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Working Mother: My life as a lightning rod

In the fall, as my son neared middle school, I wrote a story for The Washington Post's Outlook section about the plight many working mothers face once their children hit middle school age: the options for after-care are slim to none. Many, like me, are consumed with worry about what to do for those hours after school lets out and before work ends. I worried about having a latchkey kid.


AP Photo

The response I got from readers hit like a tidal wave. Much of it was positive. Many working mothers wrote to thank me for speaking directly to their lives and experience. Those who had been through it before actually gave practical and constructive advice for how to cobble together after-school babysitters, lessons, clubs and sports, though transportation is often close to impossible. The suggestions were a marvel of logistics planning and ingenuity. Unsung and unnoticed heroes, I thought.

But others wrote flaming personal attacks. Working mothers like me are selfish and materialistic, some wrote. We say we love our children, they wrote, but we really don't. I make it a personal policy to respond to every reader email or phone call I possibly can. The power of journalism is in the free exchange of ideas, with the goal of enlightening both writer and reader, I like to think, by broadening perspectives. Sometimes, the exchanges can be taxing and emotional and seem to end right where they start, especially with deeply-held beliefs. But the challenges are valuable. Even though neither side may budge, the experience can sharpen thinking or deepen understanding of often wildly divergent views.

This one exchange with a reader, who chose to remain anonymous and signed the emails only "Smug Conservative" went on for more than a month. This reader reacted most strongly to this paragraph in the article:

I found smug comments lamenting parents' love of two incomes over the well-being of their children. (Anybody bother to digest the statistic that nearly 80 percent of women with school-age children work outside the home? That's up from 55 percent in 1975. And my guess is they all love their children very much.)


Getty Images

In the end, neither of us moved from our basic positions - "Smug Conservative" insisting that at least one parent stay home to care for children and I advocating for broader thinking about how to better accommodate working families. But I came away with a new respect for how the very fact of my life - that I'm a working mother - still hits such a raw nerve. The exchange - subject line: "Most mothers CAN afford to stay home" - began like this:

Dear Ms. Schulte,

You may call your conservative critics "smug" but that does not make their arguments untrue.

Most mothers can AFFORD to stay home. Your liberal friends and sources may tell you they love their children -- but not that much. What they love more is their careers, two incomes, huge homes, new cars, eating out, and big screen televisions. Just do the math. America is vastly richer now than the bad old days of the 1950s when mothers stayed home with their children. Per capita income has soared yet women (conveniently) persuade themselves that if they don't work, they would wind up in Third World cinder block huts. There are plenty of smaller houses in America that are perfectly fine. The children would still have room. The roof would not leak. They can survive, even prosper without the big screen.

The real reason for the abandonment of children is faith in materialism over faith in God. If you are a secular liberal, as most reporters are, you do not find comfort in a decent conservative church. You have no home-schooling friends, no genuine Bible studies, prayer, or anything else that smacks of the dreaded religious right. You do not have the comfort of knowing that the church will back you up as a stay-at-home mom, and that your husband has a built-in network of friends and support for job seeking and help in a crisis. If he's a mature, church-going man and hard-working, responsible employee, he's probably not in much danger of losing his job, anyway.

Instead, your article worships at the altar of big government. Much of it is devoted to liberal experts and creating a bigger government to solve a crisis of the soul, not the wallet.

What matters most in this world, anyway, the children or the feminist careers?


"Smug" conservative

At first, I was livid. How dare a complete stranger make such damning pronouncements about my life and the quality of my parenting, much less my soul. And though I'm 47, I never felt that having meaningful work outside the home was some kind of feminist statement. Perhaps that's the gift that the early feminists gave me. I just always expected, like men naturally do, that I would work.


Photo by Michael Williamson, The Washington Post

But I had made my life fair game for comment, criticism even, by writing about it in a public forum. So I wrote back, citing statistics on stagnant wages and rising cost of living, that I DO have friends who homeschool and I have friends who work part time, full time, or don't work outside the home at all. And many of them are deeply faithful. (Plus, I attended my share of religious schools - 16 years. Catholic. Want to go head to head on theology? Bring it on.) I concluded:

The point of the piece was NOT to call for more and bigger government solutions. The point was to start a conversation. Why, if the way we work has changed so much - with FAMILIES working - has the structure and culture of work NOT changed to accommodate that reality?

My guess is that a large part of the answer lies with people like you. Your deeply held beliefs - that women staying home is better, that women working is just a temporary and unnatural blip that will someday right itself - is also deeply held throughout the culture. It infuses most working mothers I know with a daily and almost unbearable sense of dread and guilt. And it keeps us all tied to an outmoded form of work that doesn't work for anyone. Least of all our kids.

Thanks for being part of this conversation.


Shauna Thompson, a home health aid, visits her son at a childcare center during her 30-minute lunch break. Photo by Dayna Smith for the Washington Post

"Smug Conservative" shot back:

Our lives are far more luxurious than the prosperous 50s when moms stayed home. If they could afford it then, they sure can afford it now. The size of houses doubled from 1960 to 2008 while family size shrank. More income, bigger houses, fewer kids. Yet parents can't make ends meet. Few things are sadder than a child growing up alone in a McMansion.

Photo by Len Spoden for The Washington Post

Remarkably, some people are troubled by the idea that in a cul-de-sac somewhere, devout mothers want to stay home with multiple kdis (friends for life) and bond with neighbors (first and last names!!), and devote attention to schools, churches, government, and volunteer groups. A friendly peaceful oasis among the suburban ghost towns.

Modern parenthood is in a spiritual crisis, not a financial one. Saying that is not throwing stones at the adulterous woman. It's just the facts, ma'am.

The reader was making a good point - that indeed our lives, standards of living and material expectations have improved wildly in past decades. That we all could no doubt do more with less. But money is far from the only reason women work. The picture is so much more nuanced and complicated, I wrote back. And, though I work, I, too, know my neighbors' first and last names. I've been heavily involved in the PTA for years, as are most of the other working mothers I know. (You want to run a good silent auction fundraiser? Put my friend the project manager at Kajeet in charge.)

My response:

Keep in mind - the view of life and stay at home motherhood in the 50s and 60s you reference is largely a myth - powerful and deeply ingrained, to be sure. But a myth. In 1965, 57 percent of families with children - more than half of all American families, but still not everyone - had a father breadwinner and full-time homemaker mother. That percentage dropped to 21 percent by 2000.


Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Future 1955 by The Washington Post

And, perhaps even more interestingly, time use studies over the decades have found that as women have entered the workforce, they are spending MORE time with their children than did stay at home mothers in the decades before - source: "Changing Rhythms of American Family Life" by Bianchi, Robinson and Milkie. One way they are managing that is by spending whatever leisure time they have WITH their children.

I agree that no child should be left alone in a McMansion. That is why the piece advocated for far more flexibility in the workplace - to support mothers or fathers who would rather seek part-time work while children are young or in the home, or to telework from home or to come up with other flexible arrangements so they can be more present for their children. That was the thrust of the piece. That's what needs to happen for our children. If we continue to argue about whether mothers should work at all and throw value judgments around about any mother's choice, then we stay exactly where we are, stuck with a system that doesn't work and the only ones suffering the children. But again, protecting the status quo is the definition of a conservative...

The reader dismissed the studies.

Of course, some supermoms do excellent quality time with the kids. They pencil in the child for a one-on-one with six-point agenda. But that usually takes place when the adult needs it, not the child. Who can predict exactly when a troubled child will blurt out a tale of woe? When he skins his knee at the day care center, he calls out for mommy, not whatshername over there watching TV. When baby takes her exhilarating first step, stumbling and giggling across the room, whose arms will she fall into? The latch-key teenager has needs too. Who will meet them? The cute classmate lounging on the sofa with a tipsy half-smile and blouse slightly unbuttoned? Or will his fond childhood memory be of a parent offering a cheery hello and a welcome-home snack? How's that for a pleasant "status quo"?

That hit a nerve. My kids never had a whatshername watching TV. They shared nannies as babies, then went to an amazing and loving preschool. But it was still hard. I worried constantly that I wasn't there enough. That I was missing too much. I still do.

Cynthie Bush, working mother of two, feels guilty that she doesn't spend enough time with her kids juggling the family's busy schedule. Photo by Carol Guzy, The Washington Post

Our after-school babysitter makes the kids do their homework, then plays poker with them, with her sweatshirt on. I try to make time. My favorite time is just after story time and lights out when I lay down with each of my children at the end of the day and just talk. It feels like a sacred space. And I know we all need more of that. "Smug conservative" hit a painful truth. So I asked about his or her solution. (I still have no idea if the reader is a man or woman.)

So the easy solution within our grasp as you say is what, exactly? Downsize? Drop out? Return to the farm? Where mothers worked as well? Have half the population turn their brains off and not seek education or meaningful work outside the home? Is yours the barefoot and pregnant and kept in the kitchen solution? What does your solution look like and how would you suggest getting there from here?

This is the response:

As for my solutions, I am not asking mom to head out to the cotton fields or turn her brain off. Who on earth is saying that? Hillary Clinton talked derisively about staying home and baking cookies. How about taking the cookies and kids across the street to cheer up an elderly neighbor? How about teaching the kids how to clean up the street? How about watching the street? Most burglaries take place during the daytime because homes are empty. How about heading down the street to urge the school to require more homework and more discipline in classrooms? PTA participation – and schools (coincidentally?) – began a long decline when mothers entered the workforce. Thank God that Tim Tebow’s mother did not run off to be a news reporter.

It takes brains to raise the next generation. It takes good parents build a civilization block by block. Or else we turn our children over to Lord of the Flies.

At that point, it was time to pull the plug. I explained that I had just buried a dear friend and that working mothers were a big part of getting the eulogy written and delivered and the receptions and open houses organized. I wrote:

I'm afraid I can no longer continue this conversation without knowing your name or your background. I would be happy to meet with you and talk to you personally. This is a difficult and complicated subject. And I would be happy to explore it further with you in person. Let me know if you'd like to meet for coffee or lunch...

I'm afraid there are good people of all political persuasions and all faiths and there are good mothers of all stripes, at home and at work. It hurts too much to keep taking potshots at a time like this from an anonymous person. So if you'd like to come out of the shadows and talk, I'm happy to meet with you.

To that, my penpal had only this to offer:

I would very much like to talk to you but can't. To speak up or come forward in my politically correct environment would be quite difficult. I could be sued for discrimination or denied promotions for suggesting that a colleague should be home with a baby. Advocate for baby seals, yes. But not babies at home. Don't worry about my "potshots." Your side is winning.


AP Photo

That answer made me sad. In the end, we both want the same thing: nurturing families and children raised in a loving environment to grow up to be good people and good citizens. I would add with big hearts and open minds. The reader's viewpoint was so harsh and cynical. There was no room for my humanity. I wonder if meeting for coffee, if sitting across the table from a real, live person would have made a difference.

This exchange has stuck with me. I wrote the Outlook piece while I was also researching a magazine article on working mothers and leisure time. The piece was written after a sociologist who does time studies insisted that women have 30 hours of leisure time each week. I went on a journey to find them. That piece is slated to come out Jan. 17 in the Washington Post magazine. I imagine there will be more impassioned conversations like this one. I'm steeling myself for the onslaught.

By Brigid Schulte  | December 28, 2009; 9:31 AM ET
Categories:  The Blowback  
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Wow, I'm amazed you engaged with "smug" as long as you did. This person will never even consider anything would work except his/her way and it's obvious from the first email. Smug doesn't really grasp the reality of SAMs in the 1950s, I much doubt the kids got anymore of their mom's time then than they do now with a working mom. I'd love to see a study about that because back then keeping house was much more work than today. And don't forget the vegetable garden had to be taken care of too.

I don't have kids but I was one, growing up there were times my mom worked and others when she did not. But we basically went out to play all the time, we didn't spend huge amounts of time with our parents. Dinner time, yep, bedtime, yep, get up for school and breakfast, yep. Rest of the time? not so much. So stop feeling bad and give your kids some freedom to learn to make decisions and be independent, it will do you both a world of good. And stop caring what sanctimonious "my way or the highway" neanderthals think about your choices.

Posted by: datdamwuf2 | December 28, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

He was just making anonymous stabs. Meh. Just another internet loony. Obviously we only got snippets but the logical fallacies were many. I've learned that that kind of conversation, one with a True Believer, is pointless. He's just another fool with his fingers in his ears going "La, la, la, I can't hear you." I love how he didn't even acknowledge the actual studies. Facts mean nothing to the True Believer. They repeat the same thing over and over until you walk away, then they claim victory. Don't fall down that rabbit hole. Not worth it. That wasn't a conversation, it was a monologue.

Posted by: atb2 | December 28, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I agree with datdamwuf2- why did you engage with this guy for so long, or let him get to you at all? He is obviously living in some alternate reality, where there are no religiously devout working moms (or atheist moms at home), where people who live in McMansions are all 2-income and people who live in small houses are "traditional," etc. Or maybe he doesn't actually know very many real people and just sits at his computer all day typing rants. Thank you for sharing, "smug conservative," I'll be sure to take your advice about how to live my life as soon as I arrive on your planet.

Posted by: bubba777 | December 28, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

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