My own mother's words loomed large before I got pregnant: "Do the things you want to do before you get married and have babies." And it was great advice. By the time I gave birth to our first child, I had climbed the ladder in the marketing world, traveled and lived overseas. My dream was to write a book, and although I had cranked out a few measly chapters when we returned from a year in China, I didn't have the J.K. Rowling in me to do it in between a full-time job and my newly married life.
A mere two years later, our son was born into a time of personal transition. My husband was leaving the security of the legal world and the moneyed track to be a broadcast journalist. If I'd had any desire to stay home with this new baby, it was snuffed out by our new economic reality. We qualified for food stamps in the state of California.
Moving around the country to bigger TV markets, having another baby, keeping my freelance writing and marketing business stoked was an enormous juggling act. There were many times I envied the moms who played tennis and lunched, the ones who didn't feel the weight of financial contribution.
But mostly I loved my life. I was energized and appreciated by forces outside the home. I liked what I did and I moved among a slipstream of disparate and engaging female friends. Before motherhood, I hadn't thought a lot about whether or not I'd be a stay-at-home mother or try to work, there were no preconceived notions. My role just kept evolving amidst the backdrop of our family and a larger picture. I had no real master plan.
Today I sense a polite backlash among the present generation of young women who have watched their moms buckle under the duel pressures of jobs and motherhood. They have shrewdly observed that the "sharing" of household duties by working parents still skews more like 70-30 in the most equal of unions. There is an often-unarticulated criticism, a whisper about the generation of mothers who came before who put careers first and motherhood on hold, stressed by the reality that you can't have it all. At least not all at once.
It's hard for younger women today to understand and appreciate the jackhammering that was done by previous female pioneers to even get to this point, the luxury and ability of women to choose. The striving for equal pay and management positions seems so very quaint now, so "Mad Men," and yet it was not so long ago. I still remember marching into a boss's office, my heart thumping, to tell him I'd discovered my male colleague, with the very same job and tenure, made $10,000 more than I did. I got a raise.
Many young women think of "feminism" as a radical, cleaving and dirty word. All that militarist bra-burning. Yet it was that stridency, the elbowing and the path-paving that allowed women today to expect to sit on boards and run for office, to go into space or attain a high rank in the military. If you want to make a revolution you have to break a few eggs, said Chairman Mao. Sometimes you get an omelet.
My young daughters instantly fathomed the solution to the head-scratching riddle from my childhood about the injured child admitted to the ER. The physician on duty was recused from operating because the child was the doctor's son. But the doctor was not his father. Q: What is the relationship between the doctor and the boy? A: She is his mother.
Few people got that answer correct in the 1970s. And yet today it's a quaint and dated joke. For all of the glass-ceiling busters and groundbreakers, the throwbacks and the backlash, motherhood and career have moved slightly off the combative "either-or" arena and have mellowed into a "what's right for me?" choice.
Young women today tell me they will not delay childbearing. They have seen too many women wake up at 40 wearing the "I forgot to have kids" sandwich board. And I hold my tongue. There is no cookie-cutter approach to any of this, no one-size-fits-all. And when those young women have children who leave the home and they yearn for a reinvention, trying to explain the two-decade gap in their resume to a prospective employer could be disheartening. The mothers of my older children's friends confide that the empty nest has brought a search for meaning, an internal ransacking of who they are now and a need to repurpose that is soul-searching and often stressful.
On a recent episode of CBS's "The Good Wife," a young law associate shamefacedly reveals she is addressing wedding invitations at work and discloses that she is engaged, newly pregnant and quitting the firm to become a wife and mother.
"But you can do both, you don't have to give up the law," says the older, wiser, now-single Alicia Florick, who has returned to the workforce after her husband's Spitzer-like public infidelities are revealed. "But I love my fiancé," is the young ingénue's doe-eyed answer.
A priceless expression crosses the face of the older, experienced woman who has learned the importance of being able to care for not only herself, but also her children. It is one I recognize on my own face as I think about my once-bright naiveté, the beauty of that expectation that we can nudge life in the direction we wish by just applying a little willpower and positive thinking. And how we hope it will. And yet the young lawyer has not allowed for the possibility that the child she is carrying might not grow to term or be healthy, that her fiancé might not always love her or be able to provide for her. It is the great divide between 20-something and 40-plus, the canyon between innocence and experience.
I recently lunched with a friend who'd been blindsided by the economy, her husband's job loss, depression and subsequent raiding of their savings. She had left her job 22 years ago to raise the kids and was wondering now, in the midst of divorce, how she would pay the next tuition check. She is an indomitable, resourceful woman, and she will undoubtedly reconstitute herself in a new world order. Our talk turned to raising our girls, the messages we would give them based on our life experiences and the choices they would inevitably make about partners and marriage, careers and kids. How would each of our experiences as working and stay-at-home moms shape their own visions for their lives?
"Keep your oar in the water somehow," she said wistfully. "That's the advice I'm giving my daughter." And, thinking about my own life, I nodded my head in agreement.
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