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Jewish World Review/Oct. 15, 1998/25 Tishrei, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez Mourning motherhood

"WHAT'S HAPPENED TO MOTHERHOOD?" my friend asked at dinner the other night. The question seemed to come out of nowhere, as the seven of us -- four women, three men, each married -- had been discussing all manner of things: urban crime, the breakdown of discipline in the schools, the current impeachment mess.

"I've been noticing all evening," she said, "that nearly every problem we've talked about comes back to questions of family. Too many babies born to unmarried mothers, families too busy working to pay attention to what's going on with their kids, a breakdown in the moral values that used to be taught in the home. And it's not just the traditional family that's disappearing, it's the whole notion of what it means to be a mother that seems to have changed."

My friend, who runs a parenting organization that helps mothers and fathers learn to cope with the sometimes overwhelming task of raising children, proceeded to describe several encounters she'd had recently with mothers in her classes. One case in particular stuck her as symptomatic of the change she was trying to describe -- a 30-something professional woman who had recently adopted two children from overseas.

Both children had spent their entire lives in orphanages and had great difficulty forming attachments to their new family, a problem characteristic of many such children who have missed out on close bonding experiences in their early years.

The woman and her husband had gone to considerable expense and personal sacrifice in order to adopt these children, and she had even interrupted her career for several months to spend time with the children when they first arrived. But now, the woman intended to put the kids in daycare to return full-time to work, at the very time her husband was scheduled to begin a long-term assignment away from home. My friend cautioned the new mother that her decision might well undermine the months of work she'd put in trying to win her children's trust. Why risk it?

This mother wasn't returning to work full time because her family depended on her income. She was going back to work because she wanted to. It was as simple as that. She had simply never considered doing otherwise. Motherhood was important to her, but it was only one of several competing facets of her life.

"That's the way most women see it these days," my friend said. She was right, of course. Few young women today, even those whose husbands earn enough to provide adequately for the family's need, choose to be full-time mothers. And it is often the most affluent, well-educated women for whom such a choice seems least appealing. A professional career has replaced motherhood as the defining aspiration of many, if not most, bright young women. And this generation of children may be the worse for it, my friend suggested.

I couldn't help but agree, even though I am one of those women who has pursued both career and family. I like to think I put my family first, insisting on leaving work promptly at 5 o'clock each day when I worked in an office downtown and spending the last 10 years primarily working from my home. But my kids, now grown, see it differently. They remember the hours I spent away from them far more vividly than the ones I spent at home. And, in truth, I spent many more hours working than I spent with them.

When exactly did motherhood become so much a part-time avocation? At what point did we go from worrying about what was best for our children to caring primarily about what made us feel fulfilled? When did we decide that a second car, a bigger house, another color television set was worth missing our baby's first words and steps? Exactly what do most of us achieve in our careers that measure up to the importance of raising the next generation?

As late as 1980, most married women with children under six did not work outside the home. Today, two-thirds do, and fully 80 percent of women with children under 18 work. These numbers represent a social revolution of immense proportions. Unfortunately, those of us most caught up in the phenomenon may never have asked ourselves where this revolution is leading. And by the time we know the answer, it may be too late to change direction.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.