The Mommy Rat Race Trained for corporate careers, stay-at-home moms discover what the hardest job in the world really is. With 18-hour shifts and no coffee breaks, they're banding together to throw out a lifeline.

June 09, 1998|By ERIKA D. PETERMAN | ERIKA D. PETERMAN,SUN STAFF

On a quiet Tuesday morning around 8, Lisa Dean grabs the "Chicken Little" storybook and settles onto the floor of the bathroom. Her audience is 2-year-old Elizabeth, who has voluntarily perched on the potty in her pink nightgown.

"The sky is falling, Chicken Little," Dean reads to her daughter, "and I must tell the king."

Several sentences into the tale, Elizabeth interrupts her mother -- to report, rather indelicately, her achievement -- and Dean becomes a one-woman cheering section. "Yaaay!" she shouts, with genuine, high-five enthusiasm.

This is not the kind of success Lisa Dean had in mind when she graduated from Vassar in 1985. Or when she graduated from Georgetown University's Law School in 1988. Or when she joined the Washington firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts and Trowbridge the same year as a young real estate attorney.

In her previous life as a bona fide Beltway yuppie, Dean worked 12-hour days in chic suits picked off the rack at Nordstrom. She and her husband Tim went home to a Bethesda condo with white carpet, a white sofa, white walls and white cabinets. They ate out almost every night, sampling Japanese, Thai and Italian food at their favorite restaurants.

In this life as a suburban at-home mother of two, Dean works 18-hour days in spit-up-proof gear that meets three basic criteria: washable, comfortable and no-iron. Her Columbia house, while immaculate, is decorated with restored yard sale furniture. The Deans haven't ordered out in two years. Instead, she whips up homemade Ethiopian dishes and makes her own baby food with frozen vegetables.

The successes of this life, she says, are sweeter. But there are no coffee breaks, only hurried sips of Diet Coke in between diaper changes.

"Imagine if you worked in a cubicle all day and your partner couldn't speak or wipe their own heinie," Dean offers. "That would make for a very long day."

To some, it may sound like the world's cushiest job: You stay home with the kids while your spouse deals with the commute and the rat race. But at-home motherhood can be a labor-intensive, exhausting and often thankless job that requires sacrifices from women and families who choose it.

And, unlike 40 years ago, when it was considered the norm for women to stay at home, the cul-de-sac can be a lonely place between 8 and 5. So former career women like Lisa Dean are turning to support groups for companionship and what some mothers call "reality therapy."

To the rescue are clubs like Mothers Offering Mothers Support (MOMS), which offers play groups, outings, parent workshops and book swaps for members. MOMS has 17 chapters in Maryland, including one in Columbia that Dean joined after the birth of her second child.

The idea of support for a job women have been doing through the ages seems, well, very '90s. But so are the circumstances.

The female neighbor who was available for coffee and conversation years ago is probably at work now. Though percentages of working women are high in Howard County (73 percent in 1995), Department of Labor statistics don't distinguish between women who work at home, work part-time outside the home and women working full-time office jobs.

"I didn't really know anybody who was staying home," Dean says. "I was in the corporate world. Everybody was working."

Indeed, she was terrified the first time her husband left her alone with Elizabeth all day, shortly after her birth. By the time Teddy, now 9 months, was born, Dean sought out MOMS after reading about it in a local magazine.

"I knew how difficult it was physically to entertain [Elizabeth] by myself. I knew with two I needed more support," she said.

Inside a meeting hall at Columbia's Christ Episcopal Church, dozens of mothers sit in huddles to talk shop, make crafts and breast-feed their babies against a backdrop of squealing toddlers chaotically at play. Dean is among them, making pasta shell jewelry at a tiny table with even tinier seats.

This is a mother's safe haven: No one rolls her eyes when someone announces that her daughter has eaten corn for the first time. A discussion on the merits of candy as a potty training reward is met with enthusiasm and expertise. Most important, everyone is a stay-at-home mom here, so that fact does not become a conversation-stopper.

Like Dean, many of these mothers are fresh from the work force. Debbie Newman spent a decade working in the George Washington University athletic department. Linda Lagala-Spano, who put in eight hours on the job the day she was in labor with her son, was a public relations and special events coordinator in New Jersey.

Susan Kaczmarek, a Columbia mother of three, envisioned the life of June Cleaver -- a spotless house, perfect kids and a hot meal on the table every night.

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