Balancing career, home: The debate is never done

Work: The `real job' flub furor regarding the first lady touches on the dilemma of many.

Women's Roles

Election 2004

October 22, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin, Patricia Meisol and Ellen Gamerman | Kate Shatzkin, Patricia Meisol and Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Former first lady Hillary Clinton took heat when she appeared to belittle moms who stayed home and baked cookies.

Karen Hughes created buzz for making the opposite choice: Leaving her job as a top aide to President Bush to head back to Texas to spend more time with her husband and son.

And now Teresa Heinz Kerry has struck a nerve by saying that first lady Laura Bush, who quit working as a librarian when she married George W. Bush, didn't have a "real job."

Despite Heinz Kerry's quick apology and Bush's equally swift none-needed, and nearly 40 years after the rise of the feminist movement, the incident demonstrates that the way high-profile women choose to define "work" - at home and outside it - still has the capacity to ignite a political brushfire.

"The country still feels there has to be an instructional model for how we're supposed to do it," former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari said yesterday in her Washington office, before rushing out to pick up her kids. She too had to explain herself when she quit Congress after eight years.

"Certainly one would hope this would not be an issue," said Molinari, who chairs a lobbying firm and is president of Ketchum Public Affairs. "The balance [each woman] finds is whatever works for her family and that should be good enough for all of us."

Observers say these work-vs.-home issues flare up regularly, particularly when it comes to first ladies and others in the political sphere.

An expert on the history of first ladies says it's because we expect them to behave in ways we wouldn't ourselves.

An author of books about the economic value of raising children says it's because government policy doesn't support families.

And perhaps the most real-life experts of all, everyday women at home and in the workplace who confront these issues daily, say the work of raising kids is much too complicated for a media-generated, soundbyte-reduced catfight.

"To break the election down based on who stays home and who is a real worker and who is a real mother - that's absurd to me," said Lois Fenner McBride, 51, a partner at Kahn, Smith & Collins in Baltimore.

She, like many others, finds the division between working mothers and stay-at-home moms blurring more all the time.

The registered nurse - and the only female partner at her law firm - earned her nursing degree before having her first child, then a law degree before having her second. She mixed career and motherhood by spacing her children ten years apart.

"I get sick of hearing the cliche that when you choose to have a career, you sacrifice your kids," McBride said. "You can do both as long as you organize yourself and get the right help."

McBride is among the many women who cycle in and out of the workforce - an increasingly common phenomenon among women, depending on their families' needs or their desires.

"I don't know many people that have a 40-year pattern," said Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood, which examines the dollar value of mothers' work.

Statements like Heinz Kerry's send the political discourse into "land-mine country," she said.

Women want more flexibility for all, but the so-called "mommy wars" obscure what's needed to accomplish that, she said. "Women attacking women shoots down reform after reform."

Marlene McLaurin, chief executive officer of the literacy organization Baltimore Reads Inc., wonders why women's work is still an issue.

"I guess I'd like to believe that most of the mature adults in our community are pretty comfortable with and acclimated to the idea that women are capable of serving in a variety of roles, from lead to backup, out in the workplace and at home with the children and sometimes several at the same time," she said.

Andrea Prosser, a Crofton mother who stopped working in her family's homebuilding business when she was six months pregnant with son Tyler, doesn't want to be judged for her choice, either. A Bush supporter, she saud she was not insulted by Heinz Kerry's comment, but two other stay-at-home mothers she ate breakfast with yesterday took umbrage.

"I'm a stay-at-home mom and I personally don't care what anyone else thinks," said Prosser, 27, whose son is now 4. "It was more important for me or my husband to raise my child than to have a random person do it. It wasn't really a hard decision - we're financially able to do it and we're very lucky that we are."

Catherine Allgor, an associate professor of history at the University of California-Riverside and an expert on the history of first ladies, said part of the reason women's work remains a political issue is the nature of the job that Heinz Kerry and Bush are vying for. Historically, the post is a "reflection of the tensions in our culture," she said.

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