Six years ago, after earning a PhD in linguistics, Deborah Fallows was anticipating a promising career. Before she was 30, by the time her son Tommy was 21/2, she had become an assistant dean in languages and linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. ``It was at a time when there was a lot in the press about being Superwoman,'' she recalls. ``It seemed like every week you could pick up a paper or a magazine and find an article saying all you needed to do was be a little more efficient, a little more organized. That was the key to the success of having everything.
``I thought, I'm efficient, I'm organized, what's wrong here? It wasn't working out. I didn't have the time with [my son]. I wasn't being the kind of mom, doing the kind of things I wanted to do with him. I didn't feel like he was having the kind of childhood that I wanted him to have.''
And so, just before the birth of her second son, Tad, Mrs. Fallows made an important decision: She would stay home with the couple's children while they were young.
``I had this sense that my children needed someone who was very strong -- and who cared for them beyond all boundaries -- to do well by them,'' she says.
In her new book, ``A Mother's Work'' (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95), Mrs. Fallows gives a thoughtful account of the reasoning behind that decision. She acknowledges the complex choices pulling parents between family and career. But she also offers a disturbing insider's view of the day-care centers she visited around the country while her husband, James Fallows, Washington editor of The Atlantic magazine, took his turn at playing primary parent.
``I find myself in this curious position of not being a fan of day-care centers,'' Mrs. Fallows says. ``But I feel in my conscience that since I care for kids, I have to care about having good-quality day care. There will always be kids in day care, and there will always be working parents. If you're a realist, you have to support improving the system.''
What she found in dozens of day-care facilities offers plenty of room for improvement. At a time when most public concern focuses on abuse, Mrs. Fallows worries about a different problem: benign neglect. Most centers, she believes, do not have the resources to provide the care babies and young children need.
``I think about the number of hours kids spend in day care, just kind of muddling along, not getting enough attention, having nobody to talk to, having nobody to ask anything of, having to follow all these rules,'' she says. ``I would get angry and sad to think that this was just five days a week, 10 hours a day. Pretty soon it's months. Pretty soon it's years. It's the childhood. It's the definition of what this child has grown up with.''
Although prevailing attitudes hold that most women work out of necessity, Mrs. Fallows challenges that assumption. ``This whole economic argument is a complicated one,'' she says. ``It's very easy for people to say, `I have to work for economic reasons.' It is a legitimate reason, and for some people there absolutely is no choice. But for most people it's part of a reason, and the other part is the desire to work.
``I find myself losing patience with the very simplistic argument that women have to work for economic reasons, when that whole term covers such a broad personal description of what `have to work' means. I say this with great humanity in my heart and great respect for women who are in tight financial situations, and who are raising kids on their own.''
In studying statistics, she discovered little predictability between the income of the family and the likelihood of a woman to work. ``Say a husband earns $35,000 a year,'' she explains. ``That woman is just as likely to work as a woman whose husband earns $15,000, $20,000, or $25,000.''
What proved to be a much more reliable determinant of work patterns was the age of a woman's children.
``Women with the youngest children work less frequently, and they're much more likely to be working part time,'' she says. ``What that told me was that economics is part of it, but it's by far not the whole thing. The decisions are following the children.
``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
``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.''