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“Paper or plastic?”

The cashier at the grocery store smiled as I wedged my very pregnant body into the checkout lane. It was Aug. 13, 1996, a day before the birth of my first (and only) child. My nesting instincts in overdrive, I had been waddling through a last-minute shopping spree.

“When are you due?” the cashier asked as she swept diapers and frozen macaroni and cheese across the scanner.

“Almost two weeks ago,” I answered. Then I waited for the response that usually followed: “Boy or girl?”

Instead, she asked, “Are you gonna work or stay at home?”

I was a bit taken aback at the cashier’s interest in my private life, but I answered her confidently with the same answer I’d given my mother, my boss and baby shower guests: “After seven weeks of maternity leave, I’m returning to work full time.”

Fast forward to a weekday morning six years later. I got up at 6 a.m., got myself and my son dressed, him fed, and both of us out of the house to his full-day preschool by 7:30 a.m. Then I raced to work to return voice mail and e-mail before my workday as a professional fund-raiser officially began at 8:30 a.m.

At work, I generally drank my meals. Not the 1960s three-martini-lunch kind of meals, but the two-cups-of-coffee-followed-by-a-cup-of-soup-at-the-desk kind. My self-created rule was that, because I left each day at 5 p.m. on the dot to be able to make my son’s day care pickup, I should eat lunch at my desk. Leaving my desk meant less work done— and less work done meant more guilt.

As it neared noon on this November day, I poured the soup powder into my mug while reading something on my computer screen. Hearing an unfamiliar sound, I looked down into the cup and saw stiff, tiny noodles floating in the brown sludge of Morning Coffee #2.

Sure, I could have dumped it out, started again. But that would have taken too much time and too much… well… sanity. I shrugged, walked to the water cooler and filled my mug with hot water. As I drank the concoction down, I finally admitted to myself that my version of Soupermom was a far cry from the heroic image of working mom I’d had in mind that day at the grocery checkout counter—not to mention throughout my childhood, college and early working years. Maybe a noodle is just a noodle, but I knew then that things had to change.

A few months later, I made the hard decision to shed all my administrative duties and my title— not to mention a goodly portion of my much-needed salary— and said goodbye to daily face-to-face with colleagues I enjoyed and admired to work part time from home. Part time is often held up as the perfect solution to work/ family conflicts— and don’t get me wrong, it’s the right solution for me right now— but that’s not the point. The point is that I always wanted to be a full-time worker and a full-time mother, and after six years of struggle I discovered that it was impossible for me to do both the way I wanted to, or felt I should.

Apparently I’m not alone, as the results of a poll of more than 1,000 working mothers nationwide published in the June issue of Parents reveals. Nearly half— 46 percent— of the working mothers said they’d rather be stay-at-home mothers, and 36 percent said they’d at least prefer to spend less time at work. Perhaps more shocking— and more distressing— the poll revealed that only 13 percent of the working mothers were happy with their work/family situation. And a whopping 99 percent admitted to feeling stressed nearly all the time.

That unhappiness and that huge amount of stress perhaps account for another recent change: For the first time since 1977, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has cited a decline in the percentage of women returning to work after having children. In 1997, the percentage of mothers who returned to the workplace topped out at 59.2 percent. By 2000, it had fallen to 53.3 percent. While not a huge drop in and of itself, it arguably signals the beginning of a trend reversal.

Marianne Githens, political science professor and chair of Goucher College’s Women’s Studies department, explains why more and more working mothers are choosing to stay home. Combine the high cost of child care, work environments that are not particularly open to helping with work/family issues, and the technological tethers of voice mail, e-mail and cell phones that erase the once-obvious line between work and home, says Githens, and you have a very disillusioned working mother.

Case in point: Me.

When I left my full-time job and began waving a long goodbye to the accomplished career woman I dreamed I’d be, I thought a lot about my mother. She had briefly dreamed of going to college and becoming a history teacher. But in 1958, her high school diploma in hand, her family told her that college was wasted on girls because they only ended up getting married and staying home. After working as my grandfather’s secretary, she married my father at 21 and had three children by age 28. Like nearly everyone else in her generation, her career was raising a family and keeping a Cleaver-esqe household. Though a part of her wished she had the option of a different path (and a part of her still wishes for it today), she threw herself into home and family.

And yet, in 1972, my mother did become a working mom— the first on our block. My father had just opened his dream business, a car dealership, and he needed her help. My mother kept the books, sold cars and swept out showrooms— not exactly the career as a history teacher she had once daydreamed about.

From my perspective as a 6-year-old girl, I didn’t see that much in our daily lives changed after my mother started work. It was the 1970s, and feminists were making news by blazing trails into the workplace and clamoring to “have it all.” But for my mother, there was no need to “have it all”— just do it all. She’d do laundry or dust while we kids ate breakfast. Once my sister and I were on our way to school, she’d drag my 3-year-old brother kicking and screaming to the neighborhood’s first day care center— they both hated it— and bring him back to work once day care closed in the early afternoon. She continued to volunteer at church and Boy Scouts, designed elaborate birthday parties and school projects, sewed handmade dolls on coffee breaks and occasionally dove into middle school Dumpsters for lost retainers. Of course, a full-course meal was always waiting when my father got home.

Looking back, I realize that, growing up, I valued my mother not for the contribution she made in the workplace, but for the fact that she was able to work and still do everything so well at home. No doubt part of that is due to the lovely oblivion of childhood. But a lot of it had to do with the fact that, even as a young girl, I was very aware of what would be the distinction between my mother’s work and mine: Hers was a job; mine would be a career, the birthright of every middle-class American girl growing up in the 1970s.

How did I know it was my birthright? I saw it everywhere. At Girl Scouts, our fearless leader Cookie Grugan quickly rushed the troop through the traditional cooking and sewing badges by teaching us to make Rice Krispie treats and glue embroidered patches on our green sashes, then spent meeting after meeting talking about what we could— and would— do in the workplace. Between pitching tents and wielding axes on weekend camping trips, Mrs. Grugan led campfire songs about girls doing anything they wanted to. And by anything, she meant a career outside the home.

Indeed, while my mother ironed my father’s handkerchiefs (she had stopped ironing his boxer shorts at that point) and baked from scratch every other day, I was singing along as Helen Reddy belted out “I am Woman, Hear me Roar.” I watched glamorous women in commercials bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, then sizzle for their man. Even my Barbies came packaged with impressive careers. An astronaut in 1965 and a surgeon by 1973, she’s been a foreign diplomat, doctor, paleontologist, NASCAR driver and even ran for president in 2000. (Interestingly, the traditional female roles of wife and mother continue to elude Barbie. She’s worn plenty of bridal gowns but never quite made it down the aisle.)

I see now that I looked to Mom for the kind of wife and mother I’d be (and as a girl, I never doubted I’d be both), and to the outside world— where Sally Ride was blasting into space and Geraldine Ferraro was running for VP— for the kind of career woman I’d be. On TV, single working gal Mary Richards showed me just how plucky and smart (and sometimes teary) she could be in the WJM-TV newsroom. Jaime Somers, with her bionic body parts and dual career as a teacher/secret agent, and the tough babes of “Charlie’s Angels” taught me that women could kick butt and still have bouncin’ and behavin’ hair.

Those modern career gals drew a sharp contrast to the moms I saw on TV in the 1970s: “Happy Days”’ Mrs. Cunningham and Ma Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie.” They were from a different era. And, to me, they may as well have been from another planet.

The working mom got more airtime in the 1980s, but usually in name only. “The Cosby Show’s” Claire Huxtable, a lawyer mom, was never pictured in her workplace, and rarely even depicted talking about work, much less struggling to balance it with family. She held court on the couch or in the kitchen, refereeing family squabbles, drying tears and lavishing affection on husband and kids. Though more and more working mothers began showing up on TV in the late ’80s, it wasn’t until the 1990s, when “Roseanne” debuted, that a show finally tackled the constant work/family struggle faced by countless working mothers.

In fact, until my friends and I began having our own children, it was as if the struggle to balance work and motherhood was invisible to me. Growing up, I saw separate examples of each ideal— the mother, the career woman— but I never saw anyone who did both like I planned to. Even during my four years at a women’s college, the balancing act of career and motherhood was never discussed. The successful alumnae who returned to campus to educate and inspire rarely mentioned babies. If they did, it was a descriptive aside, as in, “I’m a White House correspondent and mother of three.”

Maybe they felt it was their duty to share the joys of their work— not the challenges of balancing it with home and hearth. Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. Or maybe I and my fellow students just weren’t ready to listen to front-line accounts of the tricky business of trying to merge motherhood and career into a single, smooth road.

Whatever the case, when I married at 25 and had my son at 30, I never doubted a baby would seamlessly fit into the career I found so enjoyable. While trying to get pregnant, I trolled maternity clothing stores and looked longingly at the business suits with expandable waistbands. And when my test came back positive, I ran out and bought a blue maternity suit first, then stocked up on the requisite cute baby things.

When my seven-week maternity leave was over, I missed my baby like crazy and wished I had more time with him, but truth be told, a big part of me was happy to get back to work. Unlike caring for an infant, I knew what I was doing at work. I also hoped to learn from my colleagues with school-aged kids how they handled the whole work/family challenge.

The first week, my colleagues followed the script perfectly, cooing at baby photos, handing me tissues when I got teary and lying about how good I looked. After a few weeks, however, the script fell apart as, one by one, my co-workers told me that they didn’t know how I was surviving, that they themselves had ended up quitting their jobs when their kids were little because they just couldn’t leave them. Looking back, I should have seen it as a sign of things to come, but I didn’t. Instead, when my son was 6 months old, my dream job came calling. It was perfect: Working for my college as its development director, a critical career step toward my goal of becoming a top college administrator. My husband and I quit our jobs and moved to Virginia.

There, things began to unravel fast. The business travel I had looked forward to changed from a few short trips a month into longer, farther and more frequent absences from home. My husband did freelance graphic design from home while taking care of our son, a child-care arrangement that also seemed perfect, but was hard with me gone so much. Half of me wanted so desperately to do my dream job; the other half was just as desperate to be home.

And for reasons I still have trouble explaining, nearly all of the housework, shopping and cooking still rested with me. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild famously coined this “the second shift” in her landmark book of the same name (Penguin Books, 1989 and 2003). “The workforce has changed,” she writes. “Women have changed. But most workplaces have remained inflexible in the face of family demands of their workers, and at home, most men have yet to really adapt to the changes in women.” I was smack dab in the middle of what Hochschild dubbed a “stalled revolution,” but I was too tired to fight. After working so hard at the office, I just wanted to be with my son, even if that meant taking him grocery shopping after dinner and singing to him as I folded laundry.

After 13 months, I finally cracked. I had spent seven years preparing for this job— not to mention most of my girlhood hoping for a fulfilling career— and now I was jumping off the fast track in search of something with less responsibility, no travel and the hope of carving out a more workable home life. In explaining this decision to my staff, I finally achieved my Mary Richards moment: I, too, was crying at work while apologizing over and over again.

My husband and I returned to Baltimore to full-time jobs, and my son returned to keeping the same hours at day care as my husband’s shirts at the cleaners: in by 8, out by 5. I took a less demanding “desk” fund-raising job, but I only knew how to work one way: all or nothing. (That was my inheritance from my workaholic father.) I coped by apologizing to everybody for everything. I’m sorry I have to leave at 5 p.m. to make day care pickup. I’m sorry my son’s sick today, so I can’t make the meeting. I’m sorry that we’re having pizza again tonight. I’m sorry the house is such a mess. When my son started a full-day preschool program at age 2, I apologized daily for being one of the last mothers to pick up their children. He once described me as: “My mommy wears glasses and picks me up last.” Ouch.

When my son was 3, we discovered that his energy level and eccentricities had clinical names, so we added regular doctor’s visits to my already jammed schedule. I perfected a sheepish, shamed smile that I’d use in waiting rooms with other mothers (none of whom worked) when checking work messages on my cell phone. And while I know I’d hit the mother lode with such a wonderful, sweet child, rushing to and from work and attending to his schedule felt more like the mother-lock-and-load. I was 20 minutes late for everything, foot to the floor, driving one-handed as I reached behind me to give my son a juice box. My time to myself was a take-no-prisoners rush through the grocery store at 11 p.m. Success was no longer defined in career terms, but by how few days it took to get the clothes out of the dryer.

Even with a boss who was more than fair about letting me juggle my work schedule with my son’s needs, my life had become a warped cycle of wherever I was, it wasn’t where I needed to be. When I was at work, I missed my son and felt I should be with him. When I was home, I thought about all the work I needed to do and how I wasn’t living up to my pre-kid work standards. I was asking myself all the questions writer Joanne Kaufman recently raised in Working Mother magazine: “How many hours or days can we work without sacrificing our duty to our family? How much time can we spend at home without hurting our career? We’ve got our professional egos and ambitions on the line, after all. How much time should we log in at the kids’ school or the hockey rink? Are we being good mothers? Are we being good employees?” I had no working mother role model. As Kaufman says, I had “no idea what a ‘good working mother’ is supposed to look like.”

It wasn’t long before my prenatal theory of a happy co-existence between career and family had become more like a war zone with the different sides advancing or retreating, depending on work deadlines, ear infections and my daily struggle between need, want and expectation. The final breaking point came when I poured the powder into my coffee cup and drank the bitter soup down.

As I said goodbye to the folks at work, an older female colleague congratulated me on getting my priorities straight. At first, I thought she was joking, but then I realized she wasn’t. Like that checkout girl years before, I am no longer surprised by such public interest in my private life as a woman and mother. I just gave her a half-smile and nodded, not bothering to tell her that the change to part time was less a straightening out of priorities than a straightening out of my schedule. I wanted to be the best mother I could be while pursuing a career — the former because my son needed me, and the latter because I needed to financially and personally. I just couldn’t handle going at them both at full bore.

Though my schedule is no longer such a struggle, I still wrestle with questions. So does my son. When I drove him to school wearing jeans during the first few weeks of my part-time life last spring, he asked if I’d been fired. And though we spent a lot of time together this summer, it wasn’t playing at the park and doing projects, but rather him playing Legos while I typed nearby at my desk. One day, he looked at me and asked, “If you changed your work to spend more time with me, why aren’t you?” My answer was familiar to both of us: I’m sorry.

I still believe that a woman can work full time, be a great mother, and retain a good bit of her sanity. But for me, and for now, it’s just not possible. And so I’m learning to navigate a new line between motherhood and career.

Every morning, my son and I walk to school. We talk about the day before him, bark at the neighbor’s dog and poke at a dried-up worm on the sidewalk. After I kiss him goodbye, I pick up the pace, walk home past the worm and the dog, and settle in at my computer until it’s time for school to let out.

I almost always arrive for afternoon pick-up early. I want a good spot in the crowd of parents because, yes, I want my son to see that I’m on time. But mostly I want a clear view of his face when he comes through the door, so happy to see me.

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