The Good Mother Walks an Ever-Narrowing Line

March 24, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- The Monday morning TV segment ended with a dismally familiar question: Can women have it all? The subject was again Marcia Clark, the woman whose work hours and custody dispute have received more attention these last weeks than anything except O.J. Simpson's swollen finger.

As often happens on television, Harry Smith had asked an essay question with time only for a multiple-choice answer. Before I conjured up a yes-no-maybe, time was up.

On my way back to the office, I tuned in to a radio debate about another woman -- the welfare mother. The question was different: How do we get her to do it all?

Two images: Marcia Clark and the welfare mother. The same questions recurring. Is the prosecutor too ambitious? Is the welfare mother too lazy? Does one neglect her children by

working? Does the other fail her children by not working?

A fortysomething woman I met in Dallas sighed and said that she thought the path you have to walk to be judged a good mother had gotten narrower and narrower during her adulthood. The path is now a line. It is harder and harder to toe that line.

The messages come from either end of the spectrum of single mothers. If you don't get a job, we'll cut your family from the welfare rolls and maybe even take the kids to an orphanage. If you have too demanding a job, you may lose your kids.

We are telling poor mothers that what kids need are responsible role models, mothers imbued with the American work ethic. We're telling professional mothers that what kids need are responsible caregivers, somebody there for them.

For the most part, the mothers in the middle, somewhere between poor and high-profile, are expected to be both providers and nurturers these days. So are fathers. But it's still mostly mothers who search for jobs that will help with the bills and synchronize seamlessly with the kids. They're the ones who set their clocks by mommy hours and set their sights on mommy tracks.

It's hard enough to keep this together in marriage. But in divorce, the choices crumble.

Single mothers are thrown into a two-tiered work world. Take your pick: overemployed or unemployed? Earning 70 cents for every male dollar means working longer for the same money. A minimum wage of $4.25 an hour means less money or fewer hours at home. There are thousands of mothers permanently working Marcia Clark's hours at working-class wages.

As for the welfare poor? Last year, it seemed that a political consensus finally emerged. We agreed that welfare was broken. The half-century-old social contract that underlay welfare -- a world of female homemakers and male breadwinners -- had been replaced by an era of working mothers and fathers. It was hard time for any single mother. If we wanted the poor ones to become providers, they would need more -- child care, training, jobs, hope.

Now a new rancorous welfare- reform bill has come before Congress under the name, ''Personal Responsibility Act.'' Majority Leader Dick Armey promises that ''At the end of five years, more children will be in two-parent, working families instead of on welfare.'' But the new welfare proposal provides less, $66 billion less of just about everything -- school lunch, foster care, aid to disabled children -- except fear.

They are selling cuts now in the name of ''personal responsibility.'' If this passes as is, it's likely that more mothers and children will simply be on their own.

That's the way we're headed. I hear a lot of unease about that sense of direction, especially from women trying to fit real life into the narrowing definition of good motherhood, trying to walk the thin line, perform the balancing act.

A California woman told me that her daughter, a newly divorced mother, asked her: ''Can I do it all?''

This was her answer. ''I said to her, 'Honey, you better be able to.' ''

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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