Archive for Friday, January 6, 2006

Mommy track still debated

January 6, 2006

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— Let me begin the new year by taking my (party) hat off to Terry Hekker. Here's to an elder with the courage to offer her own life story as a cautionary tale.

I don't remember the column Hekker wrote a quarter-century ago in The New York Times on the satisfactions of being a housewife and mother in an age of "do-your-own-thing." Nor do I remember the book that morphed from that piece, winning her media attention and lecture audiences.

But on this New Year's Day, the mother of five was back in the same paper, updating her life. There were divorce papers handed to her on her 40th wedding anniversary. There was the shock of finding herself treated like "outdated kitchen appliances." The income that made her eligible for food stamps.

Once, she had sniped at the idea that "the only work worth doing is that for which you get paid." Now, she acknowledged the harsh reality that "the work for which you do get paid is the only work that will keep you afloat."

Terry's story is not unique. But she told it as a veteran combatant in the mommy wars to the younger generation: "I read about the young mothers of today - educated, employed, self-sufficient - who drop out of the work force when they have children, and I worry and wonder. ... Maybe they'll be fine. But the fragility of modern marriage suggests that at least half of them may not be."

This sadder-but-wiser memo was just the latest missive in the heated, or reheated, debate over women's lives. Especially over work and family.

Remember last fall when the same paper of record turned up the heat with a front-page bulletin: Many of the best and the brightest young women at elite colleges were planning to become full-time mothers. It was yet another variation on the Times Story That Will Not Die: "young women opting out." But it stirred up the readers and researchers, bloggers and e-mailers.

Slate's media critic Jack Shafer, for one, cursed the alchemy by which anecdote is transformed into data. And economist Heather Boushey offered a rebuttal, claiming that highly educated women were not really opting out.

Then came Linda Hirshman's piece in The American Prospect saying that, Times or no Times, there was truth in the tale of elite women opting out. Indeed, she reported, women who made the Times' wedding pages - what is it about the Times? - were the least likely to work after motherhood.

A retired Brandeis professor, Hirshman lamented stay-at-home brides, saying that "the real glass ceiling is at home." Her message - snap out of it - was about as soothing as Mennen skin bracer across a raw wound. She advised young women to find jobs that show them the money, to marry "down" or to marry feminist men, and to have no more than one child.

Not surprisingly, her hatchet job on the glass ceiling led yet another Timesman, columnist David Brooks, to counterattack with a homily about how "power is in the kitchen." Where, I am sure, he spends his days stirring the soup pot with his laptop.

Enter Terry Hekker, anecdote and life story, offering a simple refresher course on economic reality. A quarter-century after praising the satisfactions of home, she wishes she'd prepared to support herself. The bottom line was/is the bottom line.

No, divorced homemakers aren't the only ones who have second thoughts on life. Yes, security is hard to come by and, I am sure, there are plenty of working mothers who get a pink slip from an employer after 40 years.

But if Terry "worries and wonders" about another generation of "opt-outers," how many others share that anxiety for their daughters? Life is long. Hands-on parenting is relatively short. The costs may be lifelong. Yet, while Terry recants, new recruits repeat her old arguments.

Will this combat in the mommy zone ever die down? I belong to a generation of working mothers who traded depression for stress. Not such a bad bargain. I'd make it again in a minute. But as an embedded correspondent in this social change, I am struck by how hard it still is to take care of others and ourselves.

We still haven't made work bend to the arc of life and love. Nor have we made it easy to opt back into the work force after you opt out. As long as this is cast as an individual choice, as long as it's left to the mommy warriors, the rest of society gets off the hook.

Terry Hekker has retired from battle. Her old book can be bought for 9 cents on Amazon. But a friend of hers offered a title for a sequel: "Disregard First Book." I hope she writes it.

- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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