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An author speaks out for mothers at home

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``One woman will tell me, `If I weren't working, we couldn't live in a house as nice as the house I grew up in. We need my income to pay the mortgage on a decent house.' Another woman in similar economic circumstances will say, `I'm choosing not to work now, and these are my financial sacrifices. We live out in the country. We live in a very small house. It's not as nice as the house I grew up in. We only have one car.' What's Choice A for one person is Choice B for another person from the same starting

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``Almost every mother I know is at home with a fairly considerable financial sacrifice to be there.''

Not surprisingly, given the emotions surrounding day care, Mrs. Fallows's book has drawn mixed reactions. Within the day-care industry, she says, ``The real professionals in this field that I talked to at length probably wouldn't disagree with very much of what I say about day care.''

But the overwhelming response from the industry in general, she admits, ``has been extremely hostile. They've had so much bad press over the years -- they're just very defensive.

``The first reaction is, `If you're not with us, you're against us.' There's no room for criticism. It seems to me that for the whole situation to improve, you have to be able to face up to this criticism and take it and admit that things are wrong.''

Her staunchest supporters, naturally, are mothers at home -- a group she says is ``crying for support.'' During morning talk shows on her current publicity tour, she finds that ``invariably women call in and say, `Oh, thank you. I'm so glad to hear someone say what I have felt for so long but feel nobody else believes.'

``Those are the good calls,'' she adds with a laugh.

And the bad calls?

``Many women are still kind of defiantly proud and defensive about being a working mother. They don't want to hear about this because they think it's the standard conservative finger-wagging that we should go home.

``It's very hard for parents who have kids in day care to hear this kind of stuff. Child-care arrangements take so much time and effort and adjustment on everybody's part that you don't want to discover that things aren't working out just fine. When you hear or see little things it's much easier to convince yourself, `Well, that doesn't really matter, she'll be OK in a few weeks.' Unless there's something very dramatic going on, it's hard to make yourself think, maybe this isn't working out so well, and

look for something else.''

Why is it almost always the mother who leaves her career? Beyond the standard mother-as-caretaker, father-as-breadwinner role definitions, the biggest factor is economic.

``The bottom of the ledger says whoever makes more money should be the one to stay at work,'' Mrs. Fallows says.

Noting that better wages for women would have a positive effect, she adds, ``It has to become a more equalized decision if Mom and Dad are both making the same amount of money. In that case I think more dads would end up staying home. There's been some progress. But it's still the women who are making the hard choices.''

Part of the solution, she believes, must come through broad-based changes in the working world. Businesses must be more responsive to the needs of parents. This includes company-sponsored day-care centers, more flexible work schedules, and longer leaves for parents -- anything that enables parents to spend more time with their children.

In individual families, she says, ``It calls for a lot of self-examination on the part of parents to try to be realistic, maybe before they have kids, about the degree to which they're going to be responsible for taking care of the kids themselves. They need to be willing to say, `I won't work for a while, or I'll work part-time for a while, or we'll postpone certain things for a while.'

``Mothers and fathers do a lot of looking at how their lives will work out and assume that what they arrange for the kids in terms of child care will work out too, rather than starting from the point of `How are we going to raise our child?' and then fitting the professional, non-parenting parts of their lives around that.

``If you don't think about that sense of responsibility beforehand, you have to learn to think about it afterwards,'' she says quietly.

``You're the parent. Nobody else is making the big decisions. Everything you decide is what happens to that child. I don't think you can underestimate how responsible you are to your child.''