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Challenge to Working Mothers

June 22, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Katherine, time to wake up now. It's a school day and Mommy has to get to work.

Seriously, now, we don't have much time.

No, please don't get the Legos out now. We have to eat.

How come you have only one sock on? Now , Katherine!

You've got two minutes to get dressed. I'm counting.

I don't know where your Care Bear undies are. There isn't time to look for them. Put these on.

Look, it isn't necessary to cry. These undies are perfectly fine. School is starting now and you're going to be late, and I'm going to be late for my appointment.

Eat your Cheerios.

Katherine, please eat your Cheerios.

What do you mean you didn't bring your boots home from school?

If you don't have your jacket on in one minute, I'm leaving without you.

-- Excerpts from a "typical morning" in the household of Anita Shreve, as told in her book "Remaking Motherhood."

During such dialogues with screaming children, a modern mother can't help but think back to her own childhood, when she was never rushed by her mother's need to get to work.

She was her mother's work.

For years a debate has been raging in public forums and in private: Should mothers work outside the home?

"The debate . . . is not really appropriate any more. Mothers do work," writes free-lance journalist and mother Anita Shreve in her book "Remaking Motherhood" (Viking).

Indeed they do. Department of Labor statistics show that 62% of women with children under age 18 are employed. But the biggest labor boom--as well as the most significant cultural upheaval--is among mothers with children under age 3. More than half are employed now, up from just 27% as recently as 1970.

It is not known how many of these mothers work for reasons of personal fulfillment or because they need the money. Whatever their reasons, American working mothers--from the lowest-paid waitresses to the wealthiest attorneys--share a common bond. They are caught in a transitional phase in American family living, pioneering an unmapped wilderness.

Among these millions of working mothers, tales abound of guilt; of the inability to juggle the demands of work, children, a husband and a home without being overwhelmed by fatigue; and feelings of inadequacy.

Having no role models, the working mother finds herself asking the question: "Am I harming my child?"

Shreve said one reason she wrote "Remaking Motherhood" was to answer that question for herself--"because that's the foremost question my generation is asking itself."

The mother of 6-year-old Katherine Clemans, Shreve said life is easier for her than for many working mothers. Her husband, John Clemans, is employed outside their home, while Shreve does most of her work--writing magazine articles and books--at home.

Still, Shreve said in an interview here, she has "gone the whole gamut" of stress, doubt and guilt about being a working mother. Finding reliable child care continues to be the biggest psychological and practical burden for most working mothers, said Shreve, who views it as an emerging political issue and something of a national scandal.

"There are 100 countries who have better national day-care policies than we do," she said.

Different Perceptions

Her interest in the role of the working mother began after the birth of her daughter. Shreve found it intriguing that Katherine's perception of men, women and her mother differed from those Shreve had experienced as a child.

The daughter of a pilot and an at-home mother, Shreve had to "fight to go to college," having been encouraged to go to secretarial school instead.

"It was clear from day one that, had I been a boy, I would have been a more valued child," she said.

Looking to adulthood, Shreve's sense of what she might do was very narrow, she said. The choices were mother, nurse, secretary or teacher--though in her heart she wanted to fly a plane, like her father.

Shreve married the day she was graduated from college and became a teacher. Her first marriage ended in divorce. She abandoned teaching when her second husband's job took them to Kenya, where she went to work for a local magazine.

Observing that her daughter already had a very different vision for her future, Shreve chose to focus her book on how having a working mother affected a child's development socially, emotionally and cognitively. She interviewed many mothers and children and also cited research showing that daughters of working mothers had higher self-esteem, better social skills and a broader idea of what was possible in their future than daughters of at-home mothers.

Though Shreve said most of the research about working mothers was positive, many mothers are still dubious about their roles.

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