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Mystique or mistake?

Mon., May 14, 2007

I remember exactly where I was when I clipped my own wings.

I was 27 years old, proudly holding my beautiful 3-week-old baby – my first child – in my arms. I walked up to the door of a hospital room to visit a friend of the family who had just delivered her first child.

I was giddy with happiness and pride.

Then, just before I could knock, I heard the voice of a family member inside the room.

“It looks like Cheryl-Anne is going to be a good little mother,” the woman said. “We’ve been watching her.”

I froze, my infant cradled in my left arm, my right hand still in the air about to tap and announce my presence.

The condescending words – spoken by someone who I had assumed was fond of me and thought highly of me – pierced me and I was shocked.

They were watching me?

With a smile I didn’t feel inside, I rapped on the door and stepped into the room. As I sat there, admiring my friend’s new baby, the woman’s words – she had no idea I had heard her – were still ringing in my ears.

From that moment on it was clear to me that above everything else, I had better look like a good mother.

To be fair, what prompted the woman in the hospital room to say what she had said, and to watch me so closely, was that I was the child of a woman who never looked like a good mother. And truth be told, there were a lot of times she wasn’t. She wasn’t bad. She was too young, too harried, too weighted by her own bad choices, but she did her best. She went to work each day and came home exhausted. Often, she was too tired, too depressed, to clean or cook anything fancy, but she was never cruel and we knew that in her own way, she loved us all.

When I had my own children, my goals weren’t sky-high. I just wanted to be better at it than my mother had been.

My mother worked, so, because I could and because it was expected of me, I stayed home. I wasn’t on the corporate track, anyway.

For the most part, I’m glad I did. I was happy. I fell headlong into mothering. I loved the intense bond with my children. I relished the lazy mornings when they crawled into my bed and we cuddled until breakfast. I liked the picnics in the backyard, lying on a blanket watching the clouds, children curled around me like puppies in a basket. I loved being the one who was there for every first; first words, first steps and first days of school.

I planned birthday parties, drove in the car pool, worked at PTA and in the church nursery.

But there was always a restlessness I couldn’t hide. I missed the other world. Periodically, I took part-time jobs, working crazy hours around my husband’s difficult schedule. I stayed busy with one cottage industry after another, selling antiques, designing jewelry, taking black-and-white photographs and tinting them with oil paints.

I wrote late into the night, occasionally waking to find I’d fallen asleep over the computer.

I was never deeply unhappy, but I never felt free enough to admit I wanted something more.

We lived in an affluent community where it was implied that good mommies stayed home and self-indulgent mommies went off to work if they wanted to and unfortunate mommies went to work if they had to.

Women like me gathered in book clubs and play groups and nonprofit organizations, never examining the fact that we all spent hours each week away from our children while they played in nurseries, pre-school or Mother’s Day Out.

We had something over the working mothers.

Then, one day, a woman who lived in the neighborhood, a woman who was a dental student, called to ask for help. She needed someone to pick up her son and deliver him to the medical school campus downtown after school several times a week. I thought about it, and tried to figure a way to help her, but my schedule wouldn’t allow it.

“What about Stacy?” she asked, referring to the woman to lived next door. “She just keeps house, too, doesn’t she?”

I realized then that in her eyes, the stay-at-homes were the lesser women. Her words said it all.

It was an old feminist who finally undid me. Rummaging through a box of my old books I picked up a copy of “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan. I’d studied it a bit in school, but found it dull and preachy. I never considered any relevance to the controversy the book had stirred up in its day. I didn’t see any deeper meaning. It didn’t really relate to me.

But decades after the book had been written, reading while the children were at school and the baby napped, I was shocked to see something of myself on the pages.

I put my head in my hands and I cried. How could it be, I asked myself, in a time when so many gains had been made by women, when we were free to choose how we would live and how we would raise our young, that I had pulled my world around me until it was so small and closed?

I thought about that for a long time.

Over the years I read a lot of books written by and for women. I read Gloria Steinem. I read Erma Bombeck, a woman who made her mark writing about the difficult task of staying home with children and eventually became one of the hardest working mothers ever. I read Anna Quindlen and Joan Didion and Anne Lamott. I read Martha Stewart.

I read the studies that said children do best when mother’s at home. I read the reports that said children of working mothers do well at everything.

I finally stopped worrying about what looked good to anyone else. I went back to work full time, but I kept reading.

I stewed over Caitlin Flanagan’s essays about why women should be at home and why they should feel guilty if they don’t choose to be.

I pored over “The Mommy Wars” by Leslie Morgan Steiner, and “Perfect Madness,” by Judith Warner.

Now, the latest is “The Feminine Mistake” by Leslie Bennetts.

Bennetts writes, echoing something Steinem espoused almost 40 years ago, that women need to think carefully before leaving the working world to stay home with their children. You can’t always make up for lost time if you stop, if circumstances drive you back into the workforce. Something my less-than-perfect mother tried to tell me when she urged me to take typing in high school. “You might need it to fall back on,” she said.

Bennetts’ book, like so many of the others, makes a good point even if it is a little preachy. It has ignited a firestorm of criticism in blogs and chat rooms, but ultimately, the book offers nothing to solve the issue and bring the two sides together.

Next year, there’ll be another book and the arguments and name calling will go on. And women who’ve got the luxury of choice will choose one way over another. And many of them will feel conflicted over that choice.

Women will stay at home or they’ll go to off to work.

Eventually, I did both. And I’ve decided I’m through reading about the subject.

My first three children had a mother at home full time. My 11-year-old daughter has a mother who gets up each morning and drives happily off to work.

One isn’t any better than the other. Either way, those children are the best work I’ll ever do.

Not too long ago I had my first job performance evaluation in a very long time.

I met with my editor and we went over the sheet of paper he had filled out. It turned out neither one of us had any complaints.

Holding a copy of the evaluation I walked back to my desk and sat down in front of the wide window that looks south over the city. Watching the flock of pigeons that roosts on the rooftops of downtown buildings take wing and soar over the streets, I heard the words that had hit me so hard so long ago. But this time I claimed them. And turned them around

They’ve been watching me, the paper in my hand told me. And I’m doing a good job.


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