Career parents must do their share says 'nonworking' mother

There is a minirevolution brewing in the women's movement. it is being led not by militant feminists nor by aspiring young MBAs. Rather, it is being advanced by those who have no special constituencies -- unsalaried, homemaking mothers.

My introduction to this new development came when I was called by my child's room mother, who asked me to contribute cookies for a school social function. I agreed and we chatted briefly. Then, in passing, she mentioned that when she began calling people, she was often greeted with the comment, "I can't. I work."

At first she said she was very apologetic for disturbing these busy working mothers. But as the rejection list expanded, she grew angry. What was she doing? Wasn't she also working, even if she wasn't getting paid for her efforts? Wasn't her time just as valuable as theirs? She vowed she would no longer accept that excuse, and certainly she would no longer apologize for asking.

Armed with these new insights, she resumed her campaign. This time she recommended that those who couldn't bake could buy the required cookies. Her suggestion was accepted, her immediate problem solved. Yet the seeds of awareness were planted. She would no longer be intimidated by the career mother. She was no longer willing to carry the load for everyone.

Discussions with other "nonworking" mothers more and more frequently turn to similar experiences. These women are coming to resent being viewed as boring because they stay home and yet indispensable when it comes to the smooth operation of educational and social institutions.

One mother who has done considerable volunteer work at her son's school and who frequently chaperones on field trips became incensed when she found mothers citing their work as a reason for not aiding at school or accompanying class trips. She suggested that working parents take annual leave for such excursions , pointing out that they often save time for Christmans shopping or other special activities without realizing how much their children would benefit from their presence in school once in a while. She did not hesitate to make her views known, no matter how much it might discomfit her listeners.

These examples from my neighborhood could be magnified thousands of times across the country. Women at home today are outnumbered; more than 16.6 million , or 54 percent of mothers with children 18 years of age and younger, are in the work force or looking for work. As a consequence, stay-at-home mothers are deluged with demands for their services.

They are needed to be room mothers, cafeteria and playground aides, den mothers or Brownie leaders. They are expected to chauffer their own children and all those whose parents work to sporting events and dance classes, to gymnastics and craft sessions. They must volunteer to attend most field trips, pressured by the threat that if sufficient numbers of adults aren't obtained, trips would be canceled. How do you tell your own children that they may miss that visit to the museum or zoo because no adult has the time to go along?

Many of these parents feel besieged and unappreciated. Their expressions of concern are only beginning to be heard. But as their ranks are further depleted , they will become more outspoken in their complaints. As one woman's T-shirt defiantly proclaimed, "Every mother is a working mother."

All of us -- and that includes fathers -- must examine our own consciences. We must not let the phrase "I work" become a catchall to excuse us from assuming our responsibilities as parents. We must somehow come to grips with the problem. That may mean fighting for more flexitime, four-day work weeks, and job-sharing. It may also mean using vacation days to show our children that we are interested in what happens to them at school.

We -- mothers and fathers -- must volunteer our efforts when at all possible even though free time may be a precious luxury to us. We must do it to remove the burden from the overloaded shoulders of those who elect to stay home with their families. But, more important, we must do it for our children.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.