NEW YORK — They are troubled, these working parents from around the country. They are talking about their marriages, about the stress that afflicts the dual-career family, about how that stress intensifies when the family includes children. As working mother Jane Pauley, host of this latest "NBC White Paper" documentary, "Women, Work and Babies: Can America Cope?" points out, "Frankly, it's not a lot of good news." Over and over, these husbands and wives use terms like "the cold war," "on hold," "intimate strangers."
"There's no romance much anymore," says Spring Township, Pa., policeman Frank Ball. Ball is sitting beside his wife, Alice, a therapist at a local hospital, while nearby, their young son Austin is asleep. "There really isn't."
"Don't say that on national television."
National television, after all, all but put the patent on the all-American family, the one where Mom, smiling, stayed home with the kids (usually smiling), and Dad, also smiling, went off to work every day. Now, NBC reports, in nearly two-thirds of American families, Mom works too. More than 19 million mothers are working outside the home in this country.
"What is new," said Pauley, sipping coffee from a "Today" show mug and discussing her first "NBC White Paper," "is the phenomenon of career women wholesale . That's the word we use to describe these women going back into the labor force with very young children at home.
"These are the women," she said, "who a generation ago stayed home. Six out of 10 women used to stay home with their children. Now that has flip-flopped."
Indeed, "Today" show co-host Pauley herself is one who returned to work just eight weeks after her twins, Rachel and Ross, were born 14 months ago. On the wall of her sunny office here at Rockefeller Center is a large color picture of two angelic children: a boy with giant blue eyes and a girl too delicate-looking to possess what her mother insists is "the kick of a rugby player." Was it hard, leaving her babies at home and toddling off to work in the dark at 5 o'clock each morning?
Pauley nods her head: yes.
But for one thing, there was "no choice." Pauley had a contract, not to mention a commitment to her job. Now Pauley quips that her early, early-morning hours mean that "I sort of work flex-time." At night, prepping for the following day's show, "I alternate between doing my homework and mediating sibling disputes," Pauley said.
And Pauley acknowledged that "the circumstances of our jobs make it easier" to balance the roles of work and home lives. Playwright-cartoonist-husband Garry Trudeau, creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip "Doonesbury," is "self-employed," and "we can afford housekeeping, and we do have full-time child care help during the week." Pauley paused. "That is not to say it is not without stress."
Stress is the first thing "Women, Work and Babies" zeroes in on. And after hearing the views of couples like the Balls as well as assorted sociologists, psychotherapists and educational experts, it becomes clear, Pauley contended, that "the burden of guilt is on the wife, not on the husband." As she observed, "Inevitably," in the two-career family, "someone is going to look selfish. And guess who that is? It isn't going to be Daddy."
With her "highly public" pregnancy, Pauley has found herself becoming something of a de facto voice for working mothers. Although Pauley is quick to concede that her own situation makes her anything but the typical working mother, "women talk to me a lot," she said. They write to her, and "among women my age," (35), working motherhood is "the first topic of conversation."
Besides, Pauley herself has not been reticent about the topic. "Shut up, Jane!" she chides herself, playfully, when reminded of her recent outspokenness. In interview after interview, Pauley has cited the familiar "85% of the household chores are done by women"' statistic or lamented the "attitudinal problems that are so fundamental, and that go right back to the family unit"--the eternal debate that runs along the lines of 'OK, so we both have jobs, but who's running the vacuum cleaner?"
(In the Pauley-Trudeau household, Pauley reveals, "My son runs the vacuum cleaner. He loves it, and he's very good. He even does corners.")
Certainly it is no small coincidence that working mother Pauley was asked to "overview" (televisionese for "narrate") this documentary on working mothers. On the other hand, "Obviously I don't get the opportunity to do a great deal of this sort of thing." Anchored full time to the "Today" show, Pauley said, "I could only do this project if I didn't have to travel. I couldn't miss a show."
Was it typecasting, putting Pauley in as narrator of this documentary?
"Nobody said as much," Pauley said with a shrug. "On the other hand, why not me?"
In any case, "you won't hear me mention my personal life. There aren't highchairs on either side of me."