We are told by the experts that new mothers forget the pain of childbirth almost instantly. The theory is that they are so enamored of the product that they blank out the process. They develop delivery-room amnesia.
Well, I don't know about that. But I do think that working mothers develop another sort of amnesia: child-care amnesia. By the time the preschoolers become teen-agers we have forgotten the old anxieties, the panic when a baby sitter gave us notice, the stress when we had to research a new place, the unease when we were not quite sure whether this person, this home, this center, was just right.
I had a refresher course in child- care crisis this fall when a friend of mine was, as they say, between baby sitters. Being "between baby sitters" is a lot like being between jobs. It's an optimistic description of a terrifying condition. You don't really know you are "between" jobs or child care until you find the next one.
What you do know is that suddenly the life of the most carefully planned family is revealed at its most vulnerable point. Everything -- from the mortgage to the career to the happiness of the children -- hangs by the thin thread of child care.
My friend's stress brought it all back to me. The ads in the paper, the interviews, the visits to nursery schools, the uncertainty, the readjustments -- even the time I came home to find that my missing 4-year-old had been allowed to walk to the supermarket alone by a new sitter.
It's easier to talk about it all now. The 4-year-old is 16 and has no memory of the events that worried me. She is not, in any notable way, lopsided. It is her policy, I believe, to refuse to allow me to invent childhood traumas to feed my working-mother guilts.
But I was struck again by how little, how truly little has changed in the way we deal with child care. Today 45 percent of the mothers with infants and 60 percent of those with kids between 3 and 5 are working outside the home. We have more day-care suppliers and many more day-care needers. Finding care for children is the same frantic, fractured experience; success still hinges on luck and money.
I know this has an enormous effect on working couples with children. But I suspect that it also colors the lives and minds of young couples, and especially young career-minded women, who do not yet have children.
The old conflict in the career woman's life was between love and work. The current conflict is between children and work. You cannot talk to a woman of 30 or more without touching on the fear of or desire for children.
The issue is important to men as well, but not as vital. If you follow the bottom line of most two-working-parent marriages -- whose salary pays the babysitter? who chooses the day- care center? who worries the most about the latchkey child? who gets custody? -- you find that child care is most often on the female side of the ledger.
So these young women who have inherited the much-lauded "new choices" of our era experience these choices as conflicts. The decision to have or not to have a child is often framed in personal, even psychological, terms. Am I ready? Can I cope? But in reality it hinges on something quite objective: child care. I wonder how different the decision-making process would be if the women knew there was reliable, high-quality, affordable child care?
At the beginning of the women's movement, there was a popular slogan: the personal is political. Issues such as those of balancing work and family life were not just private problems but also public ones. Today we plant every tub on its own bottom. Each family is expected to seek out its own child-care solutions -- not from a range of enhanced and attractive possibilities but from limited options and chaos. We do this thwarted by the waiting lists at the best centers, fearful of sex abuse or neglect, skeptical about finding a Mary Poppins, and fiercely protective toward our children's own well-being.
My own child-care anxieties are behind me. My friend's crisis is in remission. The worst is over by the time our children are 5 or 6 years old. It's no wonder that child-care amnesia sets in so quickly. But if we forget, nothing changes. And right behind us is another wave of women on the brink of motherhood whose eyes are wide open.