Working Mothers, Round 837

Education aside, someone has to change the diapers.

A few weeks back, The New York Times Magazine ran a piece by a gifted, expensively educated writer and mother, about other women like her.

They'd all gone to Ivy League schools, thrown themselves into brilliant careers, married well, had babies, and then--hold onto your socks--decided to stay home. The article focused on a circle of these high-achieving slacker-moms and their need to share and validate their feelings with one another. Some of their former friends have accused them of being traitors to their sex and class, while the moms themselves worry that they're wasting their brand-name educations. It's tough riding the edge of societal change.

While reading about this extraordinary new development in modern parenting, I realized that my big chance to be affronted as a woman had finally come. My experience was being ignored, my sufferings unappreciated, my voice unheard. I've waited a long, long time to engage in classic feminist discourse--personal complaints delivered from a high moral ground.

So let me share my angst. I, too, have cared for my own child. I must admit, though, that at the time, this didn't feel like a historically significant choice, or really like much of a decision at all. After my son was born, I didn't go back to work, because, basically, I didn't have to. I didn't reason this out or talk to my friends or check whether I was moving with or against current trends--which, incidentally, were running like riptides in the direction of Having It All in 1982. My husband's job was secure and paid enough so that we could keep our heads above water. I could afford to be home with my baby, so there I was.

Admittedly, I was lazy and unambitious; I still am. And, unlike the women in the article, I was quite free of anxiety about what my old prep school headmistress would think. And I liked putzing around the house, cooking and sewing and hanging out diapers.

(It's true. I was the last non-Mormon Anglo female in North America to use cloth diapers and wash them myself. I am woman. Hear me roar.)

The main reason I didn't go back to work before Dave went to school, though, was that I was his mother; he was my baby boy, and I felt uneasy when I was away from him. (This is why those stories about people forgetting the kid in the car just don't compute. For normal parents, leaving an infant is like detaching a limb. How do you not notice that you left a leg in the back seat?)

Staying home simplified life, as giving into nature's ideas usually does. For one thing, I didn't have to deal with The Servant Problem. Most of the other moms I knew then worked, and they never stopped yattering about housekeepers and baby sitters and day care. For good reason: The only way to be certain that your baby is cared for the way you want is to do it yourself.

And the more I saw of their arrangements, the less attractive they seemed. Day care is mostly about better-off white women leaving their kids with brown and black women who make minimum wage. (I've always wondered who takes care of these women's families.) Unless the white woman (the "child-care consumer") is really pulling it down, a huge chunk of her earnings go to paying for the child care--and the second car and the clothes that she needs to get out there and earn. How is this not a trap?

The alternative to a day-care center is a full-time sitter, frequently a Third World woman whom her employers can refer to as "the nanny." From Dave's playgroup alone, I knew one couple with a Haitian in the basement and another who wouldn't let their friends hire their Guatemalan nanny/maid to baby-sit for fear she'd find out what the going rate actually was. Talk about exploitation of women.

Now we all know, of course, that many mothers of young children must work if they and their kids are going to eat. They have no choice. And some women simply cannot stand being home all day, and everybody's better off if they don't try. It goes without saying--but today you have to say everything--that trying to pressure women into staying home is just as bad as shaming them into the workplace.

But it's also the case that this is not all about the parents. No matter how much the world changes, every baby is born needing a mother. That mother can be the father, or a grandma, or a steady sitter, but there's got to be someone. That's what these Harvard and Princeton alums have discovered: It genuinely doesn't matter that they're overqualified for the job. Somebody has got to take care of their kids, and it might as well be them.