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Working Mom Hails Those Who Do Mom Work

May 14, 2000|Kay Saillant

The pink message slip was waiting on my desk when I returned from an interview. It was from Elva at Tutor Time.

"NOT EMERGENCY!!!" it read. "Taylor lost her tooth and wanted to tell you about it!"

Joy, and then guilt, surged through me. I was delighted my spunky little 5-year-old had lost her first tooth. She had chattered about the anticipated event for days. But I also felt a twinge of sadness that I was not there to witness this small but sweet childhood passage.

As a working mother, the conflicting emotions that tore at me are all too familiar. I am frequently reminded of the trade-offs that come with the choice of a career over full-time mommyhood.

It comes when Taylor, now 7, tells me about a funny thing that happened on a trip to the beach--with her baby-sitter, Miss Christy. And when she plaintively asks when I will come and help out in her first-grade classroom, like the other mommies.

At these times, I find myself asking for the ten-thousandth time: Am I shortchanging my daughter by leaving her in the care of others?

I don't have an answer. What I have seems to be a bright, confident, sociable little girl. I tell myself that by seeing her own mom work, she has learned that women have options. That they can be stay-at-home mothers, journalists or doughnut-makers, Taylor's current occupation of choice.

But I can't help wondering if this is just a story I tell myself.

My own at-home mother raised eight children on my father's modest income. When I asked what she thought about my returning to full-time work two years after Taylor's birth, my 66-year-old mother surprised me. "The first five years are important for a mother to stay home, unless it is absolutely necessary to work to pay the bills," was her response.

My 71-year-old dad, who recently retired after 50 years of work as a tile-setter and hospital handyman, had a more considered opinion. Or was it just an opinion I was more ready to hear?

"Nowadays almost all parents do work," he said. "It's a completely different world. And whether a child should be in day care depends on how the child responds."

My dad may call it child care. A more cynical term, coined by tsk-tsking radio personality Dr. Laura, is stranger care. Her attitude illustrates an unhelpful stridence that shades the child-care debate, one rooted less in concern for children than in the cultural wars of recent years. Some would have us believe that the only way to properly raise children is to have mom home and dad out earning a living.

But as much as these head-in-the-sand types would like it, we are not returning to that 1950s model. Women are in the work force to stay, by choice and by necessity. If my mother were to try to raise a family on my father's salary today, she would find it impossible.

Instead of creating an us-vs.-them situation pitting working mothers against the stay-at-homes, it would be productive to talk more about how we can support each other and less about whose method of rearing children is superior.

Taking care of children is hard, exhausting work. The patience needed to deal with hordes of small children tugging on sleeves, fighting with each other and spilling food eludes me. I'm much more at ease editing a story or grilling a bureaucrat.

For many child-care providers, the work does not end with plopping an after-school snack on a table and switching on "Nickelodeon." I know of many day-care moms who go the extra mile, literally, picking up children from school, running them to birthday parties and even caring for a sick kid. Taylor's sitter does this regularly, not just for my daughter but for the other children in her care.

A former kindergarten teacher, she also helps the children with their homework, administers weekly spelling tests and rewards perfect scores with an ice cream cone. By choice, she doesn't own a television set.

If that isn't mothering, what is?

Maybe the child-care battle won't cease until the millions of girls and boys being raised with the help of caretakers today become adults. Maybe they will decide they turned out just fine and relegate the debate to a quaint cultural footnote.

What I know for certain is that I wouldn't be able to both work and raise a daughter without the help of a handful of women who have filled in for me over the years.

Taylor knows them as Sandra, Mrs. Root, Miss Kari and Miss Christy. This Mother's Day, I want to salute them and all the surrogates out there who make it possible for women like me to enter the work force in unprecedented numbers and significantly contribute to an economy that has grown to depend on our labor.


Catherine Saillant is a Times assistant city editor. She can be reached at

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