What mothers have to say about themselves

Superlatives will float through the spring air in abundance this Sunday as sons and daughters honor mother on her day. In millions of greeting cards, telephone calls, and visits, words such as "best," "sweetest," "most wonderful," and even "coolest" will warm mothers' hearts.

Yet superlatives are hardly the words mothers themselves use to describe their own maternal abilities. Although many deftly balance multiple roles, a surprising number, interviewed for new books, express a sense of inadequacy about child rearing.

"Women set impossible standards for themselves," says Peggy Orenstein, who interviewed more than 200 women for her book, "Flux." She adds, "We tend to be harsh judges of ourselves as well as of one another."

Yet as Ms. Orenstein spent time with women and their families, she found reassuring signs to refute those self-doubts.

"Women were doing too much, there's no question about that," she says. "But they were doing well. They were all great mothers. They were raising wonderful children. It was really sad that women didn't recognize their own abilities and talents."

Betty Holcomb, author of "Not Guilty! The Good News for Working Mothers," also finds women's decisions and choices constantly on trial. "Women at home aren't valued, and neither are working mothers," she says.

Some maternal anxiety stems from what family experts call the "professionalization" of parenthood in a mega-industry of child-rearing books and products.

"Every successive generation since the baby boom has taken it up a notch," says Mary Quigley, co-author, with Loretta Kaufman, of "And What Do You Do?" about at-home mothers. "This generation has certainly taken it higher."

Even among women who are not yet parents, Orenstein hears a recurring theme: "If I'm going to be a mother, I want to do it right." That, she says, translates into trying to be a perfect mother whose needs are in sync with those of her child. It also intensifies the demands on motherhood.

"When we were young, our mothers just said, 'Go play outside and come back at dinnertime,' " Orenstein recalls. Today mothers "are supposed to be these perfect playmates and educational experts and developmental-psychology experts, all at the same time that women have more demands on them outside, when they're in the workforce."

Ms. Holcomb, too, finds this "grand commercialization" of child rearing posing challenges. "You're not just responsible for keeping your child clean and polite, like mothers in the '50s were. You're responsible for your child's self-esteem, emotional life - everything that goes into that child. You have to get the right toys and the right Mommy and Me classes. It becomes very unbalanced."

Yet on Mother's Day 2000, there is encouraging news, too. According to Ms. Kaufman, many mothers are finding new satisfaction in taking time out from careers and revitalizing traditional roles. "They're doing the most incredible things, contributing to their immediate communities and to the larger world," she says.

More mothers, she finds, are considering at-home businesses. The number of women-owned businesses increased 103 percent between 1987 and 1999. More women also feel confident that they can return to a career later. Even if they stay home for 10 years, Ms. Quigley says, they can return in their mid-40s and still have 20 or 25 years to work.

"So many women at home told us that they discovered interesting things about themselves, both professionally and personally," Quigley says. Many had taken classes, tried new careers, or become entrepreneurs. For some, the "big revelation" was that their identity was not tied to a title on a business card. "After they stay home a few years, there's more a sense of being able to answer that question, 'What do you do?' in a positive way. One woman says, 'I do everything.' "

Kaufman finds other reasons for optimism: "With women living longer and having more time to be in the workplace, we can reinvent ourselves many times," she says.

Yet these women also wish for an end to harsh judgments about individual decisions. "There should be room for an acceptance of all kinds of different parenting arrangements and breadwinning arrangements," says Orenstein.

Holcomb also wants more support for all mothers, whether at work or at home: "I mean real support, not slogans."

Research, she notes, shows that children, families, and women can all thrive with the right support, whatever choices they make.

What families need, Holcomb continues, are "women-friendly families" and "parent-friendly workplaces," along with "decent child care, a flexible workplace, and a mate who shares. If you have those things, life can be wonderful."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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