Mademoiselle
May, 1975


An Opinion On Working Mothers

 

By Myriam Miedzian Malinovich

 

Ever since the beginning of the semester, I had been trying to get my lectures prepared ahead of time so I wouldn't have to wake up in the early hours of the morning, groggy and anxious, to prepare that day's classes. Somehow, something always went wrong with the children, and three mornings out of four, I'd be at my desk at 4 a.m., head drooping over a volume of Kant or Hegel (I teach philosophy), sipping instant coffee.

That particular Friday morning my early awakening was due to the fact that my babysitter's best friend was in the city from Cleveland for two days, and Thurs day afternoon was the only time they could see each other. How could I refuse?

I had been working on my 10 a.m. lecture for half an hour when the baby, Kathy, started screaming. By 5 a.m. it was clear that she had no intention of going back to sleep. My attempts at reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason with one eye while making sure with the other that Kathy wasn't sticking hair pins into electrical outlets failed. It looked bad for my morning lecture. It looked good though for the family breakfast. Instead of the usual cold cereal or fried eggs, I made pancakes from scratch, and hot chocolate for Natalie. What else is there to do at 5:30 a.m. when your baby won't let you prepare your lecture? I also had ample time to fix Natalie, her older sister, a much fancier than usual lunch. So I was that mljfOfr1dte. Annoyed when at 9 o'clock, in~htof"ti~r school, she discovered that she had left it home. My suggestion that she ask her friends to share their lunches with her brought tears. I lost ten minutes getting her lunch ~J1d. 'there were delays on the parkway-It was pouring. I made it to class eight minutes late. Considering the amount of preparation that had gone into it, I thought it went rather well. I cancel/ed my 11 to 12 office hours and dashed to an isolated library cubicle to prepare my one o'clock class. Lunch was Drake's Pound Cake and coffee from the basement machines.

By two, I was done for the day and headed back to the suburbs and Natalie's school. When I got there, I found Natalie lying on a cot in the sick room. She had a 104 fever, a headache and a stuffed nose. The nurse had tried to call me at work but had been unable to reach me.

I called the doctor as soon as we got home. She said to bring Natalie right over. Since Kathy's babysitter was scheduled to disappear at 3:30 and I was late already, I had to wake the baby up from a much needed nap. She screamed her indignation al/ through the fifteen minute ride to the doctor's office. At least the screaming kept me from dozing off at the wheel.

The diagnosis was an upper respiratory and ear infection. Antibiotic, aspirin, lots of fruit juice, and Natalie would most likely be ready to go back to school middle of next week. Bring her in Tuesday afternoon to have her ears checked again. And of course bring the baby in if she should develop any similar symptoms. Figuring on about an 85% probability (based on past experience) that she would, the likelihood of my catching up on my sleep the following week seemed low indeed.

It was 5:30 by the time we got home, that hour when mothers of small children are most prone to need a drink. I especially needed mine because in a moment of extravagant spontaneity (every working mother's survival manual dictates drastic reductions in home entertainment), my husband and I had decided to have a little, party that very evening at 7:30. The house looked like a fourteen-month old had the run of it; I have never been able to find a babysitter who is both good with the children and good at cleaning up. Natalie kept complaining that the antibiotic tasted yukkee, and why didn't the doctor give her the same yummee one as last time. The baby was overtired and acting crazy. My husband had an important meeting so he wouldn't be back till seven.

By the time the guests arrived (fortunately late), everything was in order. The dinner was well on its way to being cooked, the table was set, and my husband was tucking Natalie in. The baby had finally passed out on the living room rug at 6:30.

We had barely sat down at the dinner table when the topic of conversation turned to women's liberation. "Of course, none of these women's lib problems affect you," I heard one of our dinner guests assert glibly. This remark tipped the scale in my struggle to remain awake. I perked up and listened carefully. "You were smart," he went on, smiling in anticipation of my agreement. "You got your Ph.D first, before you were even married. Your profession is ideal for a working mother. You have a helpful, sympathetic husband, a babysitter who helps with the housework. You've got it made!"

Much to our guests' incomprehension (none of them had children) I started to laugh. My husband started to explain why.

Obviously I had had an exceptionally rough day, our guests chimed in. This explained my bizarre reaction to an accurate appraisal of my situation.

It was much more than one rough day, I explained. With children, rough days occur frequently enough not to be all that exceptional. Besides which even on "normal" days, the going is often rough. My husband pointed out that given the requirements of his job, the hours during which he could help me were very limited.

They looked skeptical. Didn't I have outside help? Didn't my older child go to school? Doesn't everyone who holds a demanding responsible job, with or without children, have difficult deadlines to meet, unpleasant assignments to fulfill?

This was different, I went on. I knew; I had worked for seven years before my first child was born. I had had my share of difficult work experiences then too. But none of these even vaguely compared with the difficulties of my present situation. There was a qualitative difference-it had something to do with having two independent and often conflicting sets of responsibilities instead of one.

My remarks were greeted with a few head nods, but most of our guests remained convinced that I was grossly exaggerating. I had had such a bad day!

It suddenly struck me that twenty years ago a mother's complaints about being bored to death sitting home with the children all day, starching clothes and making floors shine would have been met with the same incredulity. Then they did not want to hear about "the problem that has no name"; now they do not want to hear about "the problem that has a name"-Nervous Exhaustion. In the eyes of our guests I was living the new feminist chic; I had been classified together with those working mothers one occasionally reads about in a glowing magazine article. The article is always careful to point out that being a working mother is not easy and demands a lot of organization, but in the end Mrs. Cornelia Fluckingham always successfully combines a family of eight children, three dogs, two cats, a parakeet and a loving husband with an exciting career as director of The World Charity Association which takes her to such exotic places as Karachi and Kuala Lumpur. She, of course, always schedules these excursions to coincide with her husband's business trips, and the children's summer camp vacations, or visits to Grandma and Grandpa.

Now that I have children of my own, I no longer believe in these articles, but our guests obviously did.

I collapsed into bed that night thinking that perhaps all one could ever hope for was pendulum swings from one ideology to its opposite. Perhaps it was inevitable that the "feminine mystique" of the Forties and Fifties would be replaced by a "feminist mystique" of the Sixties and Seventies.

At least part of the uniqueness of the working mother's experiences results from the fact that she works on borrowed time. She has to make extended work commitments when she can never be certain that her babysitter's time loan will be renewed. This is analogous to a situation where one would have to commit oneself to buying a house when the bank is free to withdraw its mortgage at will. Add to this the knowledge that in the past banks have been notoriously known to do just this, and a glimmer of the borrower's underlying tensions will surface.

But a mother's time does not belong to her in yet another way. For besides being subject to cancellation by her babysitter, it is also at the mercy of her children's emergency need.

Now that I had what at least seemed to be a stable babysitter, I was still suffering from these latter time restraints. Now I cannot call up my children and say "Sorry, I'm just too tired to pick you up from school today," or "Forget dinner tonight, I have an important lecture to prepare."

Besides the strain of committing herself on borrowed time, a working mother is under another rather unique strain. A friend of mine recently consulted a neurologist after the birth of her second child she found herself increasingly suffering from a variety of memory lapses. They ranged from conversations in which she was unable to recall familiar names to a frequent inability to remember what she was doing-she might enter a room looking for a toy, find herself emptying a diaper pail, and then be incapable of remembering her original goal. The neurologist assured her it was extremely unlikely that she was suffering from any neurological damage. A constant division of attention frequently leads to this kind of condition which is quite common for women in her situation.

A mother's mind is constantly being gnawed at by grocery lists, innoculations, vaccines, coats with missing buttons, jackets that need drycleaning, rugs that need vacuuming, thank-you notes, pictures that need to be developed and sent to grandparents, not to mention the demands made by the children when one is with them. And what can be more mentally exhausting than several small children making demands at the same time?

I have been fortunate in that my children have had only routine illnesses. Even so I estimate that this winter the two of them have been ill a total of about three weeks. But amongst my acquaintances alone, there are two who have children suffering from minimal brain dysfunction, four whose children were born with physical defects which required later surgery, two whose children were born prematurely and required extended special .care, several others whose children's illnesses have required hospitalization and sometimes surgery. The Fluckingham children, I would imagine, are permanently exempt from any of these mishaps.

Is there a solution, I wonder? If there is, it certainly does not lie in a return to the good old days when mommy stayed home with the kids. Besides the disastrous effect on most young' mothers of staying with their children all day, the strongest argument in favor of young women with children continuing to work is middle aged women. Given our present birthrate and life expectancy, about thirty years of a woman's adult life will be spent free of child rearing duties. Those thirty years are liable to be an extended nightmare unless she has maintained a life of her own during her child rearing years.

With the contemporary loosening of what was once the most binding of social institutions-marriage-middle-aged men have been liberated to discard their wives of twenty or thirty years, if they so wish. Many middle-aged women now find themselves suddenly not only without the young children who had provided them with an occupation, but also without the husbands who have provided them with the only financial security, social connections and status they have ever known. All of this at a time when in our youth oriented culture they are considered sexually and socially obsolete. No, we cannot condemn today's young women to even the possibility of such a fate.

Our only hope lies in basic changes in work conditions and childcare to accommodate young mothers. Present work conditions are set up for men who have wives taking care of them, their homes and children. Even when men are willing and able to share household duties and childcare, this is still not a viable solution when both partners are away from home eight to ten hours a day. Such a work schedule simply does not leave enough time to devote to children and household.

Demands for childcare centers, which are indeed indispensable, must be constantly coupled with demands for maternity and paternity leaves, as well as demands that a twenty hour work week become as acceptable as forty hours, and this for both men and women. Our society owes this to its women, just as it owes old people something better than being dumped in old age homes.

The ideal solution, it seems to me, would be husband and wife sharing home, children, and work, but when this is not possible the wife will still be better off if she can maintain an independent life through part-time work. The importance of shorter working hours has by now, been pointed out by numerous writers. Some women's groups are already working toward that goal. It remains for part-time work to become a central demand of the women's movement, on a par with childcare centers and equal job opportunities.

Given the enormous responsibilities of child rearing, there would still be some difficulties under any conditions. There will always be illnesses and school vacations. Babies will continue to require special care. Perhaps these problems could be further alleviated by the creation of a national partially subsidized childcare agency which would use the services of retired elderly citizens in good health. The opportunity to help young parents care for their children might be welcomed by many of the elderly as a means of improving their often impoverished financial condition, while regaining a sense of doing useful work. In this mobile society of ours, this might be a second best alternative to the extended family.

As I go over my own experiences and those of so many of my friends, I cannot help but feel that unless radical changes take place in our work scene, we may very well witness the same waning away of the feminist movement as took place after feminists won the vote for women in the Twenties. Now as then some political, social, and economic gains will remain, but the movement will not be able to achieve what seems to me its most important goal-to help all women become independent human beings with lives of their own, apart from husband and children. For only those women who are exceptionally driven, well organized and hard working, or extraordinarily devoted to their work will be willing to put up with the kinds of tensions and anxieties that befall today's working mother, as well as the long hours spent away from their children.

The women's movement must educate today's young women to see their lives as a totality (difficult at twenty), but this is quite different from creating, however inadvertently, an atmosphere in which they are made to feel that even under present social conditions they must work full-time, even when their children are young. Young women must not once again be misled. They must be helped to make their decisions knowingly. As I write this I think of a pregnant young woman I. very recently met at a party. She and her husband live in Manhattan. She teaches mathematics in a small college in Connecticut. Her teaching load is very heavy. but in spite of this, she told me, she foresees no difficulty in continuing to teach after her baby is born. She plans to take the baby along to work and nurse it between classes. A student will baby sit in her office while she is teaching. As I listened to her I found myself thinking: if your baby isn't colicky, if your baby's hunger pangs happen to coincide with your class breaks, if your baby's illnesses occur during your vacations, if your colleagues don't mind the crying, if your babysitter doesn't quit, if your baby doesn't scream or stand up in the car bed as you speed down the parkway, then it will all work out. I didn't say any of this to her because I knew that the weight of the times was on her side, that just as twenty years ago a woman in her situation would have been convinced that it was now time to give up her career and become a mother and housewife, she was convinced that there were no major problems in combining the two. It would take far more than the lone warning of a stranger to convince her otherwise.

One of the most important tasks of the women's movement is to help bring about the creation of social conditions and attitudes which will help women combine their two lives. But it will be most successful in doing this if it does not simply replace the "feminine mystique" with a "feminist mystique" which blinds it to the realities of women's everyday lives. For only if the problems are fully faced can adequate solutions be worked out.

 

Myriam Miedzian Malinovich has been teaching philosophy for thirteen years.