The woman in the 9 o'clock class asked her question carefully but with an angry undertone. "Why is it that working women always act as if women at home were somehow inferior?"
It was not the first time I'd heard that question or that anger. But this time it had a special impact. You see, just minutes before, in the 8 o'clock class here at Corning College, another woman with the same intense edge to her voice had asked, "Why do women at home always act as if women who go to work are bad mothers?"
Both women, after all these years of change, felt criticized, pushed, forced -- by each other, or by some anonymous "forces" of society. Standing on the turf of their own decisions, both saw lines drawn, felt attacked and defensive. Even now.
The night before, in rapid succession, one returning student had described the pressure she felt" from society" to go into the work force. Then another, virtually the same age, had talked about the pressure she felt "from society" to be at home with her children.
They were not crazy, these women, but simply turned in to criticism. After all, both those messages are received at different levels in different sectors of different towns.
There has been (this is hardly a news bulletin) a great deal of change in life patterns for women. There is no single norm, no single pattern to simply follow. So, we are all much more conscious of the alternatives.
In one place, an employed mother may feel like a pariah. In another, the homemaker may feel denigrated. It still seems peculiarly hard to choose one way of life without implying criticism of another, without feeling criticized by the other.
This experience resonates through many of our lives. Through the life of a working woman whose own mother is a homemaker. Through the life of a woman who returns to work and finds neighborhood friends wary. Through the life of a homemaker who is suddenly uncomfortable with her old office friends.
But it's especially hard right now when society is almost evenly divided. There are virtually equal numbers of women who work in and out of home, virtually equal numbers of mothers of pre-schoolers in and out of the work force.
Equal numbers often shake our own equilibrium.
In such a delicate balance of power, the choice of each individual carries a peculiar weight. Each time someone chooses "sides," we worry that the balance will shift and the "choices" slip away from us.
But I think our anxiety, our offensive-defensive, reflects another sort of balance as well: the equal weight of arguments that are still heard inside our own heads.
In this uneasy detente, in the eye of change, our ambivalence makes us vulnerable to arguments from both "sides." The questions raised in these classes over and over for two days suggests soft spots and special strengths felt by women.
The mother working outside her home still feels most vulnerable to questions about her children. Are they getting enough of her time, energy, caretaking?
The mother working inside the home feels most vulnerable to questions about herself. Is she doing enough, earning enough, providing enough?
Is one angry at the word "selfish" and the other angry at the word "foolish"? Does one woman's skin prickle at the suggestion of being a Bad Mother? Is the other allergic to the phrase "Just a Housewife"?
I suspect more women feel judged than there are actually being judged. After all, the women I met here have complained about being criticized but denied being critical. I suppose we all project our ambivalence outward, defending against our own reservations about our lives.
But it is still remarkably hard for any of us to make a critical life choice in this time of unsettling "equilibrium," to weigh all the complex values, all the uncertanities and then make a decision without defensiveness.
The toughest question is, finally, the one I was never asked. Why is it always so difficult for any of us to simply say: "I am choosing this way, not because it's right or wrong, but because, on the whole, it seems best for me . . . for mine . . . for now."?