The mommy wars

Women struggle with work/home choices — or lack of options
By Pamela H. Sacks

SUNDAY TELEGRAM

2006


After Melanie Desiata had her second child, she found it more difficult to return to work than she had when her daughter, Cali, was born.

“With Cali, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Ms. Desiata said. “This time, knowing I’d miss all the developmental things that happen and the discoveries they make, it made it harder.”

Yet Ms. Desiata, 30, never wavered about going back to her job as a benefits coordinator in the Human Resources department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She had started as an administrative assistant and discovered that the work suited her skills and personality. Last month, she was promoted, and she now manages all the benefits for the college’s employees, often assisting them individually with questions and problems that arise.

“I like the social interaction with adults,” she said. “I’m a people person.”

Ms. Desiata was quick to acknowledge, however, that finances were another important reason for her return to work. Among other things, two incomes made it possible for her and her husband, Robert, an information technology administrator, to buy their beige Cape-style home in Worcester.
“I always knew I wanted to have children – that it was meant for me,” Ms. Desiata said. “I also knew I would always work.”
Cali is now 5, and Cameron, the couple’s son, is 6 months old.
For Aimee Granger and her husband, Tim, the story was different. Both were employed at Allegro MicroSystems in Worcester when they bought their modest ranch-style house in a Worcester suburb. They knew that when they had children, Ms. Granger was going to stay home.
“I couldn’t imagine having someone else raise my kids,” Ms. Granger said. “It’s weird because I have friends that it never crosses their mind that they would stay home.”
True to the plan, she left her position as a training coordinator when the Grangers’ daughter, Madeline, was born nearly three years ago. Ms. Granger had held the job for a decade and enjoyed it, but did not view it as particularly fulfilling.
The Grangers knew that living on one income would not be easy. They have one car. Mr. Granger has a second job, landscaping and plowing. A year ago, a second daughter, Gracie, was born.
“When you have two incomes, you think, `How am I ever going to do this?’” Ms. Granger said. “When you do it, you adjust.”
Ms. Desiata and Ms. Granger are, in a sense, soldiers in the legendary mommy wars: Should a mother seek fulfillment and enhance the family’s economic status by entering (or remaining in) the work force, or is there equal fulfillment and, perhaps, an inherent responsibility to be at home with her children? Is it possible to successfully combine the two?
Late last week, one of the Bay State’s best-known working mothers, Jane Swift, the former acting governor, weighed in on the debate in a letter to the editor in The Boston Globe. She was reacting to a story about a panel of high-achieving women at a management leadership conference whose members urged professional women not to “try to do it all.”
“The focus on whether women want too much from their lives detracts from the more important policy issue: how to help families meet the many demands on their time. Having a demanding job and children is difficult and challenging. This is true of most worthy goals. And for most families, it is a reality and not a choice.”
On a recent evening, Ms. Desiata bustled around her kitchen, watching over Cameron bouncing in his infant seat, helping Cali with her homework and starting dinner. “If I sat down I might not get up again,” she remarked with a chuckle.
Ms. Granger said that taking care of her children and the house keeps her on the go from morning to night.
“Someone will call and I can’t talk because I have two kids running around,” she said. “I like everything to be just so, because they are my job.”
In the early days of the modern feminist movement, women entered the paid work force in droves, seeking opportunity, financial rewards and power. The numbers leveled off around 1990, to about 75 percent of women between the ages of 24 and 54, and then went into a modest decline starting in 2000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., maintains that the drop-off was because of a weak economy, but sociologists have suggested that women have found there simply is not enough time to care for children and handle a demanding paid job. More of them, therefore, are staying home, a phenomenon dubbed the “opt-out revolution.”
Deborah Merrill, a sociologist at Clark University, said the retreat to the home front is the result of what is called a “structural lag,” meaning that society has not figured out a way for families to raise children while both parents work. Part of that lag is evident in increased workplace expectations, which require more time on the job. There is some day care, Ms. Merrill said, but many people would argue that it is insufficient to accommodate positions that require long hours.
In the view of Kristin Waters, a professor of philosophy and former head of women’s studies at Worcester State College, society seems to be stuck on “the same old models.”
“We can’t imagine day care arrangements which would be community-based and would allow options for people to work and contribute to the world in ways that were significant without being based on a hierarchical structure,” she said.
About 25 years ago, radical feminism morphed into a philosophy holding that whatever a woman chooses to do is fine as long as it feels right to her. Sociologists call it “gender role ideology” – what a woman thinks she should be doing for her gender, Ms. Merrill said.
Not everyone buys into that sort of feminism, as evidenced by the brouhaha surrounding an article written by lawyer and former Brandeis University professor Linda Hirshman. In her article, titled “Homeward Bound” and published in the December issue of The American Prospect, Ms. Hirshman coins the term “choice feminism” and charges that it is a cop-out that traps women in tedious domesticity.
Ms. Hirshman chides young women who have attended elite colleges and universities, and, in her view, should be “walking the corridors of power.” She views challenging paid work as the only way to fully flourish as a human being. Yet too many women, she writes, have opted to stay home or take part-time, less demanding jobs. She blames the trend on a society that, while inviting women into the workplace, still leaves them responsible for raising the children and keeping the home. She cites author Arlie Hochschild, who coined her own phrase, “the second shift,” to describe what women face after a day at the office.
“The real glass ceiling is at home,” Ms. Hirshman declares.
The situation is one of the main reasons the mommy wars are always simmering, Ms. Merrill said.
“The fact that there was no change that was implemented meant it never got resolved,” she said. “It’s always been on the back burner.”
Women still work many more hours a week than men, and much of that work is uncompensated, Ms. Waters said. “So I think it’s not just a matter of men `pitching in,’” she said. “Isn’t it a joint venture?”
Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees with Ms. Hirshman. After the article’s publication, women expressed their views all over the blogosphere; scholars and other professionals close to the situation begged to differ.
Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York City, maintained that the “opt-out revolution” doesn’t really exist. Indeed, she sees tensions easing in the mommy wars.
“Most mothers go in and out of work, if you look at the statistics,” Ms. Galinsky said. “There are fewer `separate forever’ camps than there used to be. That eases the tensions to some degree. That’s what the demographics show. It’s a much more fluid situation.”
Ms. Desiata and Ms. Granger expressed views that back Ms. Galinsky’s contention.
“I have a good friend who had a son and decided to stay home and have more children,” Ms. Desiata said. “I love it that she decided to stay home. I applaud her decision to do that. That’s a full-time job, and it’s a hard job.”
“I think with our generation everyone can make their own decision,” Ms. Granger said. “They shouldn’t be judged by it. For some people, staying at home is right, and for others it’s not.”
Ms. Waters, for her part, questions Ms. Hirshman’s definition of meaningful work and personal fulfillment.
“Money and power don’t challenge the structure of male dominance,” she said. “That’s not feminist at all. Feminism is working toward social justice. It’s not focusing on individualism but on community. If you are only redistributing money to yourself and not trying to create more social equality, that’s not feminist, either.”
All of this, of course, is a battle waged among women who have the option to work or not. Ms. Merrill pointed out that it is easier for a professional woman to stop working if her spouse can support the family. “But for a single or divorced or working-class family, it is out of the question,” she said. “For some women, it is just not a choice.”
In Ms. Waters’ view, the notion that women who stay home have somehow abandoned feminist values is snobbish.
“It’s bad for feminism,” she said. “It alienates the people you most want to reach out to – the women in need who are working hard. Who knows what those women are doing? They are school monitors or working in libraries. You would be hard put to find a stay-at-home mom who is rocking the cradle with one foot while watching TV and eating bonbons.”
For both Ms. Desiata and Ms. Granger, the days are full.
On a typical morning, Ms. Desiata rises at 5 a.m., showers and gets the children ready for their day. She puts them in the car and drives around the corner, where Cali is picked up by the bus that takes her to the Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public School. Ms. Desiata proceeds with Cameron to a private day care center in Webster Square.
After work, Ms. Desiata picks up Cameron and then drives across the city to the Burncoat area to collect Cali, who spends the afternoon with Jennifer Berndt, a high school friend who has children of her own. Tuesday evenings are particularly stressful because Ms. Desiata heads to class at Becker College. She is earning her bachelor’s degree in an accelerated program.
“Usually, my daughter will have a little emotional breakdown, and I say, `What am I doing?’” Ms. Desiata said. “I’ll be done in the fall, and I’m going to walk for graduation so she can see what I’ve been working for.” Ms. Desiata fits in housework after the children have gone to bed. “I do a little laundry, clean up the rooms,” she said. “That way, I’m not using my entire weekend and taking time away from the kids.”
Ms. Desiata said her mother and her husband are always there to help her, and her co-workers, all women, are supportive. On a recent evening, Mr. Desiata arrived home just as his wife was about to put some chicken on the grill.
“She’s an all-star,” he said with a wide smile.
Ms. Granger is up at 6:30 in the morning. She gives the children breakfast and watches while Madeline makes her bed. The girls spend time in the playroom while Ms. Granger does chores. Then she takes them outside. “We’ll go for a walk; some of my friends in the neighborhood are out with their kids,” she said.
After lunch, Gracie naps while Madeline and her mother look at books or paint pictures. “I teach her her colors, her letters,” Ms. Granger said. “I’m teaching her how to write right now.”
Late in the day, Ms. Granger finishes the housework and starts dinner.
“I don’t think people realize the day is filled with child care,” she said. “I’ve seen everything – the first time they sat up, held their heads up, the first step, I’ve seen it all.”