Without a doubt, the single most commonly held conversation among women of child-bearing age today is the one about juggling job and children.
More and more mothers today work outside the home. When something goes wrong, we feel it's our fault - whether for choosing to work, or for having to work. Women of the '90s bear the burden of cultural conflict over work and family, and, ultimately, we feel responsible for the welfare of America's children. Women, in other words, are feeling edgy.
We talk about this at parties. We talk about it over the telephone. We talk about it with other mothers at parks and playgrounds. We talk about it with nannies and au pairs and baby-sitters. And the boldest of us have begun to talk about it with our husbands, so that someday it will be a problem shared, rather than one shouldered only by women.
The bottom line is our feminist predecessors did us a disservice when they told us we could "do it all." We can't. In the triangle of responsibilities - marriage, job, children - something or someone always gets cheated out of time and attention. Women can never do everything well, or any one thing really well, and they leave their own needs out of the equation. This sometimes carries a resentment toward one's husband, family - or the world at large (pick a target, any target).
Sensational trials like the Louise Woodward case in Massachusetts strike all the chords of inadequacy and self-doubt: Should I be working? Should I have children? Did I hire the right au pair? What happens when I'm not at home? (Of note, too, are the feelings of women who do stay at home with their children, with the realization that they are not ophthalmologists but mere "housewives," a profession the feminists of the '60s, '70s, and '80s forgot to legitimize.)
Quite a contrast to the 1950s, when most mothers stayed home. Then, there was no Court TV or televised "Killer Nanny" trials, and fewer tabloid tales of infants left in roach-infested apartments. Child neglect undoubtedly went on - but we weren't so jittery.
My '60s stay-at-home mum, when she sensed mischief via those mysterious eyes in the back of her head, would call down the stairs: "Elizabeth Lee Comegys, if you do that again, I'll put your tail in the pencil sharpener."
This was known to me at age 5 to indicate a Type B infraction, such as sneaking cookies. The voice feigned anger but indicated a twinkle in her eyes.
My maternal grandmother, on occasion of untoward behavior, used a similar voice, threatened the same pencil sharpener, and added, "You come here right now or I'll brrrreak every bone in your body!"
A Type A infraction - more serious than the above Type B - was indicated by the spare, purposeful pronunciation of my full name, but with no "endearing" follow-up.
Recently I chided my eight-year-old son within earshot of his teacher for kicking a ball in the school hall. "Zecharia Chafee Jr., if you do that again, I'll put your tail in the pencil sharpener." To Zechariah it was an "Aw, Mom," comment that went all but unnoticed.
Frank, the teacher, on the other hand, looked at me aghast. He bent down to Zechariah's level, told him solemnly that he was a good boy, he had just made a bad decision. With my proverbial tail between my legs, and scrupulously avoiding all pencil sharpeners, I helped my child gather his books and slunk off the premises.
I felt edgy.
This style of parenting, passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me bears the imprints of a changing time - a time in which there is too much real verbal abuse; a time when parenting styles are called into question; a time when political correctness wafts through the halls of elementary schools.
A dear friend, a first-time, single mother, asked about discipline. Being an "expert," with six- and eight-year-old boys, I immediately ... hesitated. Well, what did your mother do, I asked. "She'd give a little potchy on the tushy," my friend answered.
"Does that approximate a spank?" I asked.
"It's a smarting on the rear-end," she said.
"Not done," I replied. "You can get in real trouble with that. First a spank, then a shake, and pretty soon you're a Killer Mom."
Funny, but not.
In our insecurities, fueled by media sensations, we wind up walking on eggshells when it comes to discipline. Some parents shy away from setting crucial limits because of what others think - and it's our children who suffer.
After a circus like the nanny trial, talk of child neglect increases 100-fold in the media, among parents, and among state officials.
The New York Times recently ran a story called "Making an Au Pair Relationship Work," with good, practical information. The Associated Press put out a lead: "Besides guarding celebrities and trailing cheating spouses, private investigator Marc Buckly is developing another steady business: investigating prospective baby sitters."
Perhaps the best was the Newsweek magazine piece about the woman who used to call her toddler's child-care center several times a day. "Now, she still checks in, but without disrupting the center's day or her own," Newsweek reports. "From her laptop at IBM in White Plains, N.Y., she logs on to the center's Web site and enters her password. Moments later, she is watching her three-year-old son pore over a puzzle." They had installed cameras in the classroom.
Have parents overreacted to the nanny case?
I don't think so. It's the 1990s, after all, marked by crack mothers, latchkey kids, absentee fathers, and gang members. The time-honored rule for parents continues: You can never be too careful.
A tragedy such as the death of little Matthew Eappen reminds us to be ever-vigilant. Can we become paranoid? Sure. But if a media story spurs parents to better check out their child care - good.
Has the media overreacted?
No. Courtroom drama can be both a story and entertainment. Granted, a kind of insidious who-dun-it story - but newsworthy nonetheless.
It's how the state reacts that's worrisome.
Hypersensitive police, with news reporters at their heels ready to critique them publicly, think "better safe than sorry." They are more apt to call in a social worker, send the child to foster care, and the mother to jail. I'm not at all sure that it's always either better or safer for the child, given our murky foster-care system.
Rhode Island's public defender confirms this theory, telling of a woman who recently parked her car, baby sleeping inside, under a tree next to the post office while she went in to mail a letter. She came back to find a policeman next to her station wagon, accusing her of negligence. She objected. He called a social worker. The social worker followed them to the mother's suburban home, searched it, and called her supervisor.
Had the supervisor seen enough evidence to support a charge of negligence, the child would have been taken right then and there and placed in foster care. As it turned out, the supervisor backed off; but today the woman's name is on record as having been investigated for child negligence.
It's a blurry line between questionable parenting and legal neglect. But let's keep our heads screwed on tight and not become cowed by the press or the state or political correctness.
It's exhausting to be edgy all the time.
* Lee Chafee is a mother, a former UPI reporter in New York, and a freelance writer in Rhode Island.