Boston — It's supposedly passe to be a housewife. The traditional woman who stays at home to care for children and home is said to be a vanishing species. Mothers are going to work in droves. In 1970, 30 percent of mothers with children under 6 worked outside the home. Today more than 43 percent have full-time jobs, and more women are expected to join them. A mere 16 percent of American families fit under the category of working father and full- time mother with children.
But try telling Karen Whittington that she's behind the times, and she'll politely inform you that you're wrong. She is very happy to be at home with toddler Jason and daughter Courtney, who was born in April.
"I feel my position is an enviable one," says Mrs. Whittington, who lives near Pittsburgh with her husband, Rick. "How many people can stay at home and be supported?" And she believes it is best for her children.
"They say the first years of a child's life are important in his development, " she says. "I believe that. You take a child from nothing to the point where he feeds himself, talks, and walks. If it's not the mother, it will be someone else influencing him. I don't want anyone else influencing my children."
Mrs. Whittington voices the sentiment of many young mothers who have embraced parenthood and homemaking as a career. Some, like her, have never doubted that they would be at home during their children's early years. Others are career women who are surprised when they find they want to be full-time mothers.
Laurie Strand of Warren, Pa., has been sending her two-year-old son, Gabriel, to a baby sitter while she works at the local YWCA. But she has decided to quit her job and stay at home because she wants the family to have the most influence with her son while he is growing.
"He comes home from the baby sitter and I hear things that he learns there that I don't always agree with," Mrs. Strand says. She also wants to take a larger part in his learning. "He knows his colors, but it was the baby sitter that taught him."
Another mother, Maria Ladd Match, was working toward a master's degree when she dropped out to have her son, Art. She has found that she loves to be at home with him.
"The real clincher is that kids are a blast," she says.
Most of these mothers don't intend to work outside the home unless there is a financial need. They admit it is a luxury that they can stay home. One mother talks about priorities.
"If you want to have a certain life style, then you should work," she says. "I don't have new furniture. But I love being with my kids."
Many homemakers find they are a minority in their own neighborhood.
"The UPS man always brings the neighbors' packages to me, since I'm the only one home", says Mrs. Whittington. And some mothers report that they act as involuntary baby sisters for neighborhood children who are waiting for their mothers to come home from work.
Young mothers admit that staying at home is not always easy. And one of the biggest sore spots is the bad name given the career of homemaker.
"When people ask me what I do, and I tell them I raise my two children, they say, 'Oh, is that all?'" Mrs. Whittington says. She chuckles. "Is that all?"
Maria Match, who graduated from Skidmore College in fine arts, finds that she adds a condition to her status as homemaker when meeting new people.
"It's not socially acceptable to say I am 'just a housewife,'" says Mrs. Match, who lives in Cincinnati with her husband and son. "I always say I do some art," she admits.
But Mrs. Match has not regretted becoming a full-time homemaker. "I was at a party of mothers [recently] and we all said the big thing we like is the freedom we have," she says. "In one way there is no freedom, since it is a 24-hour-a day job." But with some juggling, the mothers can work on special projects, visit with each other, and pursue interests that they couldn't if they were both working and caring for their families.
Mrs. Whittington concedes that there "are days when I'm bored" and that homemaking is "not always a cakewalk." Still, she finds, "It's a nice life. I enjoyed working while I did, but I like not having to work. It gives me the freedom to develop the talents I want."
Mrs. Whittington, who never had the time to experiment with cooking when she was in college at Utah State University or while she worked, has now mastered baking, gardening, and sewing. She studied political science while in college and keeps up her political savvy through reading and discussing events with her husband and friends.
Mrs. Match says that support from other mothers has been vital during the years when her son is too young to go to play school or visit with friends.
"You need mothers to talk to and go visit," she says. She made some good friends by being slightly assertive. She began introducing herself to women with children on the street. Now the mothers and babies get together in informal parties.
"Mostly it was the moms, who were lonely," says Mrs. Match. "You're kind of stuck with your child when he is that age."
These mothers are realistic about taking time for themselves, and many are using what spare time they have to plan for a career when their children are grown.
Next year Mrs. MAtch will send her son to play school in the morning and begin to return to her artwork. She now has a few clients she does graphics for and would like to fix up a studio in her home.
Mrs. Whittington says it is plain wisdom to have some projects "just for yourself."
"You can't devote all of your time to your children," she says, adding that she plans to do graduate work when her children are in school. She would like to teach at the college level some day. "You have to find something for yourself. You have to be happy with yourself to do a good job with the kids."
Although these mothers consider the home their job, most expect their husband to help with the children, such as changing diapers and feeding.
"You bet I trained my husband to do that," says Mrs. Whittington. "If I did it all myself, it would be too much. I probably wouldn't like it as much."