Mothers' Day

A cover story sheds light on the tacit resentment between working moms and those who stay at home.

May/June 1998

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Mothers' Day

After the birth of her second child, Palo Alto real estate broker Jane Alhouse Gee kept delaying her return to work. A debate was quietly raging inside her: Should she quit her busy career and stay home with her two children, or go back to juggling family and job? "Then I woke up one morning and said to my husband, 'You know, I really don't want to go back to work.' "

She hasn't regretted that choice. But the dilemma highlighted for Gee how little support exists for mothers facing a similar decision. She decided to do something about that.

As a board member of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Gee suggested an event that would help all mothers balance their emotional and physical workloads. The symposium, called "The Delicate Balance," already was in the works when organizers read "The Mommy Maze" by Theresa Johnston (Stanford, July/August 1997). The article told the story of women who grappled with the same wrenching choice faced by Gee.

Clearly, the piece hit a nerve: The magazine was flooded with impassioned letters on both sides of the issue. They underscored a much less discussed post-feminist phenomenon: an "us" versus "them" mentality among many working and stay-at-home moms. Women in these two groups often are defensive about their own decision and jealous of the other's choice. Symposium organizers took note.

"The story gave our group even more incentive. It validated that this is an important, hot-button issue," says Barbara Ralston, director of the Stanford Health Library, one of the seven symposium sponsors.

So sensitive is the issue that it took organizers "four meetings to decide the terminology for stay-at-home moms," Ralston says. They settled on "mothers working inside the home." But it turned out stay-at-homers thought that referred to women who work out of home offices, and so many of these moms didn't attend the seminar.

The 200 women who did come to the Saturday session in January heard from three seasoned experts who've raised their families: Barney Olmsted, co-director of New Ways to Work; Stanford professor Shirley Feldman, a senior research scientist on child psychiatry; and social psychologist Deborah Lee. All three panelists acknowledged there are no easy solutions. But they urged stressed-out working mothers to explore flexible work schedules. Stay-at-homers were advised to stave off isolation by getting involved in their community or in mother support groups----any activity that gets them out of the home. And there was this piece of advice for all moms: Take care of yourself by scheduling personal time.

Feldman reassured working mothers that, after 50 years of studies, there is no reason to believe that their children will be "neurotic wrecks, psychopaths or dullards." The evidence, she said, is clear. "What matters is the quality of parenting when you are home with the child."

"You could just hear the relief in the audience," recalls Robin Parker Meredith, a productivity consultant and mother of a 2-year-old son.

She asked the panel to comment on the competition "that keeps women from talking, sharing and supporting each other." In other words, why are mothers in two rival camps?

The panelists looked at each other, reluctant to step into this messy debate. Feldman took the lead. The schism is rooted in the internal conflict that many mothers experience, she told the audience. "For the working mothers, it's not being there for a child's first step," she said. "For a stay-at-home mother, it's giving up your identity, not being stimulated. When we're not totally comfortable with our choice, we strengthen our position by putting down the other mother's choice."

Olmsted suggested women on both sides suspend judgment and respect each other's choices. "Nobody really knows anyone else's story," she said.

Even more moms might have attended the symposium except for a small glitch: "We could not offer high-quality child care," explains a slightly embarrassed Ralston. "There were liability issues." Organizers need look no further for the next symposium topic.

Tia O'Brien is a frequent contributor to Stanford.

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