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An author speaks out for mothers at home

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1985

Six years ago, after earning a PhD in linguistics, Deborah Fallows was anticipating a promising career. Before she was 30, by the time her son Tommy was 21/2, she had become an assistant dean in languages and linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. ``It was at a time when there was a lot in the press about being Superwoman,'' she recalls. ``It seemed like every week you could pick up a paper or a magazine and find an article saying all you needed to do was be a little more efficient, a little more organized. That was the key to the success of having everything.

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``I thought, I'm efficient, I'm organized, what's wrong here? It wasn't working out. I didn't have the time with [my son]. I wasn't being the kind of mom, doing the kind of things I wanted to do with him. I didn't feel like he was having the kind of childhood that I wanted him to have.''

And so, just before the birth of her second son, Tad, Mrs. Fallows made an important decision: She would stay home with the couple's children while they were young.

``I had this sense that my children needed someone who was very strong -- and who cared for them beyond all boundaries -- to do well by them,'' she says.

In her new book, ``A Mother's Work'' (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95), Mrs. Fallows gives a thoughtful account of the reasoning behind that decision. She acknowledges the complex choices pulling parents between family and career. But she also offers a disturbing insider's view of the day-care centers she visited around the country while her husband, James Fallows, Washington editor of The Atlantic magazine, took his turn at playing primary parent.

``I find myself in this curious position of not being a fan of day-care centers,'' Mrs. Fallows says. ``But I feel in my conscience that since I care for kids, I have to care about having good-quality day care. There will always be kids in day care, and there will always be working parents. If you're a realist, you have to support improving the system.''

What she found in dozens of day-care facilities offers plenty of room for improvement. At a time when most public concern focuses on abuse, Mrs. Fallows worries about a different problem: benign neglect. Most centers, she believes, do not have the resources to provide the care babies and young children need.

``I think about the number of hours kids spend in day care, just kind of muddling along, not getting enough attention, having nobody to talk to, having nobody to ask anything of, having to follow all these rules,'' she says. ``I would get angry and sad to think that this was just five days a week, 10 hours a day. Pretty soon it's months. Pretty soon it's years. It's the childhood. It's the definition of what this child has grown up with.''

Although prevailing attitudes hold that most women work out of necessity, Mrs. Fallows challenges that assumption. ``This whole economic argument is a complicated one,'' she says. ``It's very easy for people to say, `I have to work for economic reasons.' It is a legitimate reason, and for some people there absolutely is no choice. But for most people it's part of a reason, and the other part is the desire to work.

``I find myself losing patience with the very simplistic argument that women have to work for economic reasons, when that whole term covers such a broad personal description of what `have to work' means. I say this with great humanity in my heart and great respect for women who are in tight financial situations, and who are raising kids on their own.''

In studying statistics, she discovered little predictability between the income of the family and the likelihood of a woman to work. ``Say a husband earns $35,000 a year,'' she explains. ``That woman is just as likely to work as a woman whose husband earns $15,000, $20,000, or $25,000.''

What proved to be a much more reliable determinant of work patterns was the age of a woman's children.

``Women with the youngest children work less frequently, and they're much more likely to be working part time,'' she says. ``What that told me was that economics is part of it, but it's by far not the whole thing. The decisions are following the children.