The care and feeding of double standard on working women

September 21, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Sharon Prost is a high-powered, type-A, Washington lawyer who's got herself a big-time job as Sen. Orrin Hatch's legal

counsel.

She thought she had it all, as having it all gets defined these days for women. She had a husband, two kids and a career.

Now, she has a career.

Well, technically she still has kids, but she just lost custody of them in a divorce case. She didn't beat her kids. She didn't abuse them. She lost them because . . . she works too hard.

The judge wrote, as reported in the New York Times, that Prost was "more devoted to and absorbed by her work and her career than anything else in her life, including her health, her children and her family."

The husband was apparently more flexible in his work hours and found more time to spend with the kids. He doted on them, according to the ruling by the judge -- a woman with children incidentally. He came to the kindergarten class to read stories. He was warm and fuzzy.

In other words, he was the better, more devoted parent.

Maybe he is the better parent. Are mothers inherently more nurturing? Is the umbilical cord destiny? Men's support groups (what kind of real man needs a support group?) say it's time the man's side was heard.

Surprisingly, some feminists don't see it that way. They see it as a '90s-style attack on the so-called modern woman.

You can understand their point. A few months ago, a judge gave custody to a father because the mother, who had a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, had put her daughter in day care. The father, who was a part-time student at a community college and mowed lawns to support himself, said he would leave the child with his mother.

The judge basically ruled against day care and in favor of grandmothers who stay home, as of old. The mother, out to improve herself, would probably have been better off on welfare. (Which is interesting to note as welfare reformers push for mothers to work and to put their young children in day care.)

We know all about modern motherhood and having it all. You can pick up any women's magazine if you're behind. It's a story as old as two-income families.

Prost was this kind of modern mother: Often she worked through dinner. She was also this kind of modern mother: She would get up at 5:30 in the morning so she could play with her two small sons before she left for work.

We know what most modern mothers do. Like their husbands, they work. And yet they're still usually the ones who arrange the car pools, who see to the day care, who come home when the school nurse calls to say the kid has an earache or has fallen off the monkey bars.

If a father puts career first, he's just doing what men do.

If a mother puts career anywhere near first, she has somehow broken a social compact. This is the Hillary syndrome. Could Hillary be a high-powered lawyer and a good mother, too? And why was it she had only one kid? What kind of nurturer is that?

It's funny, but, of all the criticisms of Bill Clinton, I don't recall anybody suggesting that putting in 20-hour days as president made him a bad father.

A double standard? Well, sure.

Women are used to a double standard. And now working women, if they work that career too hard, risk losing their children, too.

But that's too easy. The feminist argument, the way I remember it, is that women and men are equals. That includes mothers and fathers, who are often women and men.

If a woman can run a company as well as a man, then a man can raise children as well as a woman.

But what are the criteria for determining the better parent? Solomon left town years ago. As divorces increase and women in the workplace become ever more commonplace, this issue will not go away. In the old days, judges nearly always sided with the woman. It was easier that way. But now the rules are changing.

Is the better parent necessarily the one that spends more time with the kid? More quality time? What is quality time? The psychiatrist in the Prost case said the children were more attached to the hard-working mother.

I don't know who's right or wrong in this instance. What's clear is that it's a new day. That doesn't mean it's a better day.

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