A Woman Guilty of Success

March 07, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Now at last we know the precise mathematical point between a rock and a hard place. It's Marcia Clark's life.

She's the prosecutor in a case so high-pressure and so celebrated that it's headline news if she drops a verb or rips a stocking.

She's a single mother competing with the big boys. When she tried to get home on time one night, Johnnie Cochran called her child-care worries a strategic ploy.

And she's an ex-wife whose ex-husband is suing for custody of their two boys on the grounds that he can be home at 6:15. This is what he tells the world: ''I have personal knowledge that on most nights she does not arrive home until 10 p.m., and even when she is home, she is working.''

You want a single mother's nightmare? You want a professional mother's post-modern bind? You want to chart this terrain between a rock and hard place? I give you Marcia Clark.

Ms. Clark and her husband split up three days before Nicole Simpson was murdered. She was, I am sure, familiar with the conflict between work and family. Now she's caught in a head-on collision at 90 miles an hour without an air bag.

Remember Jennifer Ireland? She lost custody of her 3-year-old daughter Maranda because she left her in ''the care of strangers'' -- day care -- to take college classes. A judge ruled that Maranda would be better off with her father, cared for by family. The ruling was only stayed pending appeal.

Remember Sharon Prost? This woman who works in Sen. Orrin bTC Hatch's office lost custody of her sons because the judge said she put her job before her kids. Her ex-husband -- who'd been unemployed for a year -- won because his hours were shorter.

In the world of flat-out, stressed-out two-job marriages, parents negotiate work and kids, bosses and caregivers, with a time clock in one hand and a calculator in another. For the most part, women are the ones who do the juggling and the compromising, who turn from career paths to mommy tracks. But if the marriage ends in the courtroom, they'd better be able to prove it. They'd better not be guilty of success.

These days half of the custody disputes are won by fathers. These days fathers who are sued for money often sue for the kids in a mutually-assured-destruction tactic of post-marital warfare. These days it seems that many judges have a new double measuring stick. Mothers who do less caregiving than the judge's mother did are seen as neglectful. Fathers who do more are seen as heroic.

If there's anything a woman wants for Christmas, for her birthday Saint Patrick's Day, it's a partner in the business of raising kids. Fathers who do their full share, fathers who are the primary parents, the stay-at-home dads, deserve equal treatment if the marriage breaks up. It's part of the deal.

But what about the other deal? What are we saying to a single mother who works two jobs to make ends meet? To a divorced woman expected to be both breadwinner and nurturer? To the mother who has to choose between a high-octane job or a low wage?

The message is: Watch out. Time may be the only standard on which you're judged as parent.

Well, one of the great modern myths is quality time. Kids need quantity as well. Every parent makes choices, but the work world doesn't make these choices easy. In the Simpson case, there is no flex time, no job share, no part time. Johnnie Cochran said once that he regretted not spending more time with his children. But Marcia Clark cannot leave at 3 o'clock.

Nevertheless, time is not the only measure of a parent's love, or a child's best interest or Marcia Clark's fitness.

Believe it or not, the O.J. Simpson case will not go on forever. It just seems that way. It's wrong to decide something as permanent as a child's lifelong custody on something as temporary as trial.

In any work life there will be a time when one parent's job is too demanding, when she is sick, or he has to travel. If every change in one parent's work schedule risks a change in custody, divorcing couples will be in court longer than Judge Ito.

As for Gordon Clark? He may be a father worried about his sons or he may be an ex-husband out to defeat his ex-wife. But what impeccable timing. What better moment for a man to tell a woman in full view of the world that she can't have it all.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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