"THE POINT I NEVER see in the success stories -- but that my life as a mother with a career has convinced me is true -- is that you really can't have it all," writes Deborah Fallows in the January Washington Monthly.
Of course, no one can do it all, but I'm not convinced that what all women are trying to do is particularly worthwhile or that working parents are going about it the right way. We've taken a lot of myths about motherhood out of the home and into the marketplace and we're feeling guilty because we aren't doing things we think mothers should be doing. At the same time, we have failed to fully involve our spouses in child care and homemaking.
Mrs. Fallows, an assistant dean at Georgetown University and mother of a 2-year-old, has decided to remain home after the birth of her second child. I'm glad to be part of a generation of women who are free to make choices about careers and families," she writes. "However, as far as I can tell, the seamless web of family-and-prestigious career just doesn't work. At some point, you have to sit down and decide whether to conduct your life in pursuit of money, status, power . . . or something else."
There's a lot of merit in what Mrs. Fallows writes, and perhaps the greatest merit is that she is writing it at all. Hers is another voice joining in the growing chorus of women who are now feeling free enough to say, wait a minute, something's got to give.
In Mrs. Fallow's discussion of what she calls successful women and the hidden prices they pay, she openly admits to feeling a certain amount of guilt about "sending our son off to nursery school on a bowl of Cheerios rather than the steaming oatmeal I would love to prepare, if only there were time."
She describes a sulky 2-year-old and writes. "I can't help feeling that my decision to work fulltime this year has something to do with it." And she writes of the nurturing imprint she would want to make on her family. "To me, this means things like keeping our family traditions, making Czech dumplings on winter nights and fruitcakes for Christmas, compiling scrapbooks of the children's early years, and making special Halloween costumes they'll have fun thinking up and wearing. . . .
"The more glamorous portraits of the Successful Woman are not faithful to her whole life because they underrate the things she has given up -- homely things that are important to women with different values."
"Even Superwomen Get the Blues," announces the headline in this month's issue of Working Woman magazine. The article quotes psychiatrist Ruth Weeks as saying, "Many women who choose professional careers are bright, competent and even perfectionistic people; unfortunately . . . when they expect perfection from themselves in all of their activities, one of their full-time occupations is finally going to let them down. Either a woman's career goals will not be accomplished for lack of time and energy, or she will feel that she is a failure as a wife and mother." Superwomen, according to the article, are getting depressed.
There has been an undercurrent among working mothers for some time now, that it isn't all working out. It's been a secret working mothers have been sharing with each other, but it's getting out. There's a problem here, but for most working mothers the solution is not to stay home. They can't afford to.
So what do you do?
Dr. Weeks offers this advice: "If a superwoman can begin to limit her priorities and focus more sharply on one or two of the top items on her daily agenda, her feelings of depression and sense of self-disappointment ought to begin to subside."
You make compromises, in other words, just like mothers used to have to do when they were sorting through the needs of six or eight children. hopefully you set aside the things that are the least important. Mrs. Fallows, for example, is distressed that she doesn't have time to make hot cereal and Halloween costumes. What 2-year-old really cares about hot cereal and homemade Halloween costumes? I used to feel guilty that I didn't honor my children's request that I bake cookies for Santa. But is that really important? Now, I tell them I have limited amounts of time at Christmas and would they prefer me to spend it shopping for them or baking for Santa?
(I know of course, as I write this, that after I'm "dead and gone," as my mother puts it, my children will remember me, not as the mother who lavished love and presents on them, but as the Woman Who Refused to Bake Christmas Cookies.)
Mrs. Fallows is concerned about motherhood, but nowhere in her 2,200 words does she mention how father should fit into this new social equation we are trying to solve. "The Subtle Revolution: Women at Work," published this fall by the Urban Institute, cities study after study, finding that working wives still do vastly more housework and child care than their spouses. One researcher found that husbands increased their household work time by an average of 18 minutes a week in response to their wives' going to work.
"It is possible that women's own attitudes explain, in part, their husbands' lack of participation in household work," write the authors, "for many women apparently share men's view that housework is women's responsibility. . . .
"Many women may find it easier to do the tasks themselves than to nag or cajole their husbands into doing them. Other women may prefer to do everything themselves than to accept what they feel are the clumsy efforts of inexperienced 'house husbands.' To even the burden, not only husbands but also wives may need to change their attitudes."
If we need to change attitudes about housework and set more realistic standards, we also need to sift through the myths of motherhood and figure out what's really important. Warm cereal is certainly more of a bother to make than a bowl of Cheerios, but is it really better for the child?
At the same time, we need to change our attitude about motherhood, particularly in towns like Washington, where Mrs. Fallows correctly finds "narrow-mindedness, ignorance, condescension, and indifference about motherhood."
Next year, she asks, what on earth will she tell people who ask her what she does? "I'm at home with the children," or "I'm a linguist but I'm taking time off to raise the children now," or "I don't work any more because we have two children."
As she notes, these answers are total conversation killers. In Washington, she would be far better off to say: "I'm on a Fallows Foundation grant doing laboratory research in early childhood development."
And when people ask her, "laboratory research?" she can always answer with a wicked grin: "Yes. I've acquired two live children."