If I ever have a child of my own, I want him or her to be like Alex Coolman. Alex is a sturdy three-year-old who’s already more poised and articulate than a lot of adults I know. When he greets you, as cordial as a miniature airline steward, he looks you right in the eye and talks in sentences swollen with words.
I met him a few weeks ago at his home in Clairemont, and after we were introduced, Alex’s parents informed him he’d have to play quietly while they were interviewed. He assented genially and settled down at the kitchen table between them Soon he had thrown himself into the challenge of keeping his stubby blue crayon inside the lines of a coloring-book tiger, oblivious to the conversation.
But I kept stealing glances at him, for Alex and all the kids in his situation are at the heart of this story. Both of his parents have worked full-time since Alex was six weeks old, relying i other people to look after him.
They’ve done that because they enjoy their careers but couldn't resist the urge to reproduce; so they juggle — they and more than twenty-four million her couples nationwide. I figure this is well and good for the parents, but is it really best for their children? How can they be well enough cared for? Are they happy? Aren’t they alienated from their absent parents?
Alex eventually gets bored with his artwork, and he clambers with abandon into his mother's arms, breaking into a smile that could sell Cocoa Puffs to a natural food purist.
To all appearances, this is the Model Child. Indeed, at the Coolman house, everything seems to be going according to some finely detailed master script, a paradigm for successful Planning Ahead. Even the setting is right out of some TV series.
The house looks freshly painted, the lawn looks newly mowed, no trace of clutter blemishes the orange-shaded living room. Gordon and Jackie Coolman met fourteen years ago at the University of Missouri when they were seventeen and eighteen respectively, and within two months they decided they would spend their lives together. They would marry in a year or two, wait eight to ten years, then have one child, possibly two. Everything, including Alex, has come along as planned.
All except for child care. By the time the Coolmans stopped practicing birth control, it was clear Jackie wouldn’t be staying home with any baby. Her career as a librarian had progressed steadily but oh-so-slowly; she discovered she was pregnant less than a year after finishing a master’s degree in library science on which she’d spent $6000 (the family savings) and a year of commuting to UCLA, and “I wasn't about to throw it all over,” she recalls. So she and Gordon, typically prudent, began searching the newspapers three months before the baby was born and they found an arrangement which seemed perfect — a couple with a two-year-old child who wanted to care for another youngster but didn’t want to have another themselves. As the weeks rolled by, the Coolmans met with them several times. Then one week before Jackie’s baby was born, the woman called. “She said she was sorry, but she was afraid the arrangement wasn’t going to work,” Jackie says, pulling on her curly hair in memory of the frustration. “She and her husband were going to get a divorce.” Fortunately, the woman recommended a neighbor across the street, another young mother who planned to stay home for several years. She cared for Alex for fifteen months, but then she got an irresistible job offer and the Coolmans' meticulous balancing act collapsed again. They advertised in the Union, fielded forty telephone responses. One sounded good, but when the Coolmans visited the Pacific Beach home, according to Jackie, they found “the place was a zoo — there were savage children everywhere, screaming.”
Luck blessed them again, however, and they found another woman in the neighborhood with two children and interest in caring for a third. She wanted $154 a month, and as they had done with the first woman, the Coolmans paid her more, settling on $175. (“I just couldn't stand to give them the minimum slave labor wage for what we consider to be the most important job in the world,” Jackie muses. “Child care should be looked on as an investment — in a purely financial sense. Because the cheaper you go. the more it’s going to come back to haunt you later on.”)The second arrangement also lasted about fifteen months — then magically Alex was toilet-trained and ready for nursery school. Following a friend’s well-researched recommendation, the Coolmans placed Alex in a nearby Montessori school.
“We can really see intellectual growth already,” Gordon says. “Alex is doing all the things right in line with the Piagetan role of development.” Alex in turn exactingly describes how he is learning to read, to bake cookies, to pour beans through a funnel. To accommodate the nursery school arrangement, Jackie and Gordon have rearranged their schedules. Now Jackie doesn't start work until 9 a.m. so that she can drop off Alex at 8:45. Gordon, finishing a student teaching stint (the culmination of an arduous career shift away from law enforcement and into education), picks him up again at four p.m. Thoughtful and square-jawed, Gordon admits that “Alex has been my home working lab.” The two camp together; they both relish long, wide-ranging conversations; and every night father and son carefully cook dinner for Jackie, who responds with appropriate ecstasy.
If things look like they’ve turned out perfectly, the Coolmans emphasize “We’ve had very good luck, but it hasn't all happened accidentally. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort and money trying to get what we wanted.”
Sitting in the kitchen of her enormous Del Mar home, Joan Walsh echoes the words: I'll tell you right off the bat that the key to this whole thing is good help. If you choose to be a career mother, you have to put your money where your mouth is, or else you’ll never survive.”
I can't imagine Joan staying home with a houseful of children. She’s a tall, slender woman, chicly dressed and coiffed, with a computer-quick mind and a rowdy sense of humor. She puts out about 300 kilowatts of nervous energy. For the last five years, she’s worked as UCSD’s dean of foreign students, and she admits motherhood hasn’t come easily.
It came relatively late for her. She and Michael Walsh, San Diego’s new powerhouse U.S. attorney, married ten years ago while he was finishing his law degree at Yale. He wanted at least six kids; Joan didn’t want any. They compromised on three, and since Joan was pushing thirty, they started right away. Because Joan had a cushy job as a live-in counselor in a women’s dormitory, working throughout pregnancy was a breeze. Three months after the baby was born, the Walshes packed up little Kimberly and Michael’s law degree, and headed west to San Diego.
From the beginning, Joan’s professional contacts influenced her choice of child care. Familiar with the plight of foreign students' wives, usually bright young women prevented from seeking regular jobs by immigration laws, Joan located a young Belgian woman who looked after Kimberly for two years. At the time, the Walshes lived in a dormitory apartment on the UCSD campus, so stand-by baby sitters also were abundant. When they finally moved to Del Mar, however, and Joan got pregnant with Jenny and then Jeffrey, they began relying on a combination of live-in housekeepers and foreign students (Ethiopian and Chinese, both used to large family environments). Last September they finally switched to a full-time nanny, a talented middle-aged woman who comes in daily and costs them about $600 a month. The succession of different caretakers has enriched the children, Joan asserts stoutly, because they’ve learned to be comfortable with a wide range of people.
If parenthood has been demanding for Joan, it looks like it’s barely more difficult than breathing for her husband. "These kids are my best friends,” the huge, self-assured prosecutor announces. At the moment, he is covered with children. Children are squirming under his arms, over his shoulders, in his lap. “I know our kids are better off because of the way we’re raising them,” he says over the writhing mass of energy. “They’re confident, independent. They’re very well adjusted.”
I ask Michael if he ever feels guilty about leaving the kids with other people.
“Not in the slightest.” the prosecutor shoots back.
“What about you?” I ask Joan.
“Oh, I feel guilty all the time.”
"Oh, come on now. I don’t think you feel very guilty,” Walsh cross-examines her. “If you do, it’s guilt with a very small ‘g’.”
She concedes the point. “I guess that’s true. It’s something I only really feel a part of the time.”
Guilt seems to weave in and out of the conversation at the Raynor house in Allied Gardens, however. “I think I every mother would prefer not to work,” Vickie says, blinking behind her wire-rim glasses. “I just think the guilt that’s there is a natural thing.”
How does she handle it?
“She calls home a lot,” her husband Michael says with a tolerant chuckle.
“Also, I know my kids are happy and they’re well adjusted,” she adds.
When the Raynors were married eleven years ago, Vickie never envisioned herself as a working mother. She and Michael started trying to have children right away. Had they succeeded, things might have gone differently. Five years of frustration followed a miscarriage, however, during which time Vickie doggedly climbed the Pacific Telephone employment ladder from the entry-level job she had started in right after high school. By the time Travis finally did come along, four and a half years ago, “There was the economy and inflation and everything else,” Vickie says ruefully. “We realized we’re just in a position where we need those two incomes.”
To her right, Vickie’s long-haired, bearded spouse glances around his tastefully decorated, roomy home with a trace of belligerent pride. “I make good money,” he says. “But if you want nice things and a home and everything, you’ve just got to have that extra cash.” The Raynors use it not only to maintain their domicile but also to pay for a one-day-a-week housekeeper who frees them from most chores during the evenings and weekends. Child care never has been a major expense for them, because Michael’s mother has cared for the children during the daytime since they were born.
Now Vickie picks up the kids from her mother-in-law’s in North Park shortly after four p.m., when she gets off her job as an engineering aide downtown. Michael, an independent plumber, drops the children off every morning at about 8:30. The couple expresses satisfaction with the baby-sitting arrangement, but Vickie says if she hadn’t had a member of the family to rely on, she doubts she would have continued to work.
“I’m just so goosy about letting someone else come in. You hear so many horrible stories about baby sitters. I had a friend who found out that the sitter was locking the kid up in a bedroom all day long.” she says.
I ask her if she thinks she really would have enjoyed being home. Wouldn’t she have gotten bored? “It’s a funny thing,” she answers. “Whenever I’m home with the kids for a period of time, I’m always really ready to go back to work. I enjoy my job and I guess I’m used to it. I’ve never done anything else since I’ve been out of school.”
Marjorie Shaevitz hears a lot of conflicting statements about why mothers with small children want to work. They convince her that for most dual-career families, money isn't the sole or even crucial incentive. “It’s very difficult to distinguish between economic and self-motivated reasons,” she explains. “Working for economic reasons is an okay thing to say, so you’ll find a lot of women who claim they need the money. If a woman instead gives a selfish reason — if she says ‘I’m working because I enjoy it’ — it’s still just not as acceptable.” Shaevitz is something of a princess in the realm of working coupledom. First, she is a working parent. She and her husband Morton have four children, two older ones from his first marriage and a two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son whom the Shaevitzes have produced since they were married six years ago. Professionally, Marjorie directs UCSD’s continuing education programs for mental health professionals, and although she’s on leave from that position, she now writes and counsels women, while Mort, a Ph.D psychologist, works with clients in the La Jolla highrise at the comer of Prospect and Girard. What really elevates the Shaevitzes to the rank of dual-career royalty, however, is that they began researching dual-career marriages several years ago, and they inevitably started lecturing, teaching courses on, and writing about the subject. They have a book on it due to be published by this winter, and they’re already getting lecture requests in various parts of the country.
For the upcoming book, Marjorie wrote the chapter on how working couples handle having children, and before tackling the subject she conducted a computer search to see what other research had been done. “The current research seems to indicate that there are very few deleterious effects of any kind on the children. Instead, there seem to be some positive effects, such as increased independence. But it’s still really inconclusive and you cannot say that anything is positively known.”
She states that some of the hassles plaguing working parents spring from the newness of the phenomenon. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, the number of working women has nearly tripled in the last twenty-five years. “ And it has just become really okay for women to work since the early 1970s,” Marjorie adds. The massive feminine influx into the labor force hasn’t only involved women who are childless or grandmothers, of course. More than one mother out of every three who has children under six years old is working today — that makes for about six million children under the age of six with working mothers, according to a 1977 report published by the Work in America Institute. Marjorie notes that lower-income women always have had to work to help make family ends meet; but the new phenomenon is a middle-class one, she maintains.
Mary Walshok, a colleague of Marjorie Shaevitz’s at UCSD, disagrees, however, with the notion that the newly working women are largely middle-class hausfraus who’ve exchanged aprons for briefcases. Instead, she says, most working women today hold down jobs traditionally classified as “blue collar.” “Clerical workers, sewers and stitchers, assemblers, food service people, cosmetologists — that’s the rank-and-file female labor force,” she stresses. “In 1974, only about thirty percent of the female labor force was in professional and technical jobs.”
A sociologist and associate dean of UCSD’s Extension program, Walshok focuses her research on these working-class women, and it irritates her that the minority of professionals grab most of the attention. The two groups deal with the pressure of handling marriage, jobs, and children quite differently, Walshok claims. “These working-class women don’t have paid help; in effect they end up having two full-time jobs. Mostly, they do all the housework themselves. For child care, they tend to rely on neighbors, other family members, older children. The typical comment is ‘My husband doesn’t mind if I work so long as I take care of him and the children’.”
If they shoulder an amazing load of work, however, they don’t wrestle with the most fiendish emotion bedeviling professional and skilled middle-class working mothers — guilt. “They worry about their kids getting into trouble rather than feeling guilty. The preoccupation with child development is a peculiarly middle-class one,” Walshok says. To the blue-collar (or pink-collar) working woman, the blend of children with a career represents a management problem, rather than a guilt one. “They see what they’re doing as helping their children have a better life because they’re producing income.”
Surprisingly, few parents of any economic bracket turn to day-care centers; only two percent of the children of working parents are in them, Marjorie Shaevitz points out, citing 1974-75 U.S. Census Bureau figures. They indicate that of the eight million children who are without daytime parental care, 2.1 million are cared for in the home by a relative; another 1.8 million — almost all school age — care for themselves until one of the parents gets home from work. The rest — about half of the total — get cared for by baby sitters, live-in housekeepers, child care co-ops, neighbors, and a wild parade of other solutions. “You see, America really doesn’t have any kind of history of child care persons, anything comparable to the nannies in England or the au pair girls on the continent,” Shaevitz complains.
When Shaevitz testifies that it can be unsettling to try to forge that tradition here, she speaks from her own experience. She wryly admits that she and Mort have used no less than twenty-five alternative arrangements in the four years since their children have been born, everything from Swedish au pair girls to traditional nursery schools. The last time she had to scramble for someone (a nearly full-time job itself when the need arises) she tried everything from checking through word of mouth to placing ads in the Union to contacting job banks like the state employment office and senior centers. Finally, the Shaevitzes settled upon “the absolutely best possible solution for us at the moment.” They hired a college graduate and former nursery school teacher who comes in and takes care of the kids during the day. “And she is excellent,” Marjorie avers. “We have no housekeeping help, and we’ve cut back in all other areas to be able to afford it, because we know it’s a very short-term arrangement, and we think she does an absolutely fantastic job with our kids.”
For a princess of working coupledom, Marjorie admits to one rather curious bias, however. She sounds almost bashful when she brings it up. “I do believe when kids are very young, at least one parent should be there at least part of the time,” she says. “Anyway, I feel that way about my children. Because the early years are so critical, I just figure there’s no reason I shouldn't have as big a share as possible in it. I think you can pay people to provide nurturing on a part-time basis, but at least one parent should be involved. Or else why do you want to have them in the first place?”
That’s how Sue Pondrom felt when she and her husband Ron had their daughter Lisa nine years ago. Sue ended up working on a newspaper throughout Lisa’s infancy, but that arrangement developed almost accidentally (her publisher unexpectedly implored her to retain her old job). When the Pondroms moved to San Diego and Sue got pregnant with their second and final child, she settled down to maternal domesticity; and when the final child turned out to be twin boys, the work load alone kept her preoccupied for almost a year. When she finally realized she was unhappy as a full-time housewife she took a part-time job as a researcher for Psychology Today, and although the job escalated to full-time, the magazine finally moved to New York and Sue quit. It was only when she was offered a full-time job in public relations that she and Ron confronted their reservations about full-time working parents. Their solution was for Sue to take the job and for Ron to stay home part-time with the kids.
Vice-president with a local insurance brokerage firm, the soft-spoken, mustached father arranged his schedule so that he worked only Monday through Wednesday, freeing Thursdays and Fridays for him to spend with the children — at least theoretically. In practice, the plan worked for only four or five months, then Ron concluded he wasn’t happy with it. “It was just too frustrating, because I didn’t feel like I was doing a real good job of either one,” he says. “Too many things came up which had to be done on Thursday or Friday, and it got to where I felt I was stealing time from both jobs.”
Maybe because they both tried working part-time and both couldn't avoid their need for full-time jobs, the Pondroms these days seem to have a firm, capable grip on any residual guilt feelings. They found an eighty-five-dollar-a-week wonder, a twenty-one-year-old girl who cleans the rambling house, makes dinner five days a week, does all the laundry, nurtures the children, and in her spare time makes beautiful craftwork which decorates the Pondrom house.
But what about the Pondrom children (and others like them)? My original question resurfaces — how can Sue and Ron (and any working parent) be sure they’re really best off?
“Anyone that's around our kids can see that they’re happy, normal, well-adjusted kids,” Sue answers. She tells me that Lisa is classed as a gifted child; the twins' nursery school teachers don’t know that Sue and Ron both work, yet they’ve never commented unfavorably on the youngsters’ level of adjustment. Nothing about the childrens’ behavior indicates that anything is wrong.
Sue is trying to empathize with my question, however, and suddenly she thinks of an anecdote which seems relevant. Once, when she and Ron both were filling out a questionnaire relating to working couples, Ron startled her with an answer to a question about the benefits of such a relationship. “I had written all sorts of stuff about self-fulfillment and so on, but Ron had put down there were no benefits. It took me a while to understand what he meant.
“He was thinking that if I was the traditional wife, who greeted him at the door and worked on the house all day and cooked dinner and spent all my time with the children, that that would be of greater benefit to him. After all, that kind of arrangement is pretty attractive no matter who you are. The traditional wife is a really great deal.”
The example takes me aback. Here Ron and Sue have been telling me for two hours how they’ve handled jobs and kids successfully as a team. It seems incredibly convoluted to then say that Ron gets no benefit from their lifestyle — compared to what he’d get if Sue were a totally different person. Yet the anecdote makes me wonder if it isn’t just as convoluted to ask whether children or working parents wouldn’t be happier if one parent didn’t work. If the Coolmans are proud of Alex and happy with the way he’s developing, if the Walshes look upon their children as their best friends, if the Raynors and the Pondroms and other couples in their position honestly reckon that their offspring are well-adjusted, can they justify their parenthood beyond that?
Earlier, Gordon Coolman had commented to me that he saw his family and others like them as being the “cutting edge” in a new social movement in the country. “It’s really hard to be on a cutting edge,” he had said, “because a lot of the time you’re flying blind. There are no role models to follow.” If there haven’t been any successful role models in the past, it can be hard to recognize them when they do come along. Yet I think I may have just met four.