Reclaiming the privilege of caring for the family

A friend of mine recently brought his elderly mother to live with him. He has a big job and a long day, but one of his favorite things is bringing her a piece of pie in the evening. It's even better if she accepts a little ice cream on it. I can just see her - with her blue eyes twinkling. But the greater pleasure is his.

I know this from caring for my children. I know how good it feels to comfort an infant simply by offering milk, to make a teenager's day better by standing there listening. As with much of mothering, none of this is special, nothing worth mentioning. The greater pleasure is mine. Which is why I'm puzzled by the never-ending debate over child care.

A study released in July by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, for example, compared certain behaviors of children in home care with those in day care. In another study, also released in July, researchers at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development compared levels of stress hormones in children in home care versus day care.

The opinionizing spawned by such data seems always to miss the big picture while reaching the same conclusion: Men should do more at home so that women can do less, freeing them to do something better elsewhere. This approach - reducing parenting into pieces of data, repackaging it as single-serving chores, and assigning it out equally - mischaracterizes as lesser work what many see as the privilege of caring for a family.

Cathy Hetznecker, mother of two, of Havertown, Pa., understands why. "My life consists of very, very minute details of somebody else's life, details no one outside my house cares about," she said. Her research project for the day, she notes for illustration, might be finding something that baby Willa will eat. But fortunately for Willa, currently fussy about her food, there is someone who is willing to take on the challenge.

All work can be drudgery; any can be meaningful. The ideal of diaper-changing parity makes no sense. It ignores the fact that division of labor works well for many families. And, really, what breadwinner trying to get a flight out of Detroit at 2 a.m. wouldn't rather have that middle-of-the-night feeding? What is it about a marketing meeting that makes it inherently more palatable than chopping tomatoes, listening to Puccini, and laying out the cloth napkins? Isn't each spouse - on a good day, at least - simply doing whatever is needed to help create the life they both want?

Where is the love? Sometimes, at-home parenthood seems unaffordable. After all, parts of our culture consider parents neglectful if they nix that fifth trip to Disney World. But some find life actually better with one spouse at home, even if it means selling the second car, keeping the clothes until they fray, and dining three nights in a row on the supermarket special of the week.

"We live simply," says at-home mother Amy Horn, of Merion, Pa. "We like imparting to our children that we should not always be striving for the next thing." She and her husband opted off the bigger, busier bandwagon after her whirlwind tour through graduate school. "It just didn't feel like that was the way life should be."

Her husband, like many men, initially was taken aback by her desire to stay home, but quickly recovered. He is grateful, at day's end, for a meal on the table and his family nearby, and she is grateful that she can make that happen. Even despite his being diagnosed with cancer two years ago, she rejects the notion that a career will make a woman less vulnerable in the event of widowhood or divorce. "I can't walk around each day planning for every event that could happen," she says.

Susan Hamilton, of Drexel Hill, Pa., admits to being "micromanaged" by the needs of her brood - a baby, 3-year-old twins, and a 4-year-old. She times her shower to coincide with a certain kiddie TV show, and runs out for milk in the tiny sliver of time between morning and afternoon naps. But she doesn't consider her life a sacrifice: "I'm part of what they're doing - the good things and the bad things. Here, I can root out what I don't like and put in what I like."

She and her husband plan to get away together for a whole day this fall. "I think we're doing all right," she says.

For one of my children, the sure cure for anything that ails her is to curl up with me on the sofa, Regis on the TV. Our family's pace often allows me to indulge her, and I try to make sure I do.

This (my own personal research) never fails to convince me that the greater joy - the serving of the pie - is always mine.

Mary Beth McCauley, a freelance writer, won the 2000 Religion Newswriters Association Supple Award for Writer of the Year for work in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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