Full-time mothers find fellowship, support in area FEMALE chapter 'We often don't have anyone home next door'

July 15, 1996|By Diane E. Otts | Diane E. Otts,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just a generation or two ago, women were expected to stay home with their children. Now economic forces and lifestyle choices have made at-home mothers so uncommon that Elkridge resident Lea Fleming says, "My neighborhood is like a ghost town during the day."

To help overcome the isolation of being a full-time mother, the 28-year-old woman joined FEMALE -- Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge -- a year and a half ago. The national nonprofit group supports women who are dealing with the transition from paid employment to at-home motherhood.

Fleming and Catonsville resident Kim Reeves now lead FEMALE's Baltimore Southwest chapter, which has about 40 members from Columbia, Elkridge, Ellicott City, Arbutus and Catonsville.

The chapter was founded four years ago by journalist Kim Schmulowitz, 32, of Catonsville, who likens the group to a professional society for women who stay at home.

At-home mothers "don't have the support in the community like we used to," Schmulowitz said. "We often don't have anyone home next door, our mothers across town or an aunt 10 minutes away."

Members of the group come from such fields as engineering, nursing, education and sales. Fleming herself left a nine-year position as controller for a plumbing supply company to stay at home with her first son, who is now 4.

The group meets twice a month for businesslike but friendly mothers-only meetings that feature group discussions or guest speakers. Topics have included overcoming the loss of respect for at-home mothers, resources for re-entering the job market and even ideas for children's parties.

Various activities

In addition to the meetings, the chapter organizes play groups, baby-sitting cooperatives, family holiday parties, picnics and a semiannual mothers' retreat. It also provides meals and baby-sitting for members in crises and helps Meals On Wheels deliver hot lunches to the homebound.

The organization's national agenda includes advocating such family-friendly workplace policies as improved child care, family leave and work options including part-time scheduling, flex-time and job-sharing.

Nationally, FEMALE has 121 chapters with nearly 4,000 members, the majority of whom stay home full time.

But many of the mothers have at-home businesses. "I wanted to find something to make a little extra money, because we are on such a tight budget," said Schmulowitz, who creates custom photo albums in a home business she shares with Fleming.

Other chapter members do tax preparation, tutoring and product sales from home.

For some, the home-based businesses are essential to the family budget. For others, the businesses provide a creative outlet, a diversion from the demands of child care or a foundation from which to expand as the children grow up.

"Our chapter is evolving as our kids get older," said Schmulowitz. "We used to talk about how to deal with questions like 'Gee, what do you do all day?' and comments like 'What a waste of your education.' Now we ask ourselves, 'Are we going to go back to work soon?'

Relatives curious

"That's the $64,000 question," said Schmulowitz, who recently returned from visiting relatives in the Midwest who asked about her plans.

"Even when kids are in school, they still need you. I will see what kind of time I have on my hands until I make a decision."

Members of the group say they are grateful they have support for whatever decision they make.

Helen Eastman, 36, of Ellicott City, who has a doctorate in toxicology and 15 years of research in molecular biology, returned to work full time after the birth of her first son, who is now 4.

"I missed a lot with him," she said. "I wasn't there the first time he walked -- day care had to tell me about it."

When she was expecting her second son two years later, she began thinking of staying home. "I wasn't sure what to do," she said. "I was afraid of what people would think if I cut back on my career."

Shortly after her second son was born, a friend told her about FEMALE.

"I was skeptical about a mothers' group," she said. "But the first time I went, I thought, 'This is what I need.' They helped me overcome my insecurities."

Though she and her husband agreed to cut back on trips and remain in their modest home, they still couldn't get by on one salary. In a gamble, Eastman asked her employer for an LTC unprecedented part-time position. While she waited for her boss's reaction, she mothered full time and -- to help make ends meet -- sold kitchen implements at in-home parties.

'Quite a change'

"It was quite a change for me," she said. "My friends said I was crazy. My mother and brother-in-law gave me a hard time. The only person who didn't give me a hard time was my husband" -- and the FEMALE members, who supported her decision to return to work part time.

As Fleming pointed out, "We do not discriminate against mothers who work."

FEMALE's literature states, "Mothers at home are only one personal or financial crisis away from having to return to the paid work force."

Eastman appreciates the time she has been able to spend at home. "I have my whole life to work and will only have children for a short time. Career-wise, I set myself way back, but I'm doing what is right for my family."

Information about FEMALE: Lea Fleming at 379-2805.

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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