Every few months, there is another public announcement of retirement from the ranks of superwoman. The notice may be posted in a newspaper or in a magazine, the woman may be a disillusioned lawyer or a disillusioned MBA, but she is sure to be a high-powered professional who decided to go home.
The articles invariably contain a paragraph or two explaining how "the feminists" convinced her that she should do it all: work, wife, mother. Anything less was, well, less. But there came a moment, or a second child, when she felt something had to give and so she gave up the office. Family came first.
The responses to these announcements are almost as familiar by now as the notices. In letters to the editor, one woman will surely (and perhaps angrily) remind the author that not every mother has an economic choice. Another will resent the fact that the author blames feminism for the stress. A third will bristle at the implication that the children of employed mothers suffer.
And then, in a little while, the argument that has no final answer, that remains as emotional as any in our public private life, fades out of print only to recycle over and over again.
This time it has been written large onto the cover of a new book, "A Mother's Work." The author flags the dilemma this way: "Like many women I was educated to feel that my career and my family should both come first. One day I had to make a choice."
The "I" is Deborah Fallows, a woman who wrote an early retirement notice that ran some years ago in the capital city of work obsession, Wshington, D.C. It got notice and notoriety. Now in a more subtle mood, Fallows struggles to defend her decision to go home, without attacking mothers who are employed. Her desire to be fair, to employed mothers and even to day care, is palpable. But in an odd way, the very delicacy, the very carefulness of her book, reminded me of how difficult it is for one woman to make claims on the turf of motherhood without raising the defenses of other women.
The qualified bottom line for Fallows is this: "Whenever possible, parents should care for children themselves . . . Other conditions being equal, children are more likely to thrive when they spend most of their day with a parent."
There is nothing intrinsically hostile about such statements. Yet it is as hard for an employed mother to read those declarations neutrally as it is for a mother at home to react impersonally when an employed friend exclaims "All things considered, the woman who stays at home has less impact on the world . . . On the whole, the woman in the work place feels much better about her life."
The reality is that women take these statements personally -- because they are personal. The social argument that has filled two decades is not about the behavior of rats in mazes, but about how women should live their lives and treat the people they love.
We are in a particularly uneasy state of balance now. There are almost equal numbers of mothers of young children in and out of the work force. It is one thing for these women in "mixed company" to join hands and mouth suport for each other's right to choose. It is quite another to believe it. Mothers may feel judged, challenged, by nothing more than another's decision.
Every time a woman in an office leaves for home, every time a woman in a neighborhood leaves for work, there is a ripple effect. The waves of ambivalence can swamp self-confidence and even friendships. In such an atmosphere, employed mothers share their anxieties most easily with each other; mothers at home circle their own wagons. Each group may still, more than occasionally, feel the other attacking.
The social argument goes on and on because in fact, there is no certainty, no right way to live. Even Fallows' bottom line that children do best when they are in the day care of their own parents is a belief, not a fact. In the business of creating our own lives, or caring for our children, we are all experts and amateurs, opinionated and uncertain, wildly subjective.
We have only one sample of children and a limited number of years and no guaranteed rewards for our behavior. Parents -- mostly mothers -- who have choices must make them. Not in a vacuum but in a space inundated with worries about our psyches and pocketbooks, our children and selves, the present and future. We do make these choices but our confidence may be fragile and our skin thin. The shifting winds of the social argument, blowing pros and cons at us, all too easily raise the hackles of our own anxieties.