It was a chance encounter at the Lafayette School playground. No names were exchanged. But she looked about 27, a pretty, serene young mother with straight blond hair held in place by a tortoise shell headband. As she pushed her 2-year-old back and forth on a playground swing, her diamond ring -- a flash of income level -- winked in the sunlight. There was something brand-new about her, as if she were trying out marriage, family and Washington. She was.
"We moved here two years ago," she volunteered. "Actually, we're from Chicago. I like Washington a lot. There's lot to do, like the museums. But it was my husband who really wanted to move here. He's with an oil company and very political. He likes to be at the center of things."
This short precis could easily be the profile of countless couples who migrate to Washington. Ambitious, well educated and wired like switchboards in search of connections, they arrive clutching their "cum laude" qualifications, hoping to do good -- or at least well. But unless they arrive well fortified, the same forces that attracted them to Washington can wind up blowing their families apart. If ambition, ego and the lust for power blow like trade winds over other cities, they blow at gale force over Washington. The family, struggling to withstand the gale, either grows tough or collapses.
"Cities have styles," said psychiatrist James Gordon, who practices in Northwest Washington and is an associate clinical psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical School. "Here it's the political style that prevails -- which is essentially to conceal. The whole idea is to not say what's on your mind....
"I've lived in four cities, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washingon. But there is more pressure on parents in Washington than in any other place I've been. The pressure to please other people at work, to meet deadlines, to obscure your real feelings about what you're doing and to what uses it is being put. People are incredibly harassed at work.It takes so long to cool out that by the time you do, it's time for the kids to go to bed."
"Child neglect is an issue here," said Dr. David Scharff, a child psychiatrist who has a largely upper-middle class practice in Bethesda, as well as serving as an associate professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. "It's not that parents don't care, but they're stretched very thin...
"If I could wave a wand over the city," said Scharff, "I would try to get the mothers of especially pre-school children to stay home."
Gillian Rozicker, mother of three children aged 3, 10 and 13, does stay home. Her husband, Don, is the owner of a neighborhood newspaper, The Northwest Current. They live in a modest brick house complete with wood stove in Northwest Washington. Rozicker doesn't have to think long when asked if she thinks Washington is a good family town.
"Oh, no," she said. "It's awful. The values the kids pick up are so false."
Asked to be more specific, Rozicker looked through her kitchen window as if she might find an answer somewhere in the tree branches. "Chicken soup," she replied. "It's not very chicken-soupy' in Washington. Maybe it's because people are too busy to be kind."
My own view" said writer Michael Novak, who lives in Northwest Washington with his artist wife, Karen, and three children, "is that only a small percentage of Americans are highly competitive and want to be among the movers and shakers. Most people quite comfortably seek their own level, trading a lower income for a way of life they want to live. But Washington attracts people who want to be on the fast track."
Novak, himself a fast-tracker, is currently a scholar-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute and was a Reagan appointee to the Human Rights Commission last year in Geneva. Prior to coming to Washington in 1978, the Novaks lived in Bayville, N.Y., and in Syracuse, N.Y.
"We found Washington a much better city for children than we had magined," said Novak. "It's manageable for children to visit museums, for instance."
But Novak's view of Washington tended to darken upon deeper analysis.
"Being on the fast track," said Novak, "is awfully tough, especially upon the newcomers, on the hours of the day. A 10- to 14-hour day is not uncommon. Children visibly see that they take second place to their parents' activities, and it's hard to argue that this isn't true. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of parents who, being aware of how much time they have to work, go out of their way to work at making their families work."
It seems that no matter how you slice it, everything is work in Washington. Doesn't this take more energy than anybody has?
Novak nodded. "There are a lot of high-energy people in Washington," he explained.
Winnie Blatchford is one of these people. Formerly a social worker in Venezuela, past president of the Lafayette School PTA, mother of three children under 12, and wife of lawyer Joe Blatchford, former director of the Peace Corps, she thinks Washington is a wonderful place in which to raise a family. But Blatchford, who grew up in a small town in California where she was the only girl in her high school class to go on to a four-year college, realizes that she is lucky in the extreme.
"This is an unbalanced city," she admits. "To be the second highest income city in the country and still have about 60 percent of the children in the public schools qualifying for free lunches means that the affluent part of the city has to be very affluent in order to rate so high on the charts."
Blatchford's neighborhood is American dream material -- a pretty, three-shaded community near Chevy Chase Circle, full of well-kept brick and Victorian frames with back alleys humming with Schwinns. But rough estimates of how much it would take to live in this fairly unpretentious, middle-class neighborhood run, conservatively, at about a $50,000 a year in income, provided you bought your house before the interest rates skyrocketed and don't owe on back income taxes.
"I've got it all," admitted Blatchford, "a solid marriage, good income and tremendous support from my family in California. Every summer, I take the kids out West for a month. You have to get out of here. And when I'm back home in California, I can almost see my children soaking up my family's values -- which could never happen if they lived here all the time."
What kinds of values dominate Washington? Blatchford, who admitted that her first analysis of the city had been "more from a logistical point of view," said, "Well, there is incredible competition here among parents as to who gets into the enrichment programs at school, for example. The kids here grow up with that kind of pressure. And then there's this Harvard-Yale fixation. Just try to get through a Washington dinner party with somebody who went to Harvard without that person, or that person's spouse, mentioning it before the evening is over...
"I want my children to be happy and well-adjusted," said Blatchford, "but mostly I hope they have character, like my mother. She could survive anywhere."
Could Blatchford? She nodded, "but probably not in Washington. My income potential is not nearly so high. And emotionally I would need to be near my family. No, if something happened to Joe, I would go home."
Loretta Williams, 49, would go home right now, if she could afford to. Like Blatchford, she, too, "has it all," or some of "it all" -- a stable marriage, two incomes and three children. Both she and her husband moved to the Washington area because it promised both of them greater opportunities than Loretta's home town, Warsaw, Va. But their original blueprint for success was altered -- by life.
"I had no intention of quitting my job when we got married" said Loretta Williams. "But I realized early what was missing as far as my husband was concerned. I had to encourage him to reach for his dream. John's active in everything -- politics, school, and in the community. And he is a very excellent teacher [of languages at Fairmont High, in Capitol Heights]. But I think because I chose to be a wife and mother, it has made a difference because it's particularly hard for a black male to reach his zenith without the support of his wife."
Loretta Williams continued to work, as a statistical clerk at the Army Surgeon General's office, after her first son was born. When her second boy was born, she decided to stay home, except for occasional substitute teaching. "But when my third was born, it was evident that we had to make a real sacrifice in order to take him to the infant stimulation classes." The youngest son, Daryl Jose, now 8, was born with Down's syndrome.
"The handicapped child," said Loretta Williams, "really threw us off."
"What's different about living in Washington is that economically it's very stressful. Just the cost of housing and food almost makes the middle-class family with a $35,000 income unable to cope. We moved out of the District to Prince George's County to be nearer John's job."
John Williams is success-oriented. Active in community affairs, politics and teaching (last year he was one of the teachers named Outstanding Teacher of the Year for Prince George's County), and church (Williams is senior deacon at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington), Williams also co-produces a radio program, "Destiny '82" on WYCB that keeps him at the station from 7:15 to 11 in the evening.
But despite these successes, the Williamses would leave the Washington area if they could.
"It's too expensive," said Loretta Williams. "The pressures are too great. In Warsaw we could raise our own food and lead a better life. But there aren't any facilities for kids with Down's syndrome in Warsaw. So we're still here."
Consider another kind of Washington family, one headed by a single mother who even at the age of 7 was a "housewife" taking care of her younger brothers and sisters, scrounging for food, clothing and toys.
Her name is Lisa Chase. She is 22 now. Chase's story is not unlike the story of thousands of black Washingtonians whose forebears tore themselves away from poverty below the Mason-Dixon line and tried to re-seed themselves in Washington, in search of a better life.
She has a dancer's body -- slim, flexible and sometimes bowed over -- with self-recrimination. In the middle of laughing over something, a stray thought will pass across her mind that makes her weep.
"My mother was an alcoholic," said Chase. "She had a disease. It wasn't her fault, but it disencouraged us. My brothers and sisters, we figured that we would be the same. But one thing turned me away from that -- that was her drinking.
"I took care of my brothers and sisters until I was 11," she said, "but then I got tired and left. I was very confused. That was when my grandmother took me in. My grandmother can't read or write, but you can't cheat her out of a dime. She taught me right from wrong."
Lisa's grandmother ran away to Washington when she was pregnant with Lisa's mother. Chase is the third generation in her family to live in Anacostia. Repeating part of her mother's history, she also has four children, but she is determined to be somebody. "I'm only 22. In 10 years I'll just be 32. I still have time."
At 16, Lisa got pregnant. At 17, she was a welfare mother, living in her own apartment. At 22, she is the mother of four children, aged 2 to 5. The youngest, a frail baby who is rarely out of his mother's arms, has just been released from spending his first 18 months at Children's Hospital with a defective heart. Chase could only afford to take the bus to the hospital once a week, but the hospital staff gave her a medal for being an "outstanding mother." By every standard that counts for anything she is.
"I promised myself that I was going to be a mother to my kids that I never had. My apartment has carpeting, a TV and I read my kids night-time stories. Well, not every night, but most nights they get stories. And my kids don't call me 'Lisa," they call me 'Mommy.'"
The father disappeared some time ago. Without naming him, Chase explained that he left "because he couldn't give the kids what they needed. He just kept saying that it gave him too much pain to see them want. Basically, that's the way all black fathers are. They leave because they can't give."
Someday, she would like to get married. "That would be a bonus," she admitted, "being a wife. But I didn't get the bonus. So what can I say? Lisa had herself a bum but he's gone now," she laughed. "I may not have any great romantic life, but me and my kids, we're perfect."
Lisa Chase receives $422 in public assistance and $176 in food stamps. Her rent is $72, the electricity bill $20. She has no phone. The food stamps don't cover things like Pampers for the babies, or soap and toilet paper. "When I fill out the welfare statement each month," she joked, "they always ask me what did I have left over at the end of the month, but you got to appreciate the money they give you because they don't have to, you know."
Chase admits that she has two selves, one for survival and one for a better day. "To get along with my neighborhood, I have to act tough -- like when we go to the store, you act rude and you push. You don't act nice. The things you were raised to do, you don't do."
Self Two is a different story. "Away from my neighborhood, I'm the Lisa that I want to be."
Life for Lisa is not all woe and food stamps. "I live a normal life, except that I don't have as many things. I went to Rocky III, for instance. I liked it. And one time I saw a scarf on a dummy in the window of L. Frank's department store and I just went in a bought it. Sometimes you have to do something for yourself."
Lisa Chase continually weighs her own needs against those of her children. Usually her children win. "A six-pack of beer means the kids don't get enough milk on a weekend. I saved up for their Big Wheels. Clothes cost a lot."
For unknown reasons, Chase goes into an altered state, looks into space, bites her lip.
"Why do I feel so bad about myself sometimes and sometimes I feel like I'm doing better than most?" Again, unpredictably, her eyes fill up with tears.
One thing Lisa is clear about. She would never leave Washington. "All I know is D.C. -- and I think it's the only place where you can find someone to hold onto, someone who really cares."