Archive for Saturday, January 11, 2003

Younger women are blazing new trails

January 11, 2003

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— There is a moment in Allison Pearson's adrenaline rush of a novel that stopped me cold. Kate Reddy, the 35-year-old heroine of "I Don't Know How She Does It," is comparing her life as (over)working mom in the macho world of London money movers to that of a first-generation immigrant in a new world.

"You know it's probably not going to get that much better in your own lifetime," she muses to herself, "but just the fact that you occupy the space, the fact that they had to put a Tampax dispenser in the toilet -- all that makes it easier for the women who come after you." Then she says, "We are the foundation stones. The females who come after us will scarcely give us a second thought, but they will walk on our bones."

Wait a minute, I thought as I folded down the edge of the page: That was our line. That's what my generation of working mothers said to ourselves when we first got our toes or high heels into the doors that were closed. Sure it's hard for us, but if we hang in there, it'll be easier for our daughters.

We mumbled this mantra as we changed the suit jacket our babies had just spit up on. We murmured it as we called the boss to say that we had appendicitis or a root canal or had been trampled by buffalo -- anything except the truth: that the baby sitter didn't show up.

We thought we were the first generation of immigrants heading for operating rooms and executive suites, and the next generation would walk on our bones or in our footsteps. Now the woman sitting at the desk behind the door we opened is saying the same thing.

I am thinking of generational change today not only because I am old enough to be Kate Reddy's mother, but because the baton, or the rattle, is being passed in my own family. My daughter is about to become a mother.

Just to write that sentence down still seems to me joyful and incredible, though we have had eight months to get used to it. In a matter of weeks -- I knock on everything these days -- we will both graduate to new titles and emotions: mother and grandmother.

Many things fill my expectant grandmother's brain, from names of boys to the names of products -- what is a Baby Bjorn? -- but there is room left for wondering. What has her generation inherited from mine along with the genes?

When I entered the new motherland there wasn't another pregnant woman at the office. There was no maternity leave. There was not a single child-care center in my town or a single after-school program. Every question to a new working mother -- "who takes care of your children?" -- came with an edge or a hammer of disapproval.

Forgive me if this sounds as if we walked four miles in the snow to school. Kate Reddy said that the next women will hardly give her a second thought. We didn't want credit as much as change.

Now our daughters consider themselves pioneers. And I guess they are. Doing it all is the norm in their motherland. Today, everyone's workload is ratcheted up. Today, a lawyer discovers that the 40-hour workweek is now "mommy hours," not partner hours. Today a woman, under welfare reform, discovers that a poor mother's place is in the work force.

Last year, two mothers, both firsts in the White House portrait -- Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin -- stepped off the trail they blazed for a less-frantic side path. Just the other day, I heard of a corporate mom with a shiny promotion, telling her own mom, "I thought I won the brass ring, but it's the bit between my teeth." To these immigrants the terrain seems fresh, unplowed, rugged.

When I had a shower for my daughter, friends brought pieces of advice like gifts of the Magi. I came across a quote from Golda Meir. She was prime minister of Israel in 1969 when my daughter was an infant, and she remembered: "At work, you think of the children you have left at home. At home you think of the work you've left unfinished."

Didn't this "immigrant" think it would be easier for my generation too? Well, it was. And it wasn't.

I should know by now that the changes of one generation in this long movement produce the choices and conflicts for the next. We are walking on Golda Meir's bones and our daughters are walking on ours. We made a new place; to our daughters it's the old place. And it needs some fixing up.

So every generation enters the motherland as an immigrant. Grandmother to mother, mother to daughter, we bequeath them a passport and a blessing. They will find their own way.

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