My friend calls it the post- Superwoman syndrome. It begins with a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction with one's life, then one's job, then the quality of family life. It sounds a lot like a premature mid-life crisis: she is thinking about changing jobs, doing something less demanding, maybe even part time. The fire in the belly that had her doing it all during the 70s -- the demanding career, husband, children -- is burning out.
Another friend recently had a baby and decided not to return to work. Others who have just had babies returned to work part time, an encouraging sign of growing flexibility among employers to accommodate working mothers. The attachment to work and career that marked the generation of women who are now in their 30s seems, at least among some of them, to be waning.
At the same time, other friends, mothers in their 30s and 40s who chose to stay at home are trying to re-enter the workforce. One friend, a chemist, is trying to sort out what she really wants to do: teach or work in a lab. But the overriding feeling she has is one of anxiety. Job interviews, resumes, child-care problems seem overwhelming; her skills are dated. Another friend, a mathematician who ran the school board, a volunteer post, in her New England community, recently opened a shop with two friends. It isn't making any money yet. "If I'd had it to do over again," she said recently, "I'd have done it your way." And I, truth to tell, replied that if I'd had a choice, I might have done it her way.
There is a lot of reexamining and private sorting out going on in the post-Superwoman era: a recent Newsweek cover story on child care featured a San Francisco bond seller who spent "10 years on the up escalator," and then quit to stay at home and raise her children. "I thought I could do absolutely everything," she told Newsweek. "I had to admit I couldn't. Something had to give."
To work or not to work appears, once again, to be the question. For the generation of women who came of professional age in the 70s, full-time work, an upscale job, children, husband, cleaning lady and day care center was "having it all." Mothers who chose to stay at home and raise their children felt defensive: They told stories about being asked "what do you do" at cocktail parties and watching their questioner's eyes glaze over when they said they were homemakers. Washington had, and still has, the largest percentage of working women of any major metropolitan area in the country.
At the beginning of the Superwoman era working wasn't so much a choice as a challenge. Stories abounded about pregnant women working until the day before the baby was born, then returning to work full time in a matter of weeks. Superwoman was not about to be undermined by her biological destiny. She might admit to a hangover, but she would be struck dead by lightning before admitting to cramps. If child-care arrangements broke down or a child got sick she would lie about why she had to leave work. She had, after all, decades of stereotypes about working women to overcome: She had to prove women didn't cry on the job, didn't get married and pregnant and quit within two years of joining a company, didn't miss work because of their kids, cared equally about family and career. And they certainly didn't have "that time of the month."
It was a necessary phase, one myth destroying another. A generation of women demonstrated a commitment to career and to family, but it also demonstrated a commitment to wanting to be able to choose which way to live. Now, mothers who chose to stay at home are confronting empty nests and an unfriendly job market. They are trying to figure out how to translate the skills of running a family and volunteering in their communities into marketable commodities. And mothers who did it all are wondering if they have done right by their families and themselves. Some are getting off the express train.
The Superwoman era has left a legacy of doubts. But it also left a legacy of choices. Women kicked over the pedestal and established their right to work if they wanted to. They established their right to stay at home if they wanted to. They are now secure enough in the workforce that they can talk openly about the difficulties of combining home and career, and they can quit or work part time without feeling they have let the sisterhood down. And perhaps out of all of this some of the divisions that occurred among women, that pitted homemaker against moneymaker, will fade. Each, after all, is a complicated life.