'90s Mothering, After 'the Nanny Case,' et al.
Without a doubt, the single most commonly held conversation among women of child-bearing age today is the one about juggling job and children.Skip to next paragraph
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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.