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Conflicting choices: three decades in a woman's life

By Edith Tarbescu / May 11, 1988



I FLEW to California recently to meet my granddaughter. She was three days old. And I had a wonderful two weeks feeding her, buying her toys, and taking her for walks. While I was there, I remembered the conflicts I felt 25 years ago, when I became a mother for the first time and wanted to keep working. Now that my daughter has a child, I kept wishing she didn't have to work. Have times changed that much, I wondered. Or have I? In the '60s, most of the women I knew and socialized with had degrees, but few worked. One friend, who had a law degree, was president of the PTA, another was a founder of the local chapter of Women Strike for Peace (an anti-Vietnam organization), and several others were cookie-mothers at the co-op nursery school. All worthy causes, but perhaps these were also distractions from the central issue: Most women did not make choices. Especially career choices. They just did what was expected of them. They took care of their homes and children while their husbands worked. This was further perpetuated by the Hollywood myth: bright, sparkling children greeting their fathers every night; a clean, spotless house; and an elaborate dinner. (All this before gourmet takeout dinners, or microwaves.)

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After Betty Friedan published ``The Feminine Mystique,'' in 1963, the women's movement gained force gradually until it was acceptable for women to voice their resentments. A friend of mine in her mid-40s said she read the book and cried. The book had forced her to confront her frustrations. In fact, it was common at the time to hear women complain that their husbands wouldn't let them work.

This was particularly true in my case. I married in 1960, at age 21. I also married a European, who had rigid expectations of his wife. At first, I liked feeling protected, like Nora in ``A Doll's House,'' but the conflict was always there.

When I was in my early 20s, one of my best friends was a woman nine years older than I. A teacher and an artist, she'd also traveled extensively and had attended the Sorbonne. She was appalled when I decided to stay home full-time with my children. ``You're not going to let this be your whole life, are you? You're too intelligent.''

She was more experienced, and after each of her visits, I grew more ambivalent. The message I was getting at the time, from her as well as from the media, was: You don't have an identity unless you work. Taking care of a baby is for a nonperson. Not for somebody who wants to accomplish something.

I believed at the time that the ``real'' world - the exciting grown-up world (where people made crucial decisions every minute), existed outside the white shutters of my brownstone in New York. Until I went back to work, when my children were both in school, I took lots of courses and read whenever I could. I was interested in learning, but I was also harboring some vague idea that I had to be ``ready'' to reenter the world. The fact that for years I'd been taking my children to the Brooklyn Museum, the library, the zoo, the botanical gardens, didn't convince me that I was not stagnating. (Admitting I enjoyed these activities was another matter.)

That trip to my daughter's brought back memories of another trip, in 1967, when my husband took me (his American wife) and two little girls back to Romania.

We spent a month in Bucharest, and I never saw a grown man cry so much and laugh so much. He hadn't seen his mother, three older brothers, and three sisters for more than 20 years. He also had a horde of nieces and nephews, and for 30 days we danced and sang and ate meatballs smothered in tons of garlic. We also traipsed through the Romanian countryside from Transylvania to the Black Sea.