A Career Mother

I keep a folder of newspaper items that fall intotwo categories — the informative and the outrageous. The informativeI make copies of and send to people whom I love; they might benefitfrom such information as the latest colon cancer test or the herbginkgo, which clears the static in the mind. My favorite, so far, isthe piece about the Southern Baptist minister who sellsdo-it-yourself caskets. For a mere $19.95 (lumber not included), youget a simple coffin kit that can double as a bookshelf, armoire, hopechest or coffee table. When your time is up, instead of paying $5,000for a casket you use once, you hop into the hope chest you’ve beenenjoying and pass on to that workshop in the sky.

My outrageous folder has changed over the years.Two decades ago, when I was teaching psychology in a local New Yorkcollege, I would open my file and read the articles to my classes inabnormal psychology. The best clips were about religious people whojudged others harshly and then got caught doing the deed theycondemned.

Nowadays, my folder is full of stories of a newsubspecies — predators of children. It used to be male-dominated.The most recent item appeared in the corner of the back page of mydaily newspaper, The San Jose Mercury News. The headline: ChildKiller Gets Custody of Girl. In Syracuse, a father who was recentlyparoled after being convicted and jailed for criminally negligenthomicide in the 1993 death of his infant son was granted temporarycustody of his 2-year-old daughter because her mother was foundunfit.

A judge in the Onondaga County Family Court turnedover the little girl to this guy after social workers allegedly foundthe toddler to be at risk in the house of the mother. I thought aboutMel Brooks on a panel show when the first question was about mothers.He said: “Let’s not talk about mothers; let’s talk about somethingthat can’t hurt you — killer sharks.”

Recently, I read an article about a woman who hadwritten a book titled “When Mothers Work: Loving Our Children WithoutSacrificing Ourselves.” I clipped it and couldn’t decide which wasthe suitable file.

The author believed that she was sacrificing heridentity to the “maternal ideal.” Those who feel fulfilled asfull-time mothers are deluded fools, slaves of their conditioning. Orthey’re lazy. “Many women are using motherhood as an excuse to dropout,” says author Joan Peters.

I worked when my children were little. The reasonmy guilt was kept to a chronic gastric condition was that I didn’thave the career-vs.-children conflict. That’s like saying there’sanother side to the San Francisco earthquake. My children came first.I didn’t have a career. I had a job. My children were my career. I’msure my tombstone is not going to read: Here lies Linda Feldman, atenured professor of psychology. My tombstone will have the date ofmy birth, my death and one word: Mother.

I remember driving off to work and waving to theother mothers who were gathered at the corner, wearing aprons. I waswearing pantyhose and a suit (those were the days when you could tellthe difference between the professors and the students). I wassummarily condemned by the corner clack for leaving mychildren.

I taught the late-afternoon classes, which none ofthe professors wanted, because I wanted to be with my kids for lunchwhen they got home from school. They had a mommy like the other kids,and I heard the news of the day firsthand.

Many of the women of my generation went to collegeto find a husband, married after graduation, moved to the suburbs,had 2.1 children, joined the PTA, had 2.1 affairs, and entered thelabor market after the children left home or the husband found outthat his secretary better understood him.

Some of us worked because we were educated to makea contribution to society. We thought that we could have it all –husband, home, children — and do it all well. And, for the mostpart, we did. But at a dear price. Our nerves, intestines andconsciences suffered. But not our children. If I wanted to dedicatemyself to my career, I would not have had children. I never evenconsidered that choice. But I do remember standing up at ahigh-powered feminist meeting in 1972 and saying, “Once you havechildren, your life is never the same; they must be considered first,before anything else.” I was booed into my seat.

I was not a career woman, but I was aprofessional. In the days when a male interviewer asked if I wasgoing to become pregnant in the next two years, I retorted, “Wouldyou ask a man if he intended to get a heart attack.” I didn’t getthat job. But I used to tell my children that they weren’t allowed toget sick on a work day, only on weekends. I was afraid of bringingattention to myself for taking off work to be with mychildren.

One semester, while teaching a child-developmentclass, the psychology department secretary, Hennie Greenberg,appeared at my third-floor lecture hall. “The principal of yourchildren’s school is on the phone,” she said. Everything went anempty white. I raced down those stairs with visions of my children inpools of blood and being comforted by strangers.

When I reached the phone, I panted into thereceiver, “This is Linda Feldman, mother of Julia and Jason.”

“I have some bad news,” the principal said. Icould feel my strength seeping through my pores until he added, “Bothof your children have head lice.”

“Thank God,” I said. He laughed and said that Iwas the only mother he had called who responded with relief. Ireturned to my class to finish my lecture about the importance ofmothering in the first three years of a child’s life.

I clipped a quote from a New Yorker articlewritten by John Cassidy about Karl Marx, who once said: “All that issolid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [andwoman] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his realconditions of life and his relations with his kind.”

Postscript: Calvin Klein’s new fragrance is”Contradiction.” The beginning of a new category.

Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the LosAngeles Times, is the co-author of the newly released “Where To GoFrom Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom” (Simon &Schuster).

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