An Excerpt From Flux
By Peggy Orenstein
ON A LUSH summer day in suburban New Jersey, Carrie Pollack(*), 38, strides through a shopping mall toward the red-hot center of what she calls the parallel universe of stay-at-home moms. She pulls up short in front of a playground designed to look like a lily pond: Dozens of children leap in gleeful chaos, plunging from plastic toadstools, squirming through hollow logs, and rolling around the blue mat “water,” while the adults supervise from carpeted steps. “Well, ladies and jelly beans,” Carrie says, beaming at 4-year-old Julia and 18-month-old Sam, “what do you think?”
Carrie is just shy of five feet tall, dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and sandals. Her dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail; her large brown eyes, under straight-cut bangs, are slightly asymmetrical, giving her a friendly, quizzical look. It’s easy to see why, back when she was a district attorney prosecuting child abuse cases—before Julia and Sam were born—she could win the trust of even her most traumatized clients.
She takes a seat as the children skitter stocking-footed into the fray. Around us, the stairs are filled with women. It may be 1997 in the real world, but here in the parallel universe, it looks more like the 1950s. There is a smattering of grandmothers and nannies, but mostly these are full-time moms. I see exactly two fathers during our visit here, and only one is without his wife. As that man walks by, Sam stops what he’s doing and stares, eyes wide, until the man is out of sight. Sam always stares at men, Carrie explains: “He’s not used to seeing fathers during the day.”
OVER THE LAST four years, I have interviewed more than 200 women for my book Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World. The women I talked to were married and single, with and without children, working and staying home. Most, but not all, were college graduates; all were currently in the broad swath considered middle-class, although many were raised in blue-collar homes or in poverty. They ranged in age from their mid-20s to their mid-40s, which meant that by the time they became adults, sexual norms, marital patterns, relationships with family, and women’s career expectations—the warp and woof of what it means to be an American female—had undergone a radical transformation.
I was interested in how, as teenagers, they had imagined their lives would unfold; how their aspirations had changed over time; what they expected from marriage and motherhood; what they’d learned about managing conflicting demands and choices. Ultimately, I hoped these conversations would yield a deeper understanding of the forces that shape our lives—as well as help break down some of the barriers that keep women from talking to one another.
By their mid-30s, many of the mothers I spoke with, including Carrie Pollack, seemed surprised by where they had ended up, describing a kind of whiplash turnaround from their younger, single selves. Back then, they’d imagined that they would divide housework and child care equally with their future husbands. Somehow, though, that’s not what happened. Whether or not they worked outside the home, the vast majority of women had made concessions to parenthood in a way that men, for the most part, still do not. That’s why words like “balance,” “trade-off,” and “work-family conflict” have become as feminine as pink tulle.
Women complained to me that their husbands didn’t pull their domestic weight, but time after time, I heard them let men off the hook. A 38-year-old technical writer I interviewed in San Francisco was typical: “You know,” she mused after running down a litany of frustrations, “my husband is really involved compared with his own father.”
I pushed, pointing out that this sets the bar too low. Shouldn’t we be comparing men’s involvement with that of their wives instead? “Well,” said another mom, “you can’t really expect that.” I tried putting it another way: “It seems to me that women, whatever their arrangements, feel like lesser mothers than those of the previous generation. Meanwhile, men, even with minimal participation at home, feel like better fathers.”
“You’re right,” the first woman acknowledged, “because most of the men we know are better fathers. But I don’t know any woman who doesn’t struggle.”
Carrie Pollack was a little different, and that’s what had drawn me to her. More than almost anyone I met, she and her husband, Brian(*), 36, were in a position to make good on the promise of equal parenting. He was one of the rare men in America to take a six-month unpaid paternity leave when his daughter was born. Meanwhile, Carrie loved her job prosecuting child molesters and had felt strongly about her economic independence. She even earned more than her husband did. Even so, here she was, sitting by the plastic lily pond while her husband, a mid-level lawyer in the federal government, was off at work. What, I wondered, had led someone who valued equality so fiercely to make such a traditional choice?
The answers, I discovered, revealed a great deal, not just about Carrie and Brian but about modern women’s and men’s deepest expectations about parenthood and the real range of choices we allow ourselves to consider. They also say something about what needs to change psychologically as much as culturally for men to do more in the home—and for women to let them.
A FEW HOURS AFTER we return home from the mall, Brian Pollack comes through the door and yells a greeting. He’s a bearish man, with an unruly mop of red hair and a warm, patient expression. He sweeps his daughter off her feet for a hug, and she dissolves in giggles. “It has surprised me that our love has grown,” Carrie confides. “I never thought that I could love him more than the day we married. But I’m just crazy about him. And I think part of that is the joy of seeing him with our kids.”
The Pollacks have strong views about childrearing, and they’ve made significant personal sacrifices to accommodate them. Brian’s government job is both less interesting and lower-paying than one in the private sector or academia, but the hours are regular, and twice a month he works a four-day week. With just one income, they take no out-of-town vacations, forgo nights out as a couple, and have passed on the kinds of luxury items most Americans take for granted, such as a CD player and a VCR. Brian’s parents chip in by helping with the mortgage on their modest home, and Carrie’s mom provides child care when they need it. They are both adamantly against day care. Carrie says that because of the nature of her work, she is fearful of abuse, and both she and Brian mentioned observing what they called “benign neglect” by nannies and day-care workers. “The bottom line,” says Brian, “was that one of us was going to stay home.”
Which one of them that would be, however, was an open question. Brian would have seemed the more likely candidate for full-time parenthood. Carrie liked her job far more than he did and was more dedicated to it. Here is how Brian describes his job with a government agency: “It’s pretty easy. I can goof off for days at a time.”
When Julia was born, they figured they’d each take a leave, then work out the next step from there. Carrie would go first, taking the four-and-a-half paid months that her job allowed, then Brian would put in for the six months unpaid parental leave his office provided. He was the first man to avail himself of the policy. “I got mostly stroked,” Brian tells me after dinner. “Other guys said, `That’s really cool.'”
“Really cool,” I counter, “but none of them did it themselves?”
“Yeah,” he says. “And there was some “No way I would have done it.”
Brian says he was fully prepared to make fatherhood his vocation, yet even before he left work, subtle cues from friends and family let him know he was expected to return to his job. Carrie’s girlfriends told her how lucky she was that Brian was “trying to understand your experience.” Brian’s parents proclaimed the leave “wonderful for the baby,” as long as it didn’t hurt his long-term earning potential. All around, Brian was hailed as “a progressive and New Age-y dad”—provided he went back to work when it was over.
Women may have been integrated into the male enclave of the workforce, but men have neither entered nor been accepted into the parallel universe of mothers. Brian enjoyed the attention of being the token dad at Gymboree, but it’s hard to imagine most men feeling as comfortable. Some of the women I met confessed that they think of full-time fathers as “losers.” Few young, single women imagined marrying a man who would want to be a stay-at-home dad. “I don’t need to be the test case for that,” one told me. “I mean, Mr. Mom was a great movie, but the reality seems more unsavory.”
Meanwhile, the men who were trying to do their part complained that daycare providers and teachers always instructed them to tell their wives when a child needed Popsicle sticks for a project or a packed lunch for a field trip. The assumption persists, as sociologist Pepper Schwartz has pointed out, that a child’s primary parent is her mother and the father is a temporary substitute.
Looking back on it, Brian believes he could have withstood such social pressures if he had enjoyed his early caretaking time with Julia. But when he discusses those six months, a tone of defeat creeps into his voice. “Staying home with her was really tedious,” he says. “I was surprised by the constantness of it, the lack of breaks that we so much take for granted in life. By mid-afternoon, my entire mental focus would be on how long it would be until Carrie returned.”
I ask Brian if there was anything he loved about staying home with Julia. He grins. “Oh, absolutely,” he says. “Little things, like when she’d fall asleep with her tiny arms around my neck. And also there was the sort of general psychic feeling of being a father. The feeling of parental love was absolutely tangible. On the other hand, it was tinged with a lot of guilt at not being a better one. Not spending more time, not having more energy.”
What struck me, listening to Brian, was that the experience he described mirrored that of so many new mothers. Studies have shown that professional women in their 30s are particularly likely to feel isolated after a child is born. Not only do they feel numbed by the monotony, they worry that their feelings make them bad parents. But women have two things Brian didn’t: a support network—other mothers and family members to help them cope with the boredom—and a social expectation that they would simply endure it. After all, there is no shame in a father admitting that he finds infants exasperating and retreating to the workplace. But when a mother does the same, her devotion is called into question—by others and by herself.
As it turned out, that is what happened to Carrie. At first, she reveled in being the working parent. “It was great,” she told me. “I took care of Julia in the mornings, then I disappeared to work. Then I came home and took care of her some more. And I knew that during the day she was with Brian. But on the other hand, I started to feel like I was missing it, like he was home and I was missing all of this stuff.”
As Brian’s paternity leave wore on, Carrie and Brian each began to articulate reasons why she would be the better full-time parent: Brian watched C-Span all day, and Carrie didn’t want Julia exposed to that much TV. Carrie was “more disciplined, more able to get the job done through the tedium.” Carrie was ambivalent, but less ambivalent about leaving work.
“Carrie missed Julia,” Brian says. “Either she missed her genuinely emotionally or felt that she should be here for her.” He shrugs. “It probably was a combination. I think the truth is, Carrie didn’t want to be seen as `that kind of mom’—the mom who was working and not staying home with her kids.”
BAD MOTHER: THE phrase affects women like kryptonite, and it’s one of the most effective checks against those who want fuller lives or more help on the domestic front. The Bad Mother—”that kind of mother”—is thought to risk damaging her children through her independent needs and outside interests. It’s why so many working mothers protest that they “have” to work, while no father feels compelled to make such a justification. The Bad Mother is the evil twin of the Perfect Mother, who lives solely for her children, whose needs are completely in sync with theirs. In her book When Mothers Work, journalist Joan Peters found that working mothers in particular respond to the threat of being tagged a bad mother by unconsciously clinging to control. Micro-managing their children’s lives—retaining a sense of authority over packing lunches, choosing clothes, and coordinating their kids’ schedules—makes them feel that they are good mothers, even as the responsibility for “doing it all” overwhelms them.
“I’m scared my husband wouldn’t do things right,” admitted a 36-year-old insurance executive in Minneapolis. “Like, one day he dropped our oldest daughter off at a Brownie event where I thought lunch would be provided. It wasn’t. Luckily, the troop leader worked something out for her, but I cried that night. I kept thinking, What a failure I am as a mother, to not even think of what my daughter is going to eat for lunch.” She looked at me to make sure I understood what she was saying. “I didn’t think, He’s a bad father,” she emphasized. “I didn’t blame him. I feel like if my house is messy or my kids don’t have clean clothes, people are going to judge me.”
The stay-at-home mom is just as vulnerable as the working mom to Perfect Mother pressure. In addition to basic nurturing, Peters points out, she’s now expected to be a creative playmate, a developmental psychologist, and an educational expert, not to mention a ready volunteer. Carrie strives to imbue every activity that her kids engage in with a “purpose” and talks wistfully about her lost connections with old friends. “It’s not about who you want to be friends with,” she says about spending an afternoon with a mom she clearly didn’t connect with. “It’s based on who the kids are friends with, what’s good for them.” Although she spends a lot of time with her children, Carrie feels guilty because she sometimes drifts off when Julia chatters at her or feels exhausted by Sam’s perpetual motion. Other women told me they felt they’d “failed as mothers” when they couldn’t breast-feed. (“I tried for six-and-a-half weeks,” one quipped. “I really bonded with that pump.”) The impossible standards they set for themselves, shared by so many women, reminded me of teenage girls who, no matter what their weight, see themselves as fat. I don’t know whether there’s a Perfect Mother equivalent to an eating disorder, but I wondered: How good does a mother have to be before she feels good enough?
I ask Carrie—since she’s given up her job, her financial independence, and time with friends for her children’s wellbeing—if there is anything that would make her feel she’s gone too far, that she has become too subsumed in her role as a mother. “If I suddenly felt totally satisfied with motherhood alone,” she says slowly, “that would be a warning sign. There’s got to be ambivalence. Because I can’t imagine ever being totally satisfied with this role.”
THAT EVENING, WHEN I left Carrie to travel on to Philadelphia, I felt disturbed. In many ways, I admired Carrie. Like other mothers I met, she raised important questions about our culture’s definition of success, about the lure of materialism, and about the value of home and regeneration in our overly busy lives. But instead of being part of a larger discussion involving both men and women, these questions had fallen into the cracks of women’s choices and were getting lost in the defensiveness and anger of the Mommy Wars.
The next morning I interviewed a group of female medical students from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds. As it happened, these young women had just attended a forum of women physicians discussing how they’d met the challenge of mixing work and family. “How many men came to the session?” I asked, remembering Carrie and the other mothers I’d met. They looked blank. “Did they have their own panel in which male doctors advised them on how to be good fathers and good physicians,” I continued, “or don’t they expect to have to be both?”
Their male classmates, they informed me dryly, would never show up for such an event. Maybe they’re right. But it sounded to me like a younger version of “Well, you can’t expect that.” Suddenly, I felt I could see these young women’s futures as clearly as any psychic.
The truth is, women will grapple with these contradictions and compromises until work-family balance transcends the ghetto of women’s issues. No matter what we do, our “choices” will remain both real and illusory until we reach the point where men feel obliged to struggle as deeply as we do with the trade-offs at work and the rewards of home. That requires not just economic and cultural change, but changes in our own psyches: We need to have greater expectations of men and more realistic ones of ourselves. It requires loosening our grip as micro-managers of our children’s lives, even a little bit, and most of all, letting go of the Perfect Mother.
That, perhaps, is something on which both women who work and those who stay home can agree.
(*) Names have been changed.
© Peggy Orenstein. All rights reserved.
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