Ditching the Mommy Trap

A light went on while I was sitting at my friend's kitchen table a few years ago. She was pregnant and telling me that she planned to take a four-month maternity leave from her high-tech marketing job, after which her lawyer husband was going to take a six-week paternity leave. I was only thinking about having kids then, but new possibilities started multiplying in my mind. Oh, so you could add a significant paternity leave on top of a maternity leave -- I hadn't thought of that. Later, my friend offered even more inspiration: She and her husband both scaled back to four-day workweeks, cutting day-care time to three days a week.

When our time came, my husband and I came up with our own permutation. Between us, he and I stayed home for the first eight months of our daughter's life -- me for the first six, and my husband for the following two. Then, for the remainder of that year, both of us went on four-day workweeks. My husband, also a journalist, felt he couldn't ask for that schedule indefinitely and eventually went back full time, but I've stayed part time.

And as obvious as it sounds now, here's what surprised me, what contradicted everything I had been led to believe: I love it -- not just working less, not just spending more time with my child, but everything together in combination.

We are surrounded by a barrage of negative information about the choices parents -- in particular mothers -- make between work and home. It's usually presented as an either/or thing -- what can seem to mothers like a Hobson's choice: Either give up your careers or neglect your children. Whatever you do, you're bound to be not only condemned by someone but, in the popular imagination, miserable to boot. Just think of the relentlessly pessimistic story lines that have prevailed in the media: the frazzled mother unsuccessfully trying to juggle work and home, and the "myth" of the superwoman; the purported failure of the women's movement to get men to do their share of child rearing and housework; the "mommy track" that traps even women who do choose to remain at work; the self-esteem problems of stay-at-home moms who are disdained by the working world.

The ideological war between traditionalists and feminists furthers this negativity, with each side casting the gloomiest possible portrait of the other. Strangely, what both sides seems to agree on is that women can't have it all. For traditionalists, the thesis seems natural enough: Women are supposed to stay home, and that should be enough for them. Feminists, though, seem to have fallen into this ironic message due to their habitual critique of a society believed to be sexist. Like the media, a slew of feminist academics, pundits, and authors have urged us to look at the terrible lot of mothers.

Naomi Wolf, for instance, in her new book, Misconceptions, depicts one downtrodden mother after another who married supposedly feminist husbands only to find out, after giving birth, that they were the ones expected to make all the sacrifices in order to raise children. There's a clincher of a scene in which Wolf's brother confesses to what he portrays as the dirty little secret of dads: love their children as they might, they would never, ever compromise their careers because of it.

I'd love for Wolf to meet some of the dads I know -- or, for that matter, some of the moms. All around me, women and men are coming up with creative and untraditional ways of balancing work and family life, whether they be taking long and sequential parental leaves, shortening their workweeks, working at home, or taking turns staying home. Quietly, these families are forging a new lifestyle that expands conventional notions of what is possible.

They're not the norm perhaps, but they're out there. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that last year some 15 percent of employed parents with children under 6 worked part time (mostly women, but also around 3 percent of working men with children that age). According to the bureau's latest statistics, about 30 percent of both men and women with children under 6 have flexible schedules, which could mean working, say, four 10-hour days or varying the time they begin and end work each day.

Granted, a lot still needs to change. As feminist-leaning academics and others keep pointing out, work and society are often appallingly unaccommodating to family life. Many employers remain fixated on rigid schedules. The ostensibly big advance of the Family Leave Act, a mere 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, is woefully inadequate. The kind of day care that doesn't make your heart sink is mostly unsubsidized, expensive, and hard to find. Yet as Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the national Council on Contemporary Families, allows, "What's remarkable and encouraging is how much it (the career-family combination) does work."

In a central area craftsman with wood floors and leather furniture, Steven LaRose is spending the afternoon with his 14-month-old daughter, Zaida. While jazz plays in the background, LaRose offers his daughter some post-nap sustenance: first a crumpet, then grapes, then, moving into the kitchen from the living room, a bowl of Cream of Wheat. He's used to the routine.

LaRose has been a stay-at-home dad since Zaida's birth, a role that he says seemed "obvious." He couldn't support a family doing his work as a painter and scenic artist; his wife, a high-tech manager, could.

Though initially he thought he'd be able to paint at night, he found that unrealistic. With only one household income, he had to give up his studio. But he is not resentful. "I got the better end of the deal -- by far," he says. "You don't want to miss this," he says pointing to his blonde toddler playing happily on the living-room floor. "Child development is fascinating. Something about it makes me feel like a researcher."

Nor does his unconventional role make him socially uncomfortable. Among the artsy circle of friends he had before having children, five men have joined him in becoming stay-at-home dads, and he has met three more such dads since.

Yet LaRose and his wife, who also doesn't want to miss out on Zaida's development, have struck a fascinating bargain with each other: He will stay home for a while, and then she will. That may mean moving to a place where he can support his family with his art. His wife, Stacy, says she can't wait to trade places; he's the one who's ambivalent.

In many ways, the arrangement between Colleen and Laird O'Rollins seems ideal: They both work part time and take care of their kids part time. They have two, Cecilia, 3, and Ilsa, 6 months. Colleen teaches earth science at a private school every morning. Laird, an ecologist who works on fishery restoration projects, is currently taking a two-month paternity leave, following Colleen's four months off, and will return to a Monday through Thursday job. At that point, they'll rely on day care -- using both a center and a baby-sitter -- for 20 hours a week.

That they both work did not seem ideal to Colleen at first. With three sisters who stayed home when their children were born, Colleen says she pictured herself doing the same, even though she knew it was financially impossible. Holding red-haired Ilsa while a sleepy Cecilia watches cartoons and an old-fashioned living room stove heats a late-afternoon chill, she recalls going back to work after her oldest was born. "The first day was horrible," she says. "By the third day, it was like, 'Oh, here's something I'm good at, that I get recognition for, and it's stimulating my brain.'"

She's pleased with the arrangement now, and so is Laird. A self-described pessimist who was convinced before having children that "it was going to be the end of the world as I knew it," Laird says as soon as he looked into his first baby's eyes he thought, "Now I get it." He says he can't imagine spending time with his kids only while his wife was around, rather than having time alone with them to bond. Apparently, his friends feel the same way. "Most of the men I know have at least one day off a week," he says.

And what if men don't, or can't, make such accommodations in a working world that still typically gives greater leeway to mothers than fathers? Does that mean that their wives are unhappily stewing over their "sacrifices"? A Portland State University study of 309 dual-earner couples around the country coping with work and family responsibilities found that although women cut their hours and juggled around their schedules more than their husbands, such accommodations gave them high levels of satisfaction. "Traditionally, work/family research focused on conflict," says psychology professor Leslie Hammer, a co-author of the study. "Most recently, it's begun to focus on the positive effects of [combining] work and family."

Sitting in her living room while her 18-month-old son, Owen, frolics with his baby-sitter, Paige Eagle shrugs her shoulders when asked about her husband, a political consultant who sometimes works 70-hour weeks. "He's a busy man," she says matter-of-factly. She admits she feels exasperated sometimes, particularly during what she terms "child-care crashes." But she adds that at least he works flexible hours that allow him to come home when really needed.

For her part, working about half-time from home, she feels lucky -- very lucky. "If I had to choose [between work and Owen], obviously it'd be Owen all the way. But because I've been able to do both, it's been fantastic.

"I would go crazy if I didn't work. I don't think it ever crossed my mind. I mean, I just got my Masters. I feel like I've got work to do -- I don't even necessarily know what it is." Eagle studied songbirds while getting a degree in conservation biology from the University of Michigan. Now she programs Web databases for universities and the federal government, like one that records research on amphibians across North America. It's a problem-solving work that she says makes her feel creative and smart.

Yet she says, "I've never put working above having a child or below having a child. It's just part of the equation. It's what makes me satisfied."

She loves having time to take Owen to a kind of pre-preschool class, where she can watch him make new discoveries. Currently pregnant with her second, she's determined never to work full time while her kids are young. "I'll always be there at 3," she says, meaning when her kids come home from school. "But you know, 9 to 3, that's three-quarters time [working]. That's plenty."

Now pregnant with my second myself, I can't say that I'll always be home at 3, though I'd like to be. Between my husband and myself, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that I'm the lucky one for being able to work part time.

I was thinking about that a short time ago on a Friday, my day off. My daughter and I were visiting the zoo with a writer friend and her daughter. As we pointed out gorillas and elephants to our mesmerized children, my friend and I discussed everything from world politics to story ideas to toilet-training tips. We then repaired to a little playground tucked into a pocket of the park. I looked at the fall sunshine streaming through the trees and then at my daughter, who had climbed to the top of a little clay mountain and was wearing an expression of pure, unselfconscious joy -- the kind that most of us lose somewhere along the line to adulthood and which is one of the great rediscoveries of parenthood. If this is a sacrifice, I'll make it gladly.

Nina Shapiro writes for the Seattle Weekly, where this article originally appeared.

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