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From career to maternity: a feminist reconsiders the mommy track.

Every May in my town of Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College springs another 700 young women loose into .the world. It is something to see, these women charging out of one of America's few remaining all-female colleges, intent on professional careers, expecting that whatever lifestyle they want will be theirs. As I watch them, from the vantage of my 41 years, I fmd myself thinking, . yes, they can. Until, that is, they step across the great divide and choose to have children.

Sometimes I think I'd like to tell these women about my own crossing, eight years ago--about how, along the path of motherhood, I shed my career and my working self like a snake molting its skin. And about how, at the mid-point of my life, ! realize that I have lost a part of myself. Do not misunderstand me; my feeling is not one of sorrow, but of recognition. Like millions of women, I have learned a truth that might daunt even the most energetic Smithie: For women who seek both career and motherhood, something usually has to give. In my case, it was career.

For three years after my daughter was born, I worked full time for the Texas legislature as a budget policy analyst. My schedule varied with the pace of the legislature, from unpressured to frenetic. I worked until 10 days after my due date, when I went into labor. Two and a half months after my daughter was born, I went back to work with great relief.

I was overjoyed to return to my familiar ofrice, to relax in a way I couldn't at home. Although I adored my child, the days of her infancy were the most tedious and demanding of my life. Still, back at the office, my mind left work almost as often as I did to nurse the baby.

As my daughter grew older, I felt even more keenly the conflict between work and home. I wanted to be in both places at once, and began to feel I wasn't doing either job very well. During the peak of the legislative session, my husband brought my daughter to the Capitol during a dinner break so I could see her before I returned for yet another all-night session. In two days, I spent a mere 30 minutes with my one-and-a-halfyear-old.

My tribulations in Texas were not unique; they are suffered by millions of families. The next step I took is equally common: I quit working full time as soon as the opportunity arose. When my husband got a job offer in Massachusetts, I agreed that he should take it, knowing full well that I was leaving a job I enjoyed, and that I would not make a full-time commitment to any new job ! might find there.

Instead, I eagerly committed myself to my children. My experience in Texas taught me that I didn't have enough energy to split between a job and a family. I told myself I'd vary my home life by doing a little work here and there, at my own pace. And in the last six years, I have done just that--a little work. But my major responsibilities in life have shifted to caring for my children. I put myself on what has come to be known as the "mommy track."

I am not alone. In Northampton, there's an eerie sense of women's lives in limbo. Many keep the ghost of a past career alive with a little work here and there--just as I do--while raising children. They're waiting for the moment they can step back fully into a career. In them, like me, there's an impulse to work that runs deep--a part of them they want their children to know. But they must also know on some level that, given the way the world works--the way, for instance, potential employers rarely take seriously people who have been out of the workforce for six or ten or fifteen years--the moment might never come.

Most women have babies. And the realities of pregnancy and maternity can interrupt the healthiest of careers. Maternity has become an "obstacle" that only a few women manage to surmount in order to move upward in their careers. For many others, motherhood is a permanent plateau--a virtual promise that professional talent will be wasted.

These are the dismal facts that feed the raging debate about women, families, and work. The facts are not fair. Few men are asked or forced to face the same obstacles in following a career and having a family. But then the simplest of truths is that men don't give birth. It was just this observation that made Felice Schwartz the whipping girl of feminists from Betty Friedan to Susan Faludi. In January 1989, Schwartz published a now-infamous article in Harvard Business Review that suggested how corporations might deal with the elemental, but usually ignored, fact that most of their female employees will get pregnant and have children. And now Schwartz is back with more to say about work and families.* What she says is something every mother knows: Maternity is more than having a baby. Maternity absorbs a woman's physical and mental energies over a prolonged period of time that includes nursing, bonding, and child rearing. It brings with it a powerful set of new emotions that women both embrace and grapple with for the rest of their lives. After returning from a short maternity leave, women executives often discover that the demands of a 60-hour week conflict with the demands of parenthood--and that the tug of parenthood is the stronger force. Companies, in turn, lose not only the time and the money they invested in recruiting and training female executives, but their talent as well.

The core of Schwartz's argument is that companies should give women (and men) the opportunity to step off the corporate ladder, to create a flexible schedule that accommodates a rigorous family life. She seeks a system of corporate life that doesn't cast away women simply because they choose to be mothers. Instead of a career ladder, she gives us the image of a jungle gym, where you move to the side temporarily, then start your climb again. This sideways step, she says, should be taken without prejudice-without the view by management that working anything less than 80 hours a week represents a lack of commitment to the company. Then, even if it is years later, the employee should be allowed to rejoin the more traditional full-time career path.

When Schwartz's ideas were first published in 1989, they quickly sank under the weight of the term "mommy track," a phrase Schwartz never actually used. She was particularly savaged in feminist quarters. By offering women executives with children the option of less responsibility and lower pay, her critics charged, Schwartz was clearing the path for corporations to discriminate against women. Friedan accused Schwartz of "retrofeminism" (whatever that is), and Faludi, in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, claims Schwartz "recanted" her original proposal, seeing the error of her ways.

In fact, Schwartz did not recant her theories, as her book makes clear. One wonders, in fact, whether either Friedan or Faludi, or the many others who dismissed Schwartz's proposals, actually read her original article or the elaboration of her theories in Breaking with Tradition. Schwartz isn't telling CEOs to discriminate, she's telling them to offer choices. If a woman decides to stay on the corporate ladder and have a family, fine. "Women are not a homogeneous group," Schwartz says. "The drive of some women is as enduring as that of many men." But "if you permit men and women to self-select, to decide themselves which of the two--gr both--will slow down in exchange for career growth during that period, the situation becomes workable for employer, employee, and child ."

It's an offer most women I know would love to be able to consider. Ideological purity doesn't count for much when it comes to dealing with the real world of juggling career and family.

More important, Schwartz's ideas offer an essential humaneness not often found in corporate life. For one thing, her proposals are sensitive to the needs of children. And for another, her ideas could benefit corporations as well as parents. A parent-sensitive business would gain employees whose values do not completely revolve around career advancement. And by spending a significant amount of time with their families, employees would bring valuable perspectives and skills to the corporate world and would be less fueled by sheer (and often debilitating) ambition. Do we really want companies and other organizations to be run by only the most driven of the driven? The answer, implies Schwartz, is no. Surely she is fight.

Schwartz's greatest weakness is that she occasionally veers toward the idealistic (although she has the grace to realize when she does). "The hallmark of the ideal scenario is integration: Work and family no longer represent conflicting demands, but forces that fit smoothly together," she says in her conclusion. Well, maybe, I thought. But not in my lifetime, or, I fear, in my children's.

Still, to contrast Schwartz's ideas with those found in mainstream feminist debate is to realize that she's just about the only one these days thinking about, and talking about, the ideal texture of work and family. For most women I know, this is the most critical issue in their lives.

Faludi, on the other hand, is contemptuous and dismissive of the fact that children and families are the "real conditions" of most women's lives. To her, the idea that women might want some break in their careers to have children is just another of those insidious "myths" created by the media and the political right. But by discounting children, Faludi ignores the reality of most women's lives.

Work fair

Consider, for example, Schwartz's argument that women should discuss future maternity plans with a prospective employer. Faludi is indignant at the very idea "that young women ignore Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and review their child-rearing plans with prospective employers." What Schwartz actually says, of course, is quite different. She believes that there is a conspiracy of silence that ends up hurting women. "Denying that women have babies leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure for women and for their employers," Schwartz says. "We'll go on treating maternity as a short-term disability and not the legitimate, lifetime commitment it is in reality."

This strikes me as utterly sensible. Despite what Faludi says, discussing future maternity intentions reflects more self-worth than hiding behind "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act." When many companies expect a long-term commitment from you as an executive, why not admit that your future may include children, and ask how the company would provide for your needs?

If every woman posed the parenthood question during an interview, employers might feel forced to respond. And if other women were more willing to take up the battle that Schwartz has begun--a more prosaic battle than the one that emerges from Backlash, but one far more likely to improve the quality of women's lives--then maybe getting off the mommy track won't be quite as difficult for this year's Smith graduates as it has been in the past.

Julie Rose is a Northampton, Massachusetts, writer.

* Breaking with Tradition: Women, Management, and the New Facts of Life. Felice N. Schwartz. Warner, $21.95.
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Title Annotation:Felice M. Schwartz
Author:Rose, Julie
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Breaking with Tradition: Women, Management, and the New Facts of Life.
Next Article:Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy.

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