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Working Moms, Give Yourselves a Break


The woman pictured on the cover of "The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood" (Yale, 1996) looks the way many, if not most, working mothers feel.

One side of her is dressed for work--business suit, pulled back hair, newspaper in hand. The other side is in jeans and a sweater, hair down, frowning toddler on hip. The woman is smiling, slightly, but her eyes look dazed. You can see little bags under them.

No wonder.

Not only are mothers living up to demands from the workplace, they also assume they must meet their children's every need, from "swimming, judo, dancing and tumbling classes," to "orthodontists, psychiatrists and attention deficit specialists" to "sibling preparation workshops and aerobics classes for babies and designer fashions for 2-year-olds," writes author Sharon Hays, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

It would have been logical to hope that as mothers entered the work force, parenting might have been pared down to its essentials. Instead, the contemporary competitors to Dr. Benjamin Spock are demanding way more of mothers (note: they're still targeting mothers) than Spock ever did in the 1930s, Hays says.

Even though most mothers of children under 6 are now working, parenting experts like Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton have continually upped the stakes until now child rearing is more child-centered, emotionally demanding, time-consuming and financially draining than ever, she says.

"What we're asking mothers to do is buried under the notion that what they do is natural. There's nothing natural about it," says Hays, citing a wide range of successful parenting styles. She says the ideology of "intensive mothering" coupled with demands that mothers work constitute a "bizarre social construction."

But expectations for intensive mothering are so subtle and pervasive that they leave almost all mothers feeling guilty and inadequate no matter if they are working, staying at home, working class, middle class or poor, Hays says.

Among the women she interviewed for her book, Hays talked to a scientist who spent $20,000 of her savings to stay home and nurse her first child for six months. Another told her, "I let a child tell me when they're hungry and when they need to eat and when they don't and when they need to sleep and when they don't."

But even many feminists believe no one else can meet the same standards. "My husband will just watch the children to make sure things don't go wrong," one mother says. "But he doesn't interact."

Hays acknowledges mothers who want to do better than their parents, who love their children and want to meet their needs. Were she a mother, Hays, who is 40 and pursuing pregnancy herself, would probably do the same, she says.

But when impossible demands pile up on the stooped shoulders of mothers, she argues that the people who benefit the most are those who already wield the most power in society: men, whites, the upper classes, capitalists and state leaders.

Relief requires a public recognition that we're asking mothers to hold up the world, she says. "It's incredibly important to stress that men need to share in this task."

Hays says she isn't interested in telling parents how to raise children. But at the least, she says, "I'm suggesting simpler and less intensive methods would probably work just fine."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at Please include a telephone number.

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