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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Advice for Working Moms--Compromise : GOOD ENOUGH MOTHERS by Melinda Marshall ; Peterson's, $18.95, 321 pages


I've always thought that the cosmic joke of my four-year stint as a parent is that I've never found the time to read Arlie Hochschild's highly regarded "Second Shift," which takes the position that working women really put in two eight-hour days, between the job they get paid for and their role as preeminent parent and domestic engineer.

As we enter the post-feminist era, the loudest sound is hardly that of women storming the barricades of American business. It's the gnashing of teeth, as the women who thought they were where they wanted to be realized that they had--profoundly, irrevocably--too much to do.

Most men (I said most; don't get on your enlightened high horse) in this society, and surely the society as a whole, are less than accommodating of the working mom. We can have it all, sure, but we may not be happy with it.

Lots of women work, most of them by necessity, so the reading marketplace is full of moms who would love a helping hand out of the quicksand. Enter Melinda Marshall with the latest self-help offering, seductively titled "Good Enough Mothers."

What Marshall seems to offer is dignified compromise. We must stop worrying about what our mothers, husbands, employers and friends expect us to do, and figure out our priorities for ourselves. Maybe some women, in their truest hearts, honestly prefer to spend the day in the office. On the assumption that most would prefer a more equitable division of their time, this book offers some ideas on how to embrace compromise.

Or at least I think that's what Marshall intends. The primary problem with "Good Enough Mothers," particularly for women who have diapers and briefcases--not time--on their hands, is that the first 100 pages read like molasses, and first-draft molasses at that.

Marshall is to be commended for the breadth of her research--she really has tried to look at the conflict from both sides, now--but she sat down to write one step too early. The material lacks shape, and all the subheads in the world fail to give it direction.

When Marshall's voice does emerge, ironically, it's usually self-deprecating. She tells us that one of our big problems is that we have so little appreciation for what we do manage to accomplish--then she refers to herself as a "pseudo-stay-at-home working mother and incorrigible fence-sitter" who tracks academic studies to figure out what to think.

What she comes back to, time and again, is the seemingly benign notion that we can take charge of our lives. We can move to Maine and live on nothing if we prefer to stay home with our children. We can work a blue streak and still raise a dynamite kid as long as we project a positive image.

It sounds as if we can take charge (What did Helen Reddy sing? "I am woman, see me cope"?)--but given the dreadful lack of support she documents, the reader can only wonder, why should we? Why is the victim of an unyielding society burdened with the responsibility of fitting into it? Marshall advises us to "just say no" to the carrot of perfection, to decide which of our conflicting roles matters the most to us and pursue it and accept that the other aspects of our life will fail to live up to our impossible ideal.

Granted, learning to live with the hand you've been dealt is an important lesson. But the concept of control, in this case, is an upper middle class one. Not everyone has the luxury of defining priorities; not everyone can move to Maine, not even if they cut way back on the budget.

Marshall counsels women not to feel guilty about their choices. She is driven by the best of intentions, but why should women feel guilty at all, since most are in a bind decidedly not of their own making? I mean, Disney's Michael Eisner makes $203 million in a single year and gets headlines for the accomplishment, while women all over the country feel bad because they came home from work and had to choose between watching Junior finger-paint or cooking a well-balanced meal.

Should those women accept their plight or should they emulate Peter Finch in "Network," get mad as hell and decide not to take it anymore? Maybe Eisner would finance the revolution.

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