The Family Civil War of the '90s

ANDREW RATNER

April 18, 1992|By ANDREW RATNER

Hillary Clinton's comment that she could have ''stayed home and baked cookies'' drew more attention than she could have dreamed. But Mrs. Clinton wasn't the first political wife of late to uncork high-pressure emotions on the subject of women and careers.

After her husband was elected president, Barbara Bush caused a stir by contending that the proliferation of dual-income families and children raised in day care was the result of parents choosing material goods over their kids' welfare. Naturally, many people, particularly working women, were incensed. The respondents said they work because they must work, or want to work; the wife of a former ambassador and vice president, they added, could have no concept of their stresses.

This subject -- the decision of women to continue working or suspend careers to raise children -- is so personal and laden with emotion that it can barely be discussed with calm and candor in public. It has been suggested that women at work and women at home should become allies, not enemies, in the continuing battle for women's rights. But if the recent political controversies are an indication, there is no middle ground in this debate.

It is, in family circles, the largely unspoken civil war of the 1990s; only in this philosophical battle, men stand on the sidelines. With the workplace still inclined to pay men more, there are so few dads at home raising children that they're but a statistical blip: In only 4 percent of couples does the wife work and the husband not, according to U.S. census figures from 1987. The predicament of work versus children rests almost solely with women.

I am married to a woman who made the decision to stay home to raise our children. I admire her for making that choice. How difficult it is Hillary Clinton could not imagine.

A support system for mothers -- stable communities, strollers lined up at a playground like jets at O'Hare, coffee over the backyard fence, the world in which she and I were raised -- might as well be a dog-eared chapter in a history book, following the homesteaders and Ellis Island immigrants. Her choice, I feel, is undervalued by many in our generation and even by many older women, possibly because today's options weren't available to them.

I think the choice of some women to raise their children at home is misunderstood, because it is so rare. Couples with both partners working outside the home jumped by 16 percent from 1981 to 1987, while households with men at work and women at home dropped that much, according to the Census Bureau.

Families with two incomes are almost twice as prevalent as one-income families and the imbalance gets even steeper among college-educated baby-boom women; only one in five of them does not work outside the home, according to American Demographics magazine.

Is our choice the better road? For us, it is. My wife said she didn't want to squeeze our children onto a list of things to get done after 5 p.m. and on the weekends. Will her daily presence ensure success for our children? No. Will it make them tops in school? So many variables will shape them, who knows?

Did we want to hand them over to a virtual stranger for eight to ten hours a day? No. Did we want to live in constant dread that a day-care provider would up and quit some day, forcing us to accept whatever short-notice alternative became available? No. Could we rely on ''quality time'' -- another gain-no pain investment from the '80s; the parenting equivalent of ''junk bonds?'' No.

Is it fair that I get to play both father and writer? No. Is it fair that my wife -- also trained and skilled as a writer, who knew she wanted to be one before I did -- may have to start a few steps back when she resumes her suspended career? No.

But it is also wrong that a Hillary Clinton could somehow think less of the courageous choice women such as my wife have made; or that my wife's explanation of what she does elicits pregnant pauses from working people who figure intellectual conversation is reserved for those who pick up a pay stub on Fridays.

If it is not a lifestyle right for the Hillary Clintons, fine. They're better off exercising the career opportunities they've won for themselves in the '90s.

Some will contend this is so much hand-wringing -- whining straight off the set of TV's ''thirtysomething.'' To the contrary, I would suggest if the choice were as simple as Hillary Clinton described -- career versus cookie-making -- there would be no dilemma at all.

Andrew Ratner writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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