Holly Weisbuch remembers the emotional jolt she felt the first time she saw her toddler, Aaron, pick up a crayon and draw. "The last time I gave him crayons," she said, "he ate them." Weisbuch was feeling the guilt and conflict common to mothers with full-time careers outside the home.
Weisbuch, 30, a systems analyst for a health care consulting company, is by her own description "the kind of person who wants to do the right thing," an efficient, success-oriented professional.
Frustrated and Fragmented
But she'd found that, since the arrival of Aaron, now 20 months, her life no longer ran smoothly. She felt exhausted, frustrated and fragmented.
She is typical of the women with children under 5 who have found their way to Babies and Briefcases, a support group for the career woman/mother under the auspices of the Early Childhood Center of the Thalians Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai.
"The common theme is guilt," said Phyllis Rothman, the program coordinator, who as a clinical social worker has been involved for a decade in early childhood education. "Our society hasn't adjusted to the fact that so many women work."
Indeed, 1985 statistics from the Census Bureau show that 25.7 million children under 18 live with married parents who are both in the labor force--either working or looking for jobs. Combined statistics from the bureau and the Department of Labor point to record numbers of mothers of preschoolers--more than 50%--working outside the home.
A Range of Problems
Nitty-gritty problems of professional women who are also parents--dilemmas ranging from finding good child care to scheduling a service call for a major appliance disaster--have for the major part not been addressed.
Babies and Briefcases doesn't promise answers. What it does promise is that these women will find other women who are desperately trying to juggle babies and careers, husbands and homes and feel their acts are falling apart.
Isolation is a major factor for these working mothers, Rothman points out--we don't live in a time or place where neighbors exchange chitchat about their kids over the backyard fence. Frequently, groups for mothers and children meet during work hours. And, in the workplace, childless colleagues don't offer empathy.
Typically, Rothman said, women calling to inquire about Babies and Briefcases ask, "This isn't a group that's going to talk about toys, is it?" They are not interested in discussing the latest model backpack; rather, they're looking for other women with whom to share what they feel.
The group starts with the basic premise that most professional women are able to manage the nuts and bolts of their dual roles. This is not, the literature points out, about "how to cook 30-minute gourmet meals while simultaneously doing the laundry, reading Business Week and bouncing baby."
On a recent evening, five "alumnae" of Babies and Briefcases, women who had started the 10-week, 20-hour program together in October, 1985 met at the Sherman Oaks home of Mary Talley-Garcia to share a pizza. These once-a-month gatherings are a ritual that have kept the group close.
Those present included Holly Weisbuch, Talley-Garcia, 36, mother of Alex, 22 months; Kathleen Burke, 40, mother of Rebecca, 5, and Nora, 22 months; Arlene Singer-Gross, 40, mother of Taylor, 23 months; Shirah Vollmer, 24, mother of Deenah, 14 months. Their stories, together, are a composite of the tugs and pulls experienced by career women/mothers.
"It was like a shock to my whole way of life," said Singer-Gross, a studio teacher for Embassy TV, of the arrival of Taylor. "I had no idea what was involved."
For her, there was a second adjustment; Taylor is an adopted child and "I didn't have nine months to think about this baby." Her husband, Bradley Gross, an assistant director, was not working at the time, and was for a while the principal child care provider; later, they hired a housekeeper.
But Singer-Gross hadn't counted on the emotional tug and pull of this baby. "I was going crazy," she said. "I had such guilt I wasn't functioning. Sometimes I would sneak out of the house in the morning" to avoid saying goodby to the baby.
'Wasn't Just the Guilt'
"Babies and Briefcases really saved me," she said. "I found other women feeling exactly the way I felt. It wasn't just the guilt. But to know I could sit next to someone having a conflict with her husband over who was going to feed the baby, who was more tired . . . ."
Shirah Vollmer, who took time off during the fourth year of medical school at UCLA to have Deenah, now 14 months old, spoke of how carefully she and her husband, who works with computers, had planned this event, just as she had planned her career--"I thought it was the ideal time" because to postpone it would have meant waiting five years, until she had finished her residency in psychiatry.
Very quickly, she learned that a child can't be programmed.