When at-home mom goes back to work, the neighbors suffer

September 18, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

Nan has gone back to work. Her oldest will soon go to college and her youngest can keep track of a house key, so it is time.

And while the three boys she has been at home with for 15 years have not missed a beat since she returned to teaching, Nan's friends may never get over the loss.

She will not be there for a cup of coffee after the kids leave for school -- her front porch was just the place to postpone the start of your day. And though she will be home after school (as in: "Kids, if Mommy doesn't get home in time, just go to Nan's"), when a woman works, her friends are timid about adding to her burdens.

A rambunctious group of second- and third-graders at a nearby school will have the benefit of Nan's firm hand and cheerful voice, but that is precisely what the children in our school will lose.

Nan will not be there to tutor the children who can't quite keep up, or to make 500 star cookies at the conclusion of the "Math Superstars" program that will now have to be run by someone else. Nan will not be there on school field trips to make sure your child neither gets lost nor displays his worst manners. She will no longer be a "Picture Person," and introduce grade-schoolers to great works of art. And she won't be there to teach the kindergartners about Hanukkah.

(At a volunteer luncheon not long ago, she was given a certificate for more than 1,000 hours. "I'm sure it was a math error," she said to those who could not conceive of those 1,000 hours.)

And she will not be there for my daughter, Jessie, who, fearing the boys on the playground, would "get sick" just before recess and tell the school secretary -- whether it was true or not -- "My mom isn't home today. Just call Nan."

I would find her at Nan's, sipping tea and watching "Pollyanna" from a couch made up like a bed. At Nan's, Jessie had found refuge from the boys and the stern questions of her mother.

None of us knows the price the world pays for working mothers until the bill comes due to us, until the cost is personal. Those of us who depend on women such as Nan to be there when we are not -- in school and at home -- feel as if we are working without a safety net when they return to the work force. While the jury may still be out on the impact of day care on children, the impact of working mothers on their friends is real and calculable.

Nan is paying a price, too, and it is a familiar one to women who work. When she was childless, she taught in the toughest schools, committed herself to the kids who needed her most. But those needy kids and the public school system would leave nothing in her for her own children. The choice she made -- limited hours at a tiny private school full of students as bright as new pennies -- is the kind of choice working mothers often make. Things such as social conscience, ladder-climbing, big money or long hours often take a back seat to flexibility.

So, Nan cleaned out all her closets, read up on the educational wheels reinvented in the past decade, bought bright new things for her bulletin boards and a couple of new dresses.

She marked, "Please do not send this month's selection" on her Book-of-the-Month Club invoice and sighed one last time at all the tasks that will not get done this school year, all the precious time with books, women friends and other people's children that she will not have.

She told her youngest that if she is not home after school, he may have to go to a friend's house. And then Nan returned to work.

It might not be long before my other friends go, too. The president of the Parent-Teacher Organization had to resign because she saw tuition bills looming and returned to work. When the oldest gets close to college, when the youngest becomes self-sufficient, the pressure increases on stay-at-home moms to earn a paycheck. The volunteer work force, the support system for the schools and for those of us who work, is dwindling.

As Nan's friends, we talked once about pooling our resources and paying her to stay home, to be there for us, for our kids, for our school.

But we decided we could never pay her enough to do what she has always done for free.

To hear Susan Reimer read one of her columns, call Sundial and punch in the four-digit code 6156. See the SunSource directory

on Page 2A for your Sundial number.

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