Mothers must find new balance as they return to work force

February 07, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

It has been more than a dozen years since these three women worked -- outside the home, as we say these days. One is back in the work force. Two are poised to return soon. College looms large for the children of these women, forcing them to consider a lifestyle they admit it has been their luxury to avoid -- that of the working mom.

Those of us who have worked since our children were babies have envied, if secretly, these stay-at-home moms. While we might have blustered about our need to work and about how staying at home would make us miserable, we knew that these moms had something we never have had. Tomorrows. Lots of them. If something did not get done today -- if a child was sick or the repairman didn't show or a friend needed you more -- you could always do those things on your list tomorrow. For working moms, there are no tomorrows, because tomorrow we go back to work.

And I know those stay-at-home moms have seen the dark circles under our eyes, have watched us scramble through some child-care crisis, have watched us on our frantic days off and they have shaken their heads in sympathy and, I am certain, some disapproval.

But my guess is they have also seen us in our makeup and our pretty work clothes, thought about the paycheck that is the reward for what we do when they live on too few thank-yous, thought about our breezy conversations at lunch, and they have envied us, if for just a moment.

Now, these three women on the brink of a major shift in their lives -- in their families' lives -- are looking at us and wondering, with a real need to know this time: How do they do it?

When I asked them what they feared the most, they did not mention first their rusty skills or finding a job they could do after more than a dozen years away from work. They worried not about themselves, but about their families.

The woman who has already returned to work was determined that the quality of her family life -- the dinners together, the good dinners together, the baking, the holidays and the handmade gifts and decorations -- would not deteriorate. And she nearly killed herself trying.

"Ask my children, and they will tell you. Mom working means a lot more cold sandwiches for dinner. I was determined that we would all be together for dinner, and we are. It's just not worth eating. I guess that doesn't matter.

"I thought I would worry a lot more about the domestic details -- is the laundry clean, is the homework getting done, is there milk for dinner? But I stop thinking about those things the minute I walk out the door. They told me I would, and it is true. And I needed that. After 13 years, I needed to stop thinking about that house and those kids all the time."

My other friend will return to work as a teacher, and her working hours, her vacations and her days off will dovetail nicely with those of her children. She is envied for that. Do you remember when your mother told you to be a teacher or a nurse, the better to fit child-rearing around a career, and you scoffed at her old-fashioned thinking? That suggestion looks really good to those of us who panic when school is closed for snow and anticipate summer vacation with dread.

But she has worries, too. "I am the buffer. I am there for everyone when they come home and they take out the day's hardships on me, and then maybe not on each other. I am the facilitator. I get everyone where they have to go. What will it mean to remove those things?"

My third friend worries most that her return to work would mean the end of her oldest daughter's childhood.

"I don't want her to have to take care of her younger brothers and sisters when they get home from school, and have to start dinner and fold the wash. I want her to be able to be a kid. To have her friends over. To do what kids do. She will be grown up soon enough."

She, too, worries about her family life. "My life is planned down to the minute. Four kids and they all do a lot. I want them all to be

able to have those things, and still have a family life, still have dinner and some quiet time as a family.

"How are you supposed to do all of that and work? I wish people would answer those questions for me."

My friends will learn how to manage their family activities, their family life and their work soon enough. They will also learn what some of us have known for a long, long time. Those answers are never easy, never without compromise, never without some disappointment.

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