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Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 1999 /23 Kislev, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale -- When things don't happen they usually don't make the front page (above the fold) of the New York Times. When planes don't crash, when people don't die, it's business as usual.

That's true about men and women who retire before they get the top job, too. So when Lois Beard, a colonel in the Army, retired at 45, why was it front page news? That's because she chose motherhood and family life over being General Mom, the first female general in the Army with kids as well as brass stars.

Colonel Beard was on the fast track, holding the right jobs, attending the right schools, jumping the right hurdles to become a general. She participated in the invasion of Panama and was in the war in the Persian Gulf. She commanded a military police battalion for Bosnian peacekeeping.

"I certainly would have kept going if it wasn't for the family,'' she says. "I loved being a commander, but I found myself saying I would be a better commander if I wasn't a parent and a better parent if I wasn't a commander.''

We're not talking lack of day care, and the lack of it. Her children, two daughters and a son are 16, 14, and 11. She had care when they were younger -- a nanny here, an aunt there. But during overseas assignments, both parents were separated from the children for months at a time. The colonel's husband, Glenn, is a colonel in the Army, too. Between long separations from the family the military mom tried to mollify the kids by being Super Mom, picking them up at school, making dinner, leading a Girl Scout troop. But the separations on both the foreign and domestic fronts were unforgiving.

"Three things happened at once,'' she says. "The job was all encompassing. ... The children needed me more. And I got older.''

This is not a morality tale, but a reality tale for our time. It's tough-love pragmatism. Most women really don't have to prove that they can be as good as men in certain leadership positions. They're climbing through the glass ceiling, slowly but surely. They don't have to prove that they can juggle children and career. (Jugglers are rarely stars, anyway.) Women can do most any job and do it well. But they can't do two super demanding jobs at the same time.

It's a hard truth for many women, but true nonetheless, that no matter how conscientious the father, children blame their mothers more for what they don't get. It's a truism of Army life that ambivalent leadership cannot be absolved.

Men and women seeking professional careers today are more likely to be working on a level playing field if they are between the ages of 27 and 33 and have never had a child. In 1997 the wage gap had shrunk to 2 percent among American workers in similar careers and with similar experience.

But statistics and personal experiences change with children. Personal stories demonstrate how it can be hard for a mother to climb to the top of the ladder if she tries to give to her children what she gives to others at the office. That's elementary.

Official Army policy dictates treating men and women the same, except for maternity leave. It's a big "except.'' As Colonel Beard vividly recalls, "Men treat you differently when you're pregnant, asking whether you really can do those push-ups.''(Thank heaven for that.)

Women leave the Army before men, citing children as their priority. Men leave over pay, promotion, job security.

For all of its successes in opening job opportunities for women, feminism has never surmounted that one small detail. Babies change the equations. Not just babies. Babies grow into school children. School children become teenagers. We don't need academic studies (though there are plenty of them) to tell us that children need maternal love, discipline and emotional guidance.

This doesn't mean a mother can't work, but it does mean that the more demanding the job, the less she has left over for her children. Children chill when the hearth grows cold. A woman can aim to be general, a CEO of World Class Widgets, Inc., even the president of the United States, but the climb requires castoffs and often the castoffs are the ones she needs most and who need her most.

Many female officers complain they're held to a higher standard than men, and are kept off the fast track. Only 68 of the 3,628 colonels are women. But that wasn't Colonel Beard's complaint. She chose a higher standard for herself and her family. That's what made front-page news.


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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate