish?"
The answer is lost because the dog is trying to go to the bathroom on a neighbor's bush. Karen Fleischer pulls him along. She is four months pregnant and just beginning to show, wearing jogging shorts and a blue T-shirt signed "Picasso." Her hair is in pigtails, framing a full face with no makeup. She was a cheerleader from small-town Chinchilla, Pa., voted "Most Carefree" in her 1962 yearbook.
She graduated from Vassar, became a reporter-researcher at Sports Illustrated in New York, spent one year with VISTA in South Dakota, then taught English in Washington for two. She met David Fleischer, a doctor stationed at Fort Belvoir. They married in 1973.
After three moves and two children, David Fleischer got a job running the emergency room at the Veterans Administration Hospital. In 1977, they bought the small brick house on 32nd Street for $98,000.
Their neighbors are predominately white and young professionals; tricycles and station wagons dot the driveways. Out back at the Fleischers' are a swing set and a garden full of parsley and raspberry bushes; inside, there's a remodeled kitchen but a living room with unmatched furniture and a crate for a table. Still, the overall effect is pretty, if make-do: The floors are wood, the windows full of plants, the stairwell hung with colorful family snapshots.
"It's a good way," Karen Fleischer explains, "of keeping the kids' fingerprints off the wall."
9:30 a.m.: Run home from school to clean up the kitchen.
She moves fast, wiping the crumbs from the counter to the sink, then rinsing the breakfast plates. They go, carefully spaced, into the dishwasher. The disposal churns.
She walks, still fast, out the back door to an old rose bush growing alongside the house. She snips, one, two, five. Back into the house. The screen door slams.
She arranges the roses, some in a vase for the kitchen windowsill, some in a bowl for the dining room table. "Oh yeah," she says of her pregnancy, "we've been working on it." The two children aren't completely convinced they need a third. "But I think they'll come around," she says, "once it's their baby brother or sister. Ruben basically doesn't want it crying all the time, because we're going to have to have three in the [children's bedroom].
David Fleischer is now a gastroenterologist, or stomach doctor, in academic medicine at the VA Hospital. He makes $54,000 a year, less than most physicians in private practice. In the United States, where median families income is not much more than $17,000, the Fleischers are affluent; in high-cost Washington, where more than 50 percent of the families make at least $25,000, that statistical affluence is translated into a relatively modest existence. The two children go to Lafayette, a neighborhood public school; if they switched to private, Karen Fleischer says, she'd have to work. They don't save much money.
"We're not socking away $5,000 per year, that's for sure," she says. "If it's hard, it's because we spend too much. I mean, we need a new couch in the TV room, but we decided we wanted to go to Africa." That was for three weeks in February; the kids stayed with her mother.
Still, food coupons are avidly clipped, and mixed fryer parts bought at 59 cents a pound because as she explains, "you can take all the junk stuff you can't use and make soup out of it."
She hasn't worked since 1974, and has no present plans to go back. If she does, she thinks it'll be something to do with children. Her ambivalence points to another freedom: that of having no patterned career, no professional stepladder to ascend.
Right now, her children are her job. It is a special one, she feels, and not one she'll relinquish to a housekeeper. Her husband, 36, agrees. "Parents who have a vested interest in kids can generally do a better job raising them than a babysitter can," he says over lunch at the hospital a week later. "Although Karne had always wondered, before we had kids at all, whether she'd enjoy being a mother and whether she'd be good at it. But kids can turn out fine either way. I don't know how much of it depends on being home -- or how much depends on a particular individual."
"I'm selfish, I guess," Karen Fleisher says. "I want to be the one the kids come home to with papers from school. I hate to sound down on people who work, because they've got enough on them already. But you know a housekeeper wouldn't love my child the way I love my child." A Woman's Place
10:30 a.m.: Vacuum, take a shower.
A neighbor comes by with cash from a booth at Lafayette School's weekend fair. Her booth was the Lox Box, netting $48.69. Karen Fleisher is assistant treasurer of the Home and School Association and so is handling the anticipated $12,000 profits.
Then Lois calls, wanting to know how much her booth made. Next the bank calls, telling her there's a slight discrepancy in the fair money counted. She begins to look over the figures, then calls somebody else, telling her about an after-school meeting.
"I feel I have to justify being home by being so involved," she says, "so I don't spend all my days at home."
Karen Fleisher makes lists for everything. On the kitchen bulletin board is a long list of people to whom she's sent invitations for a party; it's alphabetized, with neat spaces for acceptances.
She starts vacuuming the living room. On one table is a recent issue of the Vassar Quarterly; one graduate from 1967 reports that "she continues to enjoy her private law practice and her home office with a fireplace and outside terrace in an unusual New York City apartment." A 1965 graduate writes that she "is now heading up some of the PR for Mobil's International Marketing and Refining operation." Business travels take her to "Europe and prospectively Australia, New Zealand and Japan."
Karen Fleisher shrugs. "I don't remember thinking that I wanted to do something other than this," she says. She does remember reading "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan's 1963 book that changed a generation of women, but doesn't remember its especially affecting her.
"I never got on the bandwagon," she continues. "I think even at Vassar, they weren't putting down motherhood at home. Here's a saying: 'David makes the living, and I make the living worthwhile.' It's just more pleasant to have things nice, and not to have to be rushing around all the time. And that's what I do for us. With two people working, you can't have that. I guess I rally think I'm contributing just as much as David is to this family.
"Here's another saying: 'When you educate a man, you educate an individual. When you educate a woman, you educate a family.'"
She laughs. "But being educated makes you a better mother," she continues. "Your kids question more.
"If I wanted to work, I would. But right now, this is what I want to do. Although it may change. In three years I may be bloody bored and say, 'I can't stand another second of this.'"
11 a.m. Grocery shopping.
After her shower she changes into a pink shift and sandals; her hair is freshly combed and held by barrettes. She collects her purse, shopping list and keys, still moving fast, past the dog sleeping on the dining room rug, out the door along the walk, into the 1875 Volvo station wagon. She rolls down the window.
Giant. The shopping is routine: Two 16-oz. cans of orange juice. Three pounds of ground beef, $1.69 per lb. Hellman's Mayonnaise. Baloney, Lysol spray, Kraft cheese slices, bananas, Body Buddies breakfast cereal. "We've succumbed to Body Buddies," sighs Karen Fleischer. "They're not as horrible as Count Dracula and all that other stuff."
The grocery bill comes to $67.92. "If I come for real shopping," she says, "it's closer to $100." She writes out a check.
"I think it's rally good for women to keep the money," she explains. "David has no interest in it. When he was single, he never kept track of his checkbook balance until the bank said he was overdrawn. Then he'd just transfer it from his savings account. So now, nobody says to me, 'Here's $10, and that's what you have to spend.' I keep the checkbook and decide where we spend, and where we cut back."
She gets into her car, grocery bags in the back. "I think for the amount of money David makes," she says, "it doesn't seem like we live as nicely as we should. I mean, I always thought I'd live in the house of my dreams, you know, the kind you see on television in all those situation comedies -- one bedroom per child."
She pulls in her driveway. "What I don't understand," she says, halfway up the front walk with one grocery bag, "is when do you do all this stuff if you're working?"
She disappears into the house. "I guess I just don't want to put out that kind of energy," she continues, carrying in bag No. 2, "although I think if you're a big achiever, you'd have a hard time staying at home. I'm really a noncempetitive person, and I think that's a lot of what makes it easy for me to be home . . . maybe I just floated around so much, I didn't find my little niche where I wasn't zooming ahead."
She unpacks the groceries. The kitchen is new and compact, with blond wood cabinets, lots of Formica, a cookie jar usually full of homemade. "I just had another theory," she says, making room in the refrigerator for the groceries."Maybe it's a fear of failure -- that I couldn't be a good mother and have a good job. I mean, I don't feel that way, but maybe that's part of it . . ."
She pauses in her unpacking "You never know," she says, peering with interest, "what you'll find in the back of your refrigerator."
12:30 p.m.: Lunch, pick up Lucas, run to the bank and post office, put meat loaf in the oven for dinner.
She finishes a big salad she's made for herself, then takes the car to get Lucas at his pre-kindergarten class. She collects him and his painting, passing by the class gerbils, Fred and Ethel.
The Chevy Chase post office. "Having a kid," she says, picking up from the conversation in her kitchen, "is changing things. I have a reason to stay home next year. But if I didn't, I think I'd stay home next year anyway, just to see if I got bored or not."
Lucas starts playing with the sand in a cigarette urn. Karen Fleischer puts take on a box she's sending a friend. The afternoon, damp and overcast, crawls.
"Mom," says Lucas, letting the dirty sand fall through his fingers, "watch."
"Wait a second," says Mom.
"Wait a second, wait a second."
"Falling snow," he says.
"Oh, it does look like falling snow, but your hands are going to look all cigaretty. Yucky."
Next stop, the bank. Lucas plays with the sand around a fake rubber plant. It slips through his fingers passing time.
"Sometimes at parties," Karen Fleisher says, "people don't ask me questions. It's either because they don't have anything to ask to they don't know what to ask. And sometimes I feel I don't have anything to contribute. I mean, what can you say about a day like this?"
"She has some concerns," says her husband, "like, 'Do I really try to touch base on that every six months to make her feel that she's not getting stale. She's smart enough and appealing enough that she doesn't have to have a job as a label to make her more interesting."
""i think that's why a lot of women read the papers so carefully," says his wife, "so they'll have something to talk about.And that's why I volunteer. It's to make me more interesting -- to other people, too. Because everybody else goes to the grocery store, makes the bed, does the wash. Everything I do is trite."
At home she makes a quick meat loaf, puts it into the oven, then looks through the mail: bills, few letters. And a Ms. magazine.
3 p.m.: Drop off Lucas at neighbor's, meet at school about District of Columbia budget cuts.
Winnie Blatchford, president of the Lafayette Home and School Association, leads the meeting. It's in the school library. A dozen teachers and mothers suggest where $22 million in budget cuts might come from. Afterward, a small group talks of a drug program for fifth- and sixth-graders, but nobody stays long because everybody has to go home and get dinner on the table.
"My daughter asked me yesterday why I didn't have a job," says Blatchford. "She's 10. And I thought, 'Oh, my God, when she goes to college she's going to look down on me." Blatchford used to sell real estate, but gave it up for her kids.
It was a big crisis," she recalls. "I had this sort of thing where I had to be another Carla Hills. She was a wife, a Cabinet member, a great tennis player, four kids -- how can anyone measure up to that? When I got pregnant with my third child, I knew instinctively that I couldn't handle it. So it comes down to: Isn't spending time with my children a more productive activity for me than finding a house for someone else?"
6 p.m. Dinner.
Meat loaf, baked potatoes and fresh asparagus. After dinner, the kids take a bath. If their Dad were home, it would be his responsibility. He's also more or less in charge of them on weekends, admitting that "I have the easier job in being parent than she does." He says it without guilt. "We both have responsibilities," he explains. "One of my clear responsibilites is to generate income, and one of hers is to run the house."
"I think there was a period of time," he says, "three or four years ago, when she had just made the decision to stay home, that she felt ambivalent about it. I think she felt self-imposed pressure and peer pressure.
"My main concern," he says, "is that it continues to be acceptable to her. For sure, if she said 'This isn't fair you get to do all the interesting things, and I have to sit home and be bored all day,' we wouldn't keep the situation."
After their baths, the kids make "volcanoes" in bottles with baking soda and vinegar; they they do magic tricks from a drugstore handout. Karen Fleischer reads them stories and by 8:30 p.m. they're in bed.
When her husband is home, this is the time they talk. The subject is usually the children.
"What we talk about at the end of the day is what happened with the kids, what happened at school," says David Fleischer. "I don't know if I'd be more interested about what went on at the office of Sports Illustrated."
"Everything centers, I guess, around the children," says Karen Fleischer.
"I mean, they are the most important part of our lives right now."
By 10 or 11 p.m., the two are usually in bed.
"This is like so many other things," says David Fleischer, reflecting on his wife at home. "There aren't any right answers. There are 26 ways to do it, and one of the things is that we think this is the best way. It just works for us."