I spent decades doing what millions of other working mothers have also managed to do. I juggled. I befriended chaos. I put up a good front. Few knew my sanity was forever hanging by a thread.
Yet, I was more fortunate than most. I could afford help with the children. My mother was a godsend. My employer allowed me to telecommute most of the time. And for many years the crazy, feverish, breakneck speed with which I lived my life was hardly unique. My friends lived the same way, by the seat of their pants.
Little has changed. Yes, after all these years, after all these battles about who’s a true feminist and who isn’t, what I’ve observed — the angst, the worry, the rushing around — has barely budged in the span of a generation.
Sure, more employers are family friendly. Sure, more fathers are picking up the slack. Sure, our daughters are more assertive about their needs and their demands. But for working mothers, the pace has not slowed, the juggling hasn’t stopped.
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There’s still that mad dash out of the office to collect the children at day care. Still the mad dash to complete the endless reams of homework that buffoons think will transform our education system. Still the mad dash in the morning to get everybody where they need to be on time.
Truth, the mad dash is the least of it. Modern life dictates a lot of rushing around for all of us, most of it unwarranted. The big bugaboo for many mothers, the unmentionable, is the worry of leaving beloved children with virtual strangers. Or of these virtual strangers not showing up at all.
Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t surprised to read that the majority of American mothers with children under 18 would prefer the role of homemaker, the comfort of being there when the second-grader arrives from school or when the baby has a cold. This preference held true for both women who were already staying at home and those who were currently working.
Combined data from Gallup’s 2014 and 2015 Work and Educations surveys show that 56 percent of mothers with children under 18 would rather stay home. For women without young children, 58 percent would choose to work outside the home. In other words, children are the deciding factor in whether women would prefer to be employed or stay at home. Not necessarily pay, not necessarily career advancement (or lack thereof). The caring and raising of children, plain and simple.
Meanwhile, most men — 70 percent — would rather have a job outside the home. Having a child doesn’t make much of a difference. That should surprise no one. Even as men have adapted to changing expectations, in most families they remain the breadwinners, and if my sons are any indication, are quite happy being so.
For mothers, choices are not so clear and I doubt they ever will be. Worthwhile part-time jobs are hard to come by. In many cases, the cost of childcare, especially for more than one child, gobbles up most of a paycheck, rendering the possibility of employment moot. The guilt for women is different, too — and as a mother of four sons, I know how sexist this sounds.
Maybe we’ve conditioned our girls to be more susceptible to the tug of home and hearth. Or maybe the tug is more elemental than that. Maybe we know there are no second chances when it comes to the job of raising children, no rewinds or reboots. It’s once or never to get it right.