Feature - March 11, 1998
How five Princetonians have dealt with the conflict between parenting and jobs By Kathryn Federici Greenwood
Giving up medicine
Returning to work
Dealing with "the dilemma"
"Marking" your kids
Who's Staying Home in the 1990's?
Who's staying home in the 1990s? Among graduates of Princeton who are raising children, many women and at least a few men have shelved careers to focus on their kids. Some have quit their jobs, while others have cut back on their hours and responsibilities. A few are returning to work after years as stay-at-home parents.
If the alumni interviewed for this article are typical, few Princeton women -- and probably no men -- go through college thinking they will wind up as full-time homemakers; most assume they will have fulfilling careers while also raising families. Some women struggle with the urge to stay home after their children are born. Those who do become stay-at-homes may wonder if they are wasting a college education. Neither their education nor previous life experience have prepared them for the joys and demands of parenthood.
Carolyn (Brophy) Wojciechowicz '85 taught at a private school for a year when her oldest daughter was a baby but found life too stressful. The year she worked, recalls Wojciechowicz, now the full-time mother of three, she was "moody, grumpy, and snippy." Mary (Taylor) McKay '84 knew even before she became pregnant that she would drop out of her veterinary practice to raise her children: "I was between worlds, and it was very lonely." For others, leaving work left them wondering who they were and what it meant to be "just" a mom. Toni (McCall) Townes '85, who until recently was at home raising her two children, used to squirm when asked, "What do you do?"
Nationwide, families with the option of having one parent stay at home are in the minority. According to a 1996 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, a husband is the sole breadwinner in only a fifth of families with children under 18. In a scant two percent of such families, the wife is the sole earner. In the majority of American families -- 55 percent -- both parents work.
Moreover, moms and dads who want to cut back on their hours in the office might find it difficult to make that arrangement. "There's been a spread of formal policies" such as flex time, job sharing, and part-time options, says Erin Kelly *96, a graduate student in the sociology department who studies family-friendly policies in the workplace. "But it's less clear that they're being supported by changes in the workplace culture." Townes, for one, recalls that after she returned to work, she had to "fight for my part-time arrangement, reset expectations from others and myself, and simply say 'no' from time to time." She keeps a drawing entitled "MOM," a gift from her six-year-old, on her office door. "Whenever I'm asked to stay beyond a reasonable hour, come in on weekends, or work through holidays," she says, "I tap the picture to remind them and myself where my priorities rest."
And the kids? Research shows that, in general, "there is not much difference between children whose mothers work and children whose mothers don't work," says Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs who directs the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing. But the issue, she adds, is more complex: some children benefit from their mother's being at home and others don't. "It's probably very related to the mother's feelings about being home and the quality of the care that the child is in when she isn't home." Preschool children need someone paying attention to them and stimulating them intellectually, she says; the best providers of such care are usually -- but not always -- moms. Whether they work or not, almost all alumnae interviewed agreed that the notion of the "supermom" -- someone who has a high-powered career along with happy, healthy children, and who also does volunteer work and keeps up on reading and hobbies -- is a fiction. McKay calls it "an enormous myth, but one that is easy for Princeton-caliber people to buy into. It's a road to disaster." Stay at home or return to work? The following profiles of four moms and a dad illuminate the dilemma without resolving it. "The Great Divide," a companion article beginning on page 16, gives another perspective on work versus parenthood.
Giving up medicine
For financial reasons, Julie Bellet '80 had to return to work when her older daughter, Isabel, was seven months old. It wasn't easy. When her husband took Isabel to daycare, Bellet sobbed. "I just wanted to be a mom," she says. "Work was getting in the way of doing that."
Bellet went back to work as a pediatric emergency physician. The job was nominally part-time, which for a physician means more than 40 hours a week. Later, she joined a primary-care practice in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where she lives. As a working mother, Bellet had to miss special events in her daughter's life such as preschool graduation: "Isabel [now 8] obviously doesn't remember it, but it was so devastating for me not to be there."
Bellet divorced and remarried, and with her second husband had another child, Zelda. Because her husband's salary as a management consultant enabled them to live on his income alone, she took a year's leave of absence to devote full time to her new daughter. When the year was up, she decided to stay home indefinitely, and resigned from her medical partnership.
She stresses that it wasn't easy to quit medicine, a profession to which she had devoted "so many years and blood and sweat and tears. My whole adult identity has been as a physician. That's how people respond to me, that's how I thought of myself since medical school." Bellet no longer uses "Dr." in front of her name, and two years after making the decision to leave her profession, she does not regret it. Her children benefit from a less stressed family life, she says, and she doesn't have to abandon them when they're sick. She no longer delegates special moments like attending school plays to someone else. And her being a homemaker has simplified life for her husband, who can work long hours without worrying about household chores and child care.
Bellet also says she has gained time for herself which she never had as a physician. She has taken computer courses and has done volunteer work. She reads, goes to a gym occasionally, and last fall knitted a sweater for her third child, Teddy, born January 28.
She does miss a few things about working as a pediatrician, especially watching the children she cared for grow up. She also misses getting dressed up "like an adult" for work and having a few moments to herself, whether it was during her commute or a lunch break. And "I really miss making money." She has thought about returning to medicine at some time, but it's a profession in which knowledge becomes outdated quickly.
Once she believed she could have a family and practice medicine. "I always expected someday to be married and have children. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be practicing medicine. I just assumed I could do it all." She certainly never thought she would be a stay-at-home mom: "I grew up in the '70s, the height of the feminist movement, and we all looked down on our mothers for staying home being housewives." But that was before she had kids of her own.
Returning to work
After the birth of her first child, Toni (McCall) Townes '85 found it difficult to put words around her role as a stay-at-home mother. She was defensive when people asked her what she did. In a world where many people describe themselves using nouns -- lawyer, doctor, consultant -- "mom" didn't measure up. "Our society doesn't say you can be just a mom," she says. "People are looking for a noun. In fact, my life is full of verbs."
Townes, who lives in Fairfax Station, Virginia, spent six years as a stay-at-home parent before returning to work last fall. As a full-time mom she had the added burden of dealing with assumptions about African-American mothers who don't work. One day when she was at a grocery store, the cashier waited for her to present food stamps. "They are just not used to seeing black mothers at home. The only women they see in the media who are at home are black mothers on welfare." Moreover, within the African-American community, says Townes, educated mothers who choose to stay at home are looked down upon by career women and men concerned with financial stability. The notion of a Princeton graduate giving up work for kids "dumbfounded" some of her friends, says Townes, who had been a policy analyst with the General Accounting Office and before that had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, West Africa.
As any parent knows, mothering "is not all glorious," says Townes. "There are some yucky, yucky moments. And then there are some completely unplanned, wonderful moments that you can't schedule that reward you. " Like the Peace Corps, she adds, "It's the toughest job you'll ever love."
She says that devoting full time to her two children (Preston Drew, 6, and Selena, 2) enabled her to get to know them much better. As a member of a racial minority, Townes thinks it's especially important that she prepare them to face a world of obstacles and labels. As for herself, "I've grown in ways that I could never have grown in the work place."
Townes returned to work for financial reasons, after separating from her husband. She works four days a week as a program and budget analyst for the public school system in Washington, D.C. Next month, she'll move to the government affairs office of Arthur Andersen, an international accounting firm, to work as a management consultant. She misses her kids tremendously during the day. When she's at work, her mother takes care of them.
Although she treasured the years focusing on her kids, having one parent at home had its problems. Money was an issue, says Townes, who clipped coupons and watched her checkbook. Her husband, a senior associate with the accounting firm of Coopers and Lybrand, felt the stress of being the sole provider, and they struggled juggling his work, their kids' needs, and their own projects.
While at home, Townes did some freelance consulting and volunteer work. Most of her projects have fallen by the wayside since she returned to work. But she still finds time to edit a manuscript with other African-American mothers about the special challenges and opportunities they face. And she manages to continue her volunteer work for Mothers at Home, a national nonprofit organization. A member of its board of directors, she's been involved with lobbying for a homemaker IRA and child-care legislation.
Preston and Selena have a strong relationship with their grandmother, she says, so "their transition seems to have been fairly smooth." Still, she cherishes being home with them on her days off.
Alex Randall '73 had been doing it all in the early '90s. As the father of three young adopted children, he ran two businesses and helped manage his wife's real-estate properties. He lived in a 10-room house on posh Beacon Hill, in Boston, and drove a Jaguar. Only one thing was missing -- time with his children. When the third, Marshall, was a baby, Randall got fed up with the hectic life he was leading. "I got tired of law suits, I got tired of three-piece suits, and I got tired of snow suits," he says. "It was becoming impossible to have a relationship with my children."
In the summer of 1995, he sold his house, resigned from his jobs, started selling real estate properties, and moved his family to Water Island, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a place he knew from vacationing there. He had planned on being semiretired, living off real estate income, but a tenant and contractor filed for bankruptcy, putting an end to that. "I moved to Water Island with no job, no income, no plan, three children, and pretty close to no idea of what I was going to do next," he says.
He ended up reporting the news, only good news ("I'm only interested in things that went right") at WSTA, an island radio station. He also writes a column for the local newspaper on great Internet sites and produces a weekly TV show for the local PBS station on how to use the Internet. He earns about a third of what he did before, when he ran the Boston Computer Exchange, a $36 million business he had started himself, and the East West Education Development Foundation, which collected used computers, refurbished them, and shipped them to institutions and charities in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. "I could probably walk into a much more lucrative job here that would require more of my time," says Randall. "But that's not what it's about now."
Making the decision to scale back his life and focus on his kids was easy, he says, "because the business world was just more of the same. Yes, I was making a difference. But so what? Why am I taking care of Bulgarians when I've got three little kids looking at me going, 'Papa'?" Besides, he adds, raising children is "far more interesting thanowning my own company."
On Water Island, he owns a simple, five-room house, drives a "rustmobile," and dresses himself and his children, Sander, 9, Rose, 5, and Marshall, 4, in T-shirts and shorts. Water Island is 500 acres of paradise with no stores, no businesses, and virtually no crime. "I literally have pared my life down to two things," says Randall. "I do the news, and I take care of my children. I'm thrilled to be engaged with them. I'm in what I consider to be the golden time between diapers and teenagers."
His upbeat attitude is all the more remarkable considering a
looming tragedy in their lives. Randall functions as a single parent. About
six months after he and the kids had settled in Water Island, his
wife, Cameron, was diagnosed with incurable lymphoma. Says Randall,
"It's imminent that within 'x' months I will be 100-percent pop."
Cameron spends about a third of her time on Water Island, and the rest in
Boston, closing her business and dealing with treatment.
Now that he's simplified his life, Randall says he's a lot happier.
There's still plenty of time to write the great American novel or save the
world -- after the children are grown. He wishes more of his Princeton friends
would realize that making lots of money and status are not that important.
"It's really clear to me as I watch my wife slowly perish that the only things
we have are our relationships with each other and your attitude...The rest of
it's all just so much passing stuff."
Dealing with "the dilemma"
Louise Hutner '74 came of age during the feminist movement, and for most of the 13 years she was a stay-at-home mom she nursed a guilty conscience about devoting full time to raising her three kids. The Princeton, New Jersey, resident felt she should be pursuing a career and "proving that females are equal to males," she says. "But I didn't. I stayed home. I fell right back into the old traditional pattern."
Hutner, who like her husband was a landscape architect, assumed before having her first child that she would go back to work full time: "I just took it for granted I would have a career and be a mother, I would do everything. I would be a supermom. I didn't question it." Her view changed during maternity leave with her oldest child, when she confronted the conflict between managing a full-time career and being "the kind of mother I wanted to be." When her supervisor rejected her suggestion of working part-time or with flexible hours, she quit. To help ends meet she did some consulting but gave that up, too, after the birth of her second child; the third followed four years later.
Hutner wondered whether she had wasted her Princeton degree: "Why had my family spent all this money on my education if I was just going to be at home and be a mother?" Her husband suggested as much, too, although he never used those words exactly, she says. Hutner struggled with her identity; on occasions when she filled out forms asking her occupation she felt "almost ashamed" listing "homemaker." Putting children ahead of career also made her feel like a "second-class citizen" in the community of Princeton alumni. The university's ideal of Princeton in the Nation's Service doesn't speak to stay-at-home moms, she says: "Nobody in this institution said it's okay, you can go home and play a valuable role in our society with your education by being a mother."
Going to a pressure-cooker school like Princeton gave her little time to develop the emotional and spiritual sides of herself which she was able to nurture as a stay-at-home mom. Although she has struggled with her decision not to work, she has never regretted the time spent focusing on Megan, 14, Matthew, 12, and Peter, 8. "I loved staying home. I love being a mother," she says. She liked being involved with her kids' lives on a daily basis and greeting them as they ran through the door when they got off the school bus, eager to show her a homework project or to share some other piece of their day with her.
On the downside, personal time could be hard to come by. When you're at home, she says, "you tend to put yourself last, at the bottom of the list. And you never get to the bottom of the list." She also admits that the decision to stay at home strained her marriage by putting all the financial burden on her husband and changing the dynamics of their relationship.
Last September, she and her husband agreed to separate. At the same time, Hutner began to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology (she does most of her course work from home); as part of her education she interns three days a week on campus at the McCosh Health Center and spends a fourth day as a research assistant for a Rutgers professor.
Hutner works almost full-time, has no help around the house, and no husband at home. As for child care, Megan is in charge of the two younger kids if they get home from school before mom. Despite the difficulties, says Hutner, "My life is starting to feel more balanced. There's more of me in it."
Looking back on her 13 years at home, Hutner still regrets not using her education in the work force. "I feel as though somehow I've wasted something, that all these years went by. It's as though the career and the education and that whole side of me was put on hold. It's a dilemma that I haven't really resolved."
"Marking" your kids
Lynn (Vanacore) Bloom '78 believes in "marking" her children. By that she means caring for them and teaching them, spending enough time with them so they will be defined by their parents' love and values. Making the decision to stay home wasn't difficult, says Bloom, who thinks parents owe their children as much time as they can possibly give them.
She and her husband made financial sacrifices so she could stay home raising their four children, Matthew, 13, Scott, 8, Thomas, 6, and Zachary, 2. (Another child, Annie, died in infancy.) Living on the salary of her husband, a mathematics teacher at Concord Academy, in Concord, Massachusetts, they had to do without some things many people take for granted. Until recently, the family had lived in Concord's dormitories. They couldn't afford to pay rent, let alone handle a mortgage. They don't travel. And at Christmas time, each child receives one gift.
Before having children Bloom had been a teacher, and last August she returned to teaching to supplement her husband's income. Their goal is to buy a house. She works full time at Newton Country Day School, in Newton, Massachusetts, where she teaches English and is director of students in the middle school.
Going back to work has been a "tremendous adjustment," says Bloom, who makes do with less sleep these days. Her work day starts at 7:30 in the morning, and she's home by 6 to make dinner. She grades papers and prepares for class at night and on weekends.
The new arrangement has been both good and bad. The older children have had to take on more responsibility. When Bloom is working, the children are taken care of by her husband, her mother, or a baby sitter, depending on the day of the week. It's been difficult giving up the joy of sharing every day with her children, particularly her toddler: "I have guilt and sadness about leaving Zachary -- the first month was very painful watching him."
She misses so many things about being home. "I liked knowing they were being loved all the time, and that I could know so much about their lives, their friends, their schools. I like that they had time to play freely," without being scheduled, and "that everybody could crawl into bed with me in the morning before they went off to school." All these experiences, she says, are "part of marking them. I wanted my children to be my children, not the children of a babysitter or a nursery school or even a grandparent." Bloom's biggest regret is that two years may not be long enough to have "marked" Zachary. "But the kind of mothering I could do before I've simply given up on now."
On the up side, Bloom "loves being back at work and having a title and a paycheck and an office of my own." Another benefit: "I can dress up and walk out the door instead of wearing somebody's food."
What do you do for a kid who's constipated? Is there a distinction between spoiling your children and pampering them? What's the best way to toilet train? These are just a few of the questions explored on Parent-Net, a worldwide electronic chat group for Princetonians who are parents or soon-to-be parents, or who are considering becoming parents.
Since going online two years ago, Parent-Net has attracted a fiercely loyal following whose members speak out on an endless array of topics, including breast-feeding, car seats, pacifiers, preschools, sleeping with mom and dad, TV and violence, adoption, orgasm and fertility, and balancing work and family. They have lots to share, and often pour out their hearts about personal matters such as estranged family relationships and the death of loved ones. Says Alex Randall '73, a frequent contributor to the group discussions, "Of all the things Princeton has done for me, Parent-Net, hands down, wins."
Alumni can learn more about Parent-Net and other discussion groups at www.princeton.edu/~alco/discustn.html.