The Mommy Rat Race Trained for corporate careers, stay-at-home moms discover what the hardest job in the world really is. With 18-hour shifts and no coffee breaks, they're banding together to throw out a lifeline.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a quiet Tuesday morning around 8, Lisa Dean grabs the "Chicken Little" storybook and settles onto the floor of the bathroom. Her audience is 2-year-old Elizabeth, who has voluntarily perched on the potty in her pink nightgown.

"The sky is falling, Chicken Little," Dean reads to her daughter, "and I must tell the king."

Several sentences into the tale, Elizabeth interrupts her mother -- to report, rather indelicately, her achievement -- and Dean becomes a one-woman cheering section. "Yaaay!" she shouts, with genuine, high-five enthusiasm.

This is not the kind of success Lisa Dean had in mind when she graduated from Vassar in 1985. Or when she graduated from Georgetown University's Law School in 1988. Or when she joined the Washington firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts and Trowbridge the same year as a young real estate attorney.

In her previous life as a bona fide Beltway yuppie, Dean worked 12-hour days in chic suits picked off the rack at Nordstrom. She and her husband Tim went home to a Bethesda condo with white carpet, a white sofa, white walls and white cabinets. They ate out almost every night, sampling Japanese, Thai and Italian food at their favorite restaurants.

In this life as a suburban at-home mother of two, Dean works 18-hour days in spit-up-proof gear that meets three basic criteria: washable, comfortable and no-iron. Her Columbia house, while immaculate, is decorated with restored yard sale furniture. The Deans haven't ordered out in two years. Instead, she whips up homemade Ethiopian dishes and makes her own baby food with frozen vegetables.

The successes of this life, she says, are sweeter. But there are no coffee breaks, only hurried sips of Diet Coke in between diaper changes.

"Imagine if you worked in a cubicle all day and your partner couldn't speak or wipe their own heinie," Dean offers. "That would make for a very long day."

To some, it may sound like the world's cushiest job: You stay home with the kids while your spouse deals with the commute and the rat race. But at-home motherhood can be a labor-intensive, exhausting and often thankless job that requires sacrifices from women and families who choose it.

And, unlike 40 years ago, when it was considered the norm for women to stay at home, the cul-de-sac can be a lonely place between 8 and 5. So former career women like Lisa Dean are turning to support groups for companionship and what some mothers call "reality therapy."

To the rescue are clubs like Mothers Offering Mothers Support (MOMS), which offers play groups, outings, parent workshops and book swaps for members. MOMS has 17 chapters in Maryland, including one in Columbia that Dean joined after the birth of her second child.

The idea of support for a job women have been doing through the ages seems, well, very '90s. But so are the circumstances.

The female neighbor who was available for coffee and conversation years ago is probably at work now. Though percentages of working women are high in Howard County (73 percent in 1995), Department of Labor statistics don't distinguish between women who work at home, work part-time outside the home and women working full-time office jobs.

"I didn't really know anybody who was staying home," Dean says. "I was in the corporate world. Everybody was working."

Indeed, she was terrified the first time her husband left her alone with Elizabeth all day, shortly after her birth. By the time Teddy, now 9 months, was born, Dean sought out MOMS after reading about it in a local magazine.

"I knew how difficult it was physically to entertain [Elizabeth] by myself. I knew with two I needed more support," she said.

Inside a meeting hall at Columbia's Christ Episcopal Church, dozens of mothers sit in huddles to talk shop, make crafts and breast-feed their babies against a backdrop of squealing toddlers chaotically at play. Dean is among them, making pasta shell jewelry at a tiny table with even tinier seats.

This is a mother's safe haven: No one rolls her eyes when someone announces that her daughter has eaten corn for the first time. A discussion on the merits of candy as a potty training reward is met with enthusiasm and expertise. Most important, everyone is a stay-at-home mom here, so that fact does not become a conversation-stopper.

Like Dean, many of these mothers are fresh from the work force. Debbie Newman spent a decade working in the George Washington University athletic department. Linda Lagala-Spano, who put in eight hours on the job the day she was in labor with her son, was a public relations and special events coordinator in New Jersey.

Susan Kaczmarek, a Columbia mother of three, envisioned the life of June Cleaver -- a spotless house, perfect kids and a hot meal on the table every night.

"It really hit hard," said Kaczmarek, a former buyer and subcontract administrator for Hughes Aircraft who decided to stay home after son Conor arrived 8 1/2 months ago. "It was just so hard, even to get a shower in the morning. I'd get out and he'd be screaming and my hair would be sopping wet."

After Lagala-Spano gave birth to son Nicholas, now 3, she completed photo albums, cleaned things and generally enjoyed her "perfect" life. Daughter Jacklyn was born two years later. "Now, I feel like the juggler in the circus with the spinning plates," she said. "There is no slacking in this job."

Yet, when Mary B. James, of Simi Valley, Calif., tried to get some publicity for the first MOMS meeting back in 1983, newspapers shrugged.

"A reporter said point-blank, 'I don't see why mothers at home need a support group,' " said James, who founded MOMS after leaving her job at Exxon. "My answer was, 'That's why we need a support group!' "

MOMS now has 12,000 members and adds anywhere from 20 to 30 chapters a month to its roster. Mothers nationwide can read notices for meetings regularly in their hometown papers.

"The emotion I see the most when I go to meetings is ... relief," said James, the mother of two daughters. "There's a reason for them to get out of the house."

Lisa Dean once seemed the unlikeliest of candidates for the mommy track or any of its support groups. When she and Tim got engaged in the decade of Donald Trump, a life with children -- much less a life at home -- was not on the radar screen.

Then Dean's female co-workers began trying, with varying degrees of difficulty, to have kids. The tick-tock of the biological clock grew louder and louder.

One night in 1991 after a typical 12-hour day, Tim Dean, a systems analyst for the Sergeant-At- Arms in D.C., arrived at the law firm to pick her up. While at the traffic light, the Deans listened to a radio report about stressed-out families. The narrator said couples thinking about having one spouse stay home full-time with the kids should try living for one year on their partner's salary.

"It was hard," she admits. "It's a lot harder now."

With about 40 percent of their income gone, the subscriptions to Southern Living, House Beautiful and Better Homes & Gardens had to go. So did takeout food. And vacations. And a lot of other extras.

"Sometimes, we wonder what we used to do with all that money," Tim Dean says.

All of this flies in the face of the image of stay-at-home mothers as Neiman-shopping, Range-Rover driving, gated subdivision-dwelling women of privilege, reaping the benefits of a spouse's fat income. The stereotype of endless free time and bottomless check accounts makes Dean and her MOMS cohorts laugh.

Janice Leonard, a former accountant, lives in a townhouse with her husband and their five children. Karen Angeline Shea, mother of two, prowls the secondhand stores. Kaczmarek's kids have asked her to go back to work so they can eat at McDonald's again. The Deans eat supper together every night because, in her words, "It would be really depressing to eat chili-mac alone."

Perhaps for this reason, no one in MOMS has an unkind word to say about mothers who work. One major car repair could be all it takes to send some of them back to the office.

Next in line

With Elizabeth dressed and fed, Dean heads upstairs to wake Baby Teddy, a cherubic 9-month-old whom no one calls by his given name of Edward Timothy.

"Baby Teddy? Sweet boy," Dean coos over the crib, while Elizabeth, tiny and blond, totters nearby in plastic dress-up heels. "Did you sneak out last night drinking milk and chasing women?"

Downstairs, sliced bagels and drinks await the mothers and kids coming at 9: 30 for a new play group. Dean also has construction paper flower petals, paper plates and glitter ready.

Dumping the kids in front of Nickelodeon and Barney videos for hours is not Dean's style. Her father, an English professor at University of Maryland, College Park, didn't allow Lisa or her three siblings to watch much TV. Her mother, who stayed home until Lisa was 5, believed in creative playtime.

"Everyday was like a fun day," Dean explains. "Her big lesson was you have to look forward to something everyday."

The phenomenon of organized play has added a new dimension to modern stay-at-home motherhood and a new source of stress. The days when parents felt comfortable letting their kids play outside unsupervised while they did chores are over.

"Staying home means you're having to engage in a lot more play," said Katrina Bell McDonald, an assistant professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. "The day gets full very fast."

After a few serene moments of breast-feeding Teddy and playing with Elizabeth, things get hectic. Elizabeth, her cheeks pink with disappointment, is crying because she can't take her play stroller downstairs. Dean is trying to get dressed for play group, clipping on jewelry and tossing dirty diapers while holding the baby.

By 11: 45 a.m., Dean, Elizabeth and Baby Teddy have worn five different outfits between them.

After play group, the kids are loaded into the the station wagon for errands. But the trip to Babies R Us for light switch extenders is a bust. After Elizabeth's diaper and Teddy's outfit (another spit-up) are changed in the parking lot in the back of the station wagon, it's off to Wal-Mart to get sandals for Elizabeth and purple pansies for the front yard. Elizabeth tries on a glittery, pink pair of "princess shoes" and helps her mother select flowers. Teddy sits contentedly in the shopping buggy.

"I'm very lucky," Dean says. "They're very easygoing kids."

Back at home, it's time for naps. For everyone but Dean. Elizabeth is down, and while Teddy entertains himself with plastic cups on the kitchen floor, Dean makes Tim's lunch for the next day.

By the time Teddy is ready for his nap, Elizabeth is standing at the top of the stairs, wide awake.

Finally, at 6: 20 p.m., reinforcements arrive.

"Honey, I'm home," Tim announces as he walks through the door. Kisses are bestowed, and he changes out of his dark suit into a T-shirt and shorts. While Lisa feeds Teddy, Tim sits on the floor with Elizabeth, gluing feathers to a paper plate.

On MOMS bumper stickers, the group's logo shows three people: A child, a mother and a father standing behind them. What the logo implies and Dean confirms is that successful at-home motherhood requires a considerable amount of support from the working spouse -- they are expected to be active co-parents at home.

It also helps if they are appreciative. Tim once brought Lisa white roses just to say "Thanks."

"He's a full partner," Lisa says. "When he's home on the weekend, I don't change a diaper."

They'll be waiting on Monday.

Resources

Moms Offering Moms Support: National support group with 350 chapters nationwide and 17 in Maryland. Columbia chapter offers play groups, lending library, monthly newsletter and baby-sitting co-op. Columbia voice mail number is 410-880-8618. Call state MOMS coordinator Pat Watters at 301-540-6309 or e-mail momscluol.com

Mothers of Pre-schoolers: Christian- based support group has five chapters in the greater Baltimore area. Offers meeting child care, craft projects and friendship. Call 800-929-1287

Mothers At Home: Vienna, Va.-based national group publishes a monthly magazine, Welcome Home, for stay-at-home mothers. Call 800-783-4MOM or e-mail maah.org

Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge: National organization offering support to mothers who have interrupted their careers to stay home. Call 630-941-3553, or 800-223-9399

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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