Conflicting choices: three decades in a woman's life

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.)

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.

That trip, however, was a turning point. To my Romanian nieces and nephews, I was Tante Ed'ite. I was exotic, different. Seeing myself through their eyes, I was self-assured and independent. My confidence soared.

When we came home from Europe in September, I was outgrowing the cocoon. I either wanted to go back to work or go back to school. My husband was intractable. ``Staying home and raising children should be fulfilling enough,'' he kept repeating. The man I had married - the man who had courted me with gypsy violins - the man who had taught me to say, ``Io sono un pappagallo'' (``I am a parrot'') was afraid to give me my freedom. He hadn't wanted me to learn how to drive, but maneuvering that 1965 Buick, with its elongated fins, became a symbol for me.

Where once I had seen European charm and attitudes, I now saw rigidity and insecurity. The more I tried to fly, the more aggressive he became.

Perhaps if that had been the '40s or '50s, I might have been content cooking, cleaning, and shopping. But my frustrations paralleled the growing women's movement, and I was bolstered by what I was reading and hearing. Nevertheless, I agonized for almost two years before I decided to get a divorce.

When I did go back to work - as a sales rep for a Fortune 500 company, with a company car and a sample case filled with reports - I realized that the corporate life wasn't what I wanted. Only what I was expected to want. But I was a single parent by then and ironically, I didn't have a choice. Though I didn't particularly like my job, or find it stimulating, I did enjoy talking about it. After all, I had created an image for myself, and for a while, I continued to wear my uniform and speak the language. I was afraid that without my emblems I'd disappear.

I finally did go back to school, when my daughters were teen-agers. I finished my BA by working part-time and going to school part-time, then I attended the Yale School of Drama (on partial scholarship), majoring in playwriting. I've been pursuing that field ever since, along with writing books for children.

Now that I've seen both worlds, the three decades have formed a unifying collage for me: the '60s, when women were afraid their lives would be lonely, isolated, and boring; the '70s, when women were told, ``It's OK to go back to work; what's important is `quality time.''' And the '80s, when women have finally decided to see for themselves. And decide for themselves.

During the '70s, I believed in quality time, too, but I don't anymore. Fatigue is the enemy, and after working 40 hours a week there isn't much time left over, quality or otherwise. When my daughter was 5, I taught her how to play ``Happy Birthday'' on the piano. Within a few weeks, she was playing simple songs and nursery rhymes.

I discovered she could play by ear. Would I have learned this if I'd been working full-time? Would a baby sitter have taught her? I like to think it was because I was there.

Although changes aren't happening fast enough, particularly in the field of day care, I believe there will one day be a smorgasbord of options - for men and women. The good news is that we're moving in that direction.

As far as my daughter is concerned, she has to work for the time being, for financial reasons. But I hope that if and when her circumstances change, she will have the luxury of choosing whether to work or stay home.

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