In 1978, while I was Features Editor at "Cosmopolitan," the legendary editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown asked me to write a special pullout section called "Cosmo's Handbook for the Working Mother." HGB virtually never ran articles about parenting, but she didn't want her publication be the only one on the planet that hadn't covered the oh-so-newsy topic of women juggling the demands of jobs, children, and marriages. She picked me for the project because with a five-year-old son and a daughter who had just turned three, I was the resident expert.
The point of my piece was this: "You and your contemporaries have learned a long-kept male secret: A great many jobs are more fun than housework and at least as rewarding as child rearing. You have also told the world something women once only whispered to each other: Being home alone with little children is often stressful, exhausting, and insufferably boring."
Them's fightin' words, as I found out. Readers (and my own friends) definitely didn't all agree with me. Yes, the nascent Women's Movement had propelled many wives into the workforce, but others became wage-earners reluctantly because a faltering economy was beginning to make the two-career family a necessity. At the same time, mothers who were able to stay home and chose to do so defended their role as the hand that rocks the cradle and pointed out that many jobs are "stressful, exhausting, and insufferably boring."
In the three decades since then, the debate - eventually dubbed "The Mommy Wars" by the media – has not gone away. If anything, it has escalated as Gen Xers, many of them the adult children of working mothers, took up the gauntlet in favor of bringing up their own kids themselves.
Census figures show that 54% of women with graduate or professional degrees now don't work full time. And after years of progressive efforts to help women combine careers and motherhood -- including "flextime," job-sharing, paid maternity leaves, and "lactation rooms" in offices – the pendulum may be swinging back. Last week federal judge Loretta A. Preska threw out a class action lawsuit accusing Bloomberg LP of discriminating against women. In her ruling she quoted former General Electric CEO Jack Welch as saying, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”
Yet exactly what those consequences are has still not been settled. The research is contradictory. Countless studies have been done variously showing that children of working mothers do/do not turn out as well or better than those of stay-at-home moms. Other research has shown that mothers with jobs are/are not happier than their SAHM counterparts. Clearly, no definitive answers to these questions have been established.
As for me, I'll be honest. The relentlessly cheerful tone in my working mother article for Cosmo in 1978, as well as in many articles I wrote later on the topic, was in some ways a kind of feigned bravery. The truth is that I had my good days and my bad days. Sometimes the stress of orchestrating everything in my life really got to me. So did the guilt I felt, especially when my daughter was at a Montessori center from 8 to 6 Monday through Friday.
One morning I felt so torn that I decided to play hooky. I called in sick and I kept my son home from kindergarten and my daughter home from day care. The weather was gorgeous, so we all went to the children's zoo in Central Park. The kids seemed to have a wonderful time but years later when my daughter was already grown and a wife and mother in her own right, she told me a secret. "Remember when you stayed home from work and took us to the zoo?" she said. "It was supposed to be comb and brush day in the four-year-old room. Miss Juanita had promised us and I didn't want to miss it. But I went to the zoo because I wanted you to be happy." So much for my adult perspective on the matter!
End of story; my kids have turned out just fine. But then so have the kids of my friends who were full time mothers. What about you and yours? Whether you worked or stayed home, do you have any regrets? If life had a rewind button, would make any changes? And if you're one of the youngest boomers, still in your 40s and maybe living the Mommy Wars right now, how do you feel about the issue? Weigh in and let us know.
Sondra Forsyth, Senior Editor at ThirdAge, is a National Magazine Award winner. She writes for major magazines and is the author or co-author of eleven books. She was Executive Editor at "Ladies’ Home Journal," Features Editor at "Cosmopolitan," and Articles Editor at "Bride’s." A former ballerina, she is the Artistic Director of Ballet Ambassadors, an arts-in-education company in New York City.
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