The Mother Lord
Superwoman is burned out. Should mom stay home?
Mention “mornings” and working moms look pained. If the baby isn’t gagging on her breakfast, then an older child can’t find clean underwear or— and this only happens 30 seconds before leaving the house—can’t locate the pink pottery rabbit for show-and-tell. At times, it can get downright emotional. A few weeks ago, Camille Allen tried to get a jump on the day by leaving earlier than usual for her human resources job at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto. The change in timetable didn’t suit her seven-year-old daughter, who burst into tears when her mother got ready to go. “She’s not usually like that and her Dad was there, but she wanted me to take her to school,” Allen says. “She wailed and wailed and I kind of peeled her off me at the front door.” Allen, 41, got in her van and drove off with her daughter’s cries still ringing in her head. “I got close to the highway and I thought, ‘You know what? This just isn’t worth it.’ So I turned around, went home, waited around for half an hour and took her to school.”
OK, so juggling work and family is tough—but does that make it wrong? Allen doesn’t think so. She admits there are times when the load seems overwhelming and the last thing she needs, she sighs, is someone saying her commitment to a career—she worked full time even when her children were infants—is bad for her family. But that is what Toronto-born, Washington-based journalist Danielle Crittenden suggests in her recent book, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us. The book, which blames feminism for many of the most difficult issues facing women—including the Superwoman myth—ignited furious debate on talk shows and at dinner parties on both sides of the border when it hit store shelves in January. The fight pits traditionalists such as Crittenden against women who believe they can successfully balance career and family. And in between are a huge number of low-and middle-income women for whom the point is moot— they simply can’t afford to leave their jobs.
Who is Danielle Crittenden to tell other women what makes a good mother? Even those who agree with her stay-at-home senti-
ment say the well-heeled author hardly speaks for most mothers of young children. At 35, with a seven-year-old daughter and fiveyear-old son, Crittenden is married to conservative commentator David Frum, son of the late Barbara Frum and wealthy developer Murray Frum. She admits she is “privileged” because she could afford to scale back her career while her children were preschoolers. But she is adamant that any mother who can should do the same: marry early, stay home with young children and only pursue a career, if at all, when the kids are in school. Such advice riles Allen, who says her career is one of the things that keeps her going. “It makes me angry,” she says. “I think women are sometimes their own worst enemies. Going home isn’t the issue at all. We need to change traditional mind-sets about
how work must get done and how children get taken care of.” The one point on which everyone agrees is that the two-income family is a recipe for stress. And while most modern dads are handling more domestic chores than their fathers did, the bulk of the burden is still shouldered by women. It has been three decades since mothers of all classes began flooding into the paid workforce, initiating one of the biggest social upheavals in history. Yet the same issues keep coming back to plague families: is day care bad for children? is it too expensive? are men doing enough at home? can any couple of average means survive the inevitable difficulties of raising a family in a two-career marriage? Statistics Canada found that Canadians were split on the subject. In a groundbreaking, 1997 survey, StatsCan reported that a majority of Canadians—73 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men—said women should contribute to family income. Yet 51 per cent of women and 59 per cent of men also said that two-career families damage preschool children.
Something has to give, and in fact, change is occurring. Many large companies are encouraging working mothers to share jobs or work flexible hours. More and more, there are babies in boardrooms and sick children sleeping on office couches. As well, stay-at-home mothers are pressing for tax breaks and financial recognition for housework, and the government is at least listening (page 51). But progress is spotty, and many mothers still face discrimination. In February, for instance, Ottawa bookkeeper Jennifer Hanson, 37, received a court-awarded settlement of $20,000 as compensation for being fired by Reform MP David Chatters five days after giving birth to her second daughter in 1996. “Overall, the situation of working women is worse now than it was 10 years ago,” says Pat Armstrong, director of the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University. “Now, they have no choice about working because of economic pressures, but they are having trouble sustaining the load of family and work, and that is different.”
Socially, too, there are scarcely concealed tensions among parents with opposing philosophies on childrearing. There are clashes over day cares taking up space in crowded schools. There is the awkward cocktail chatter when the “What do you do?” question comes up. And there is the silent reproach of some stay-at-home mothers as they watch their working neighbours bustle out for the day.
A few high-profile mothers are speeding up the pace of change. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps was the first Canadian MP to give birth while in office, even though women have been members of the House of Commons since 1921. Copps became well-known for keeping her daughter, Danelle, now 11, at her side until she was about six months old. Breakfast meetings eventually became a thing of the past in her office, and House night sittings and committee meetings became less frequent, partly because Copps showed up with her daughter a few times. “I’m sure it ruffled some feathers, but they quickly learned to be a bit more reasonable around scheduling,” she says. Over the years, Copps says she has learned to stop putting too much pressure on herself— women too often try to be “superhuman” she says. But they have every right to participate in public life as fully as men. “I want to be a woman and a mother and a parliamentarian, and I shouldn’t have to make the choice,” she says. “We don’t ask men to make the choice.”
Many Canadian families, in fact, are bypassing the “choice” issue completely and inventing new strategies that combine work and mothering. Vancouver Island physician Lanice Jones, 43, set up a practice in Duncan, on the east coast of the Island, six years ago with two other physicians. She works out of her office 314 days a week and is on call
For most working women with small children, the choice is less philosophical than it is financial
every third week. Her three children, aged 11,10 and 8, are cared for by one babysitter after school and another who is available to work any nights or weekends that she or her husband, also a doctor, may be on call: typically, that amounts to about 24 hours a week.
Jones’s only regret is that she cannot spend 12 hours a day practising medicine and then another 12 with her children. “I’d like to live a 36-hour day.” She says working women do more than bring home a paycheque or bolster their own egos. “I love my job and it makes me feel good to do it,” she says, “but I am also making a contribution to society. I think that is one of the things that counters the arguments of people who say women should stay home. We don’t question that men can make social contributions and still be fathers.”
Calgarians Diane and Brian Taylor have found a way to keep their jobs but be stay-at-home parents. Since their daughter, Danielle, was born five years ago, the Taylors began what they call “tag-team parenting.” Diane, now 36, who was a supervisor for the food chain Calgary Co-Op before Danielle was born, cut her hours roughly in half—and worked them mainly in the evenings and on weekends when Brian, a teacher, could be home to take care of their daughter. Recently, she quit the Co-Op and started her own house-painting business so she could have more control over the hours she works—and more family time. “Before I had a child, I thought, ‘My gosh, stay-at-home mothers must be bored or they are not really doing anything,’ ” Diane says. “But now, I think it’s one of the most important jobs in our society.
And I think it is a plus for children to have a parent in the home.” That may be, but many women who stay at home face isolation and the anguish of giving up a hard-won career. Kathleen Nightingale, 45, was certified as a welder in British Columbia in 1990. She enjoyed the work, the good money and the time off during slow construction periods. But when her children were born in 1988 and 1992, she hit a wall. Early start times at distant sites meant she was getting up at 4:30 a.m. Often, she did not arrive home in Maple Ridge, east of Vancouver, before 6 p.m. With high taxes and monthly $600 day care fees, there was little financial incentive to keep it up, so in the early 1990s, she quit.
The family now lives in Pitt Meadows, and Nightingale, who is married, takes occasional part-time jobs to help stretch the family’s income. She is mostly content, she says, and her boys like the stability and relaxed routine she can provide because she is at home. But she battles to stay in touch with the adult world, by reading and being active in her community. “I need to be in tune, or else I’d go crazy,” she says. “I believe there are only certain kinds of people who are cut out for staying at home,” she adds, “and even fewer are prepared for it. A lot of people blunder in and they don’t really realize what they are getting into.”
For most of the 70 per cent of women with small children who now work outside the home, the choice is less philosophical than financial. In fact, last fall The New York Times Magazine listed a stay-at-home wife as one of the new status symbols for families in the late-1990s. Canadian activist Carol Lees wants to change that. Lees, 54, jump-started a campaign to gain recognition
for unpaid housework in the census. In 1991, the Saskatoon mother of three refused to fill out her census form because there was no category for housework. She was threatened with a fine and imprisonment, but her efforts paid off. The charges were dropped and in 1995 Canada became the first industrialized country to track hours of housework performed per week, by both men and women, through its census.
Lees, whose stock answer to the question, “What do you do?” is “I’m a stayat-home mother and I can read,” says the “devaluation” of homemaking is what motivated her crusade. Although she is not pressing for paid housework, she says measures such as pension credits and tax deductions would make staying home more feasible and help mothers feel better about their choice. “The devaluation of homemaking has a lot to do with not being paid,” says Lees, who has a master’s degree in psychology. ‘We learn in our society that your value is pegged to your income and your possessions.” Just as some homemakers feel unappreciated, their counterparts in the workforce say they sense disapproval from mothers who have chosen to stay at home. Michèle Tougas-Lanthier of Pointe-Claire, Que., was able to take two years off from her job as a high-school English teacher when her daughters, now 14 and 12, were infants (she also has 16-year-old twin boys), but she has worked full time ever since. Many of the women in her suburban Montreal neighbourhood are full-time mothers who have said she could easily stay at home if she managed her money better, TougasLanthier says. Yet even she falls prey to the bias against day care-raised children—when asked if she can spot the day care kids in her classes based on their bad behaviour, Tougas-Lanthier says she can. But then she changes her mind. “I take that back,” she says. “It’s the ones with parents who are too permissive or don’t teach respect for authority.”
Sorting this out is stressful, and health professionals see the signs of it every day. Lee Tidmarsh, a child psychiatrist at Montreal Children’s Hospital, says it is impossible to conclude that all mothers should either be at home or at work. She has seen women cry because they had to leave children with babysitters and others who are deeply unhappy at home. ‘We women carry this extra load of guilt on our second X chromosome,” she says, “and it doesn’t help when somebody puts out a book like Crittenden’s.” Adds Tidmarsh: “Generally, families do an excellent job of finding good care for their children. And children are thriving. We haven’t seen anything that suggests children in day care are having problems with attachment or development.”
If working or staying at home is a choice between two solitudes, moving from one to the other can be doubly hard. Brenda Cram, who lives in Kitchener, Ont., has essentially followed the path that Crittenden recommends. She married at 25 and went to school part time after her children, Jessica, 5 and Scott, 7, were born. She is trying to launch her career and recently began working as a substitute teacher. In the past, she has had to battle feelings of worthlessness, she says, because other women seemed to be managing as mothers and employees, and she seemed to have so little in common with them. “It sort of kills the conversation when you say you are at home,” Cram says, “because you can’t talk about anything else but your kids.”
Now 34, Cram finds herself grappling with the other side of the issue: as she tries to get her career off the ground, she wonders if she is not shortchanging her children, especially her youngest. At the same time, she worries about making it in the workplace. “It is a huge fear to go back to work,” she says.
“You feel that your brain has gone to mush. There is a wall in front of you. You have to figure out not only what you are doing but how you are going to organize the children’s lives. I’m not sure I’m up to this.”
Then there is the endless, seemingly intractable problem of negotiating who does what in the pre-millennial household.
Matthew Little, Cram’s husband, was laid off from his job as a computer programmer last summer. He will be starting a new job soon. Little, 34, says the ideal situation would be to job-share with his wife, so that at least one of them could always be home with their children. Failing that, they find themselves constantly renegotiating the terms of their relationship, as both look for what they can take from tradition—and what must simply be dumped. “Our fights are often about the expectation that ‘I am the guy, I should go out and bring home the
bacon,’ and that Brenda ‘is the girl and she is supposed to stay home,’ ”
Little says. “Well, unfortunately, the feminist revolution has tarnished both of these images. The whole relationship has to be hybrid and dynamic enough to change with whatever the situation dictates.”
And just when it seems the load could not get any worse, there is the added pressure of society’s mounting expectations for parents. Bil Scott, 47, is the father of 372-year-old Ellie, as well as two adult children from a previous marriage. He works as a residence supervisor at Acadia University while his wife, Anne Scott, 31, works full time as an administrator for the same employer.
Both want the best possible education for their child. “Things are different raising Ellie than from when I was a child,” Scott says, “particularly in how much we will have to prepare her for school. When I entered Grade 1, we didn’t have kindergarten, I only knew the letter S, for my last name. When Ellie starts kindergarten, we will have had to teach her so much more— the alphabet, things I didn’t learn until I finished Grade 1. This is pressure, but I don’t mind doing this.”
Even with more help from spouses, a growing number of women admit that they just can’t keep up with the demands of work and family. Some companies are responding. Peter Bowie, chairman at giant accounting and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche, says his firm realized in the mid-1990s that it was in danger of losing valuable talent. Turnover was costing the firm $40 million a year, as well as the loss of women who were potential partnership candidates but who could not balance the pressure to bill hours against the needs of their children. ‘We need to have the best people we can get,” Bowie says, “and if we’re drawing from only half the population, we’re shortchanging ourselves.”
and sells cosmetics, was hired by the firm when she was pregnant with her first child. She brought her daughter to work with her when she returned seven days after the birth and kept her with her during working hours for about six months. “We would go into the boardroom with this little baby sitting in a chair, looking at these landlords,” she recalls. “It gives you a whole different perspective on business.”
Toronto consultant Nora Spinks, who has advised companies on the issue for two decades, notes that the workplace has altered dramatically over the past 15 years. Changes range from richer parental benefits to nursing rooms to personal leave days—and, Spinks says, there is no going back. “The idea that it takes a village to raise a child has never been more clear than it is today,” she says. “Because we need women in the paid labour force in order to keep our economy going—they provide 25 per cent of our tax revenue.”
The workplace has changed with richer maternity benefits, nursing rooms and personal leave days
The firm has tried offering flexible hours and part-time arrangements. But many eligible women are not using the programs, partly because they fear that by scaling back their hours, they will be regarded as less committed to their careers. Bowie says the firm is reviewing its approach and plans to hold workshops over the next 14 to 15 months to “raise everybody’s awareness.” Bowie, who has five children of his own, says it is not really the programs that seem to be important as much as an empathetic work environment. And he is determined to create one. “You can make a very good business case for this,” he says. “But the fact is, it’s also the right thing to do.”
Other large companies are pounding the same drum. At the Royal Bank of Canada, 30 per cent of the more than 40,000 employees, both men and women, are on some sort of flexible work schedule. Job-sharing at the Royal, just one of the options the bank offers, has become so popular that more than half of the participants now do it for reasons unrelated to child care. Innovations are even more dramatic at smaller companies. Cheryl Benson, Toronto leasing manager for The Body Shop, a United Kingdom-based chain that makes
Sheelagh Whittaker has a unique perspective on the whole business. In one lifetime she has managed to have a family and climb the corporate ladder to become CEO of the Toronto-based information-processing giant EDS Canada—making her one of Canada’s highest-ranking female executives. Now 51, she is the mother of four children; her youngest, a five-year-old son, is cared for by a nanny. Whittaker counsels younger women on the home-work split, and she has concluded that women have to stop worrying about the expectations of others and concentrate on their own preferences. “I used to fight for the big issues, but now I fight for individual victories,” she says. “Choose and then get comfortable with it— don’t be apologetic or twist yourself out of shape. One of the things that helped me a lot is that I never felt a moment’s guilt about being a working mother.” And, she might have added, don’t expect others to make the same decisions. After all, isn’t that what choice is all about?
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER