It was last winter when Frances L. Abrams decided that her life finally had acheived some balance. After two years of directing the Montgomery County community development office, she was comfortable in her job and in a high enough position to delegate routine tasks to subordinates.
Her five-year marriage to Hillel Abrams, a lawyer, had adapted to the stresses that can result from a union of two career-minded individuals. And, secure in the knowledge that her home life and career situation were stable, the 31-year old administrator was expecting her first child.
Then in April, when she was four months pregnant, Abrams was named director of the county Department of Environmental Protection.
"One of the things I said when I took the job - 'you know, there's really only one thing I want with the job. That's a sofa in the office so that if I do have to put my feet up and take a half hour nap I can," she said.
Promised that concession to her pregnancy, Abrams took on the responsibilities of administering a department that employs 275 people and enforces regulations covering noise and animal control, building codes, refuse collection, zoning and other matters. She is one of four women department heads among the county's 27 departments and offices.
"Yesterday I spent two hours, working on legislation to regulate massage parlors," she said. "But it's not always that interesting. Usually I end up speaking to at least one angry citizen. Sometimes its that their dog has been picked up and taken to the shelter and they feel they're not getting a response from the staff as to how to get it out. Dogs are a big problem."
Abrams says she expects a crisis a day in her large department. She also has to make sure the department is handling procedural matters such as building permits and responses to air pollution complaints. She may have to testify before the County Council on legislation.
"I guess the weeks I get most depressed are when I don't have the time to do that. The thing that I consider most important to do is to try to make it possible for an individual calling this department to get all the information he needs to know, and not to get the runaround," she says.
It's an odd occupation for a woman who went to college hoping to become an architect. The path that took her there was a combination of luck (which Abrams defines as "opportunity looking for preparation"), hard work and discriminiation against women.
Abrams was raised in Wheaton, the oldest of two girls. "I say this tongue in chek," she said, "but I really feel I was brought up to be my parents' older son. Its hard for me to believe that people are brought up (by parents who say) 'When are you going to get married? When are you going to have children?'
"We got that. But it was also, "What are you going to do with your life?' not 'Who are going to marry?'"
With that encouragement she entered the five-year program at the University of Miami at Oxford, Ohio which led to a bachelors degree in architecture.
After graduation, she spent a year working as an architect for a Washington firm, then went back to school, this time for a master's program in urban planning at the University of North Carolina. It was purely by chance that she ended up working for Montgomery County after she graduated in 1969.
"I had my mind almost set that government was a second-class job. I wanted to work in private industry," she recalled. But when she was interviewed by private firms, "I found I got questions like, 'When are you going to get married?' 'How long are you going to stay with us?'" That led her to take a job as assistant planner in the Montgomery County government.
"I discovered to my amazement that I just love local government. It is just very satisfying. I like the immediate contact with the people that we're serving. We're not people who, such as at the state and federal level, are responsible for putting out regulations and worrying about other people's immplementing them. We are the people on the line," she said.
With her gamine haircut and cheerful manner, Abrams looks unflappable, but she says that has not always been the case. For a while, her career was taking its toll on her health and on her marriage.
"It's taken me a long time to get to this stage," she said. "I've had stomach problems. I've been through that whole thing. I've spent a year with just agonizing cramps from nerves. I really feel very very strongly that women on the way up need to look real carefully at their career steps before they decide to take an advanced position or a high pressure job like this."Abrams says she now realizes that she's not indispensable, that there are times when she will have to delegate some of her responsibilities to others and there are times when the best thing to do is walk out of the office and take a two-hour shopping break.
It was this change of attitude that make her decide to have a child. "I'd been going along saying . . . I had to work. I had to be independent and I was never going to have children. It took me a while to recognize that kind of self-sacrifice is not required, that it's possible to do both," she said.
Her change of attitude was so complete that when her daughter, Naomi, was born in August, four weeks early, Abrams was able to take it in strike. She worked up to the day Naomi was born, then took off six weeks while breastfeeding, then worked several more weeks part time while weaning Naomi. The child now is cared for during weekdays by a woman who does daycare in her home.
According to Abrams, probably no issue generates more controversy than that of the working mother. "I feel that one thing that is bound to come out of this interview is that there're going to be people out there who are going to say, 'Oh, how awful. This woman is working and not looking after her little six-month-old baby,'" Abrams said.
She said staying home all day with Naomi "wouldn't work for me. I would go bonkers. I would just fall apart." But she was quick to add that her more than $30,000 annual salary plus the income from her husband's law practice made her job a choice, not a necessity. She could either work and pay the high cost of child care or stay home and be supported in comfortable style.
Of her own life she says, "I've accomplished my own liberation. Liberation to me is freedom to choose."