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A household like Beaver's? It's not like that now

First of four parts

Motherhood in America has undergone a breathtaking transformation in little more than 30 years, propelled by shrinking wages of husbands and changing social attitudes.

In 1960, 20 percent of mothers with children under 6 years old were in the labor force. By last year, that had swelled to 58 percent. Twenty-nine percent of all American families are now headed by one parent.

More and more mothers see work as a financial and personal necessity.

As interviews with more than 30 mothers around the country show, the issue is one of the most wrenching of American life.

Toni Rumsey cried when her first child was born, and she realized she would have to keep her factory job at Gerber Baby Foods in Fremont, Mich., or face living in a trailer.

"I never feel like I'm a full mom," said Mrs. Rumsey, a 34-year-old mother of two who checks Gerber's baby food for shards of glass and signs of spoilage from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"I make the cookies, the homemade costumes for Halloween. I volunteer for everything to make up to them for not being here. When I do all that, I make myself so tired that they lose a happy cheerful mom and then I'm cheating them again. It's hard when you were raised with Donna Reed and the Beav's mom."

In a factory in Easton, Pa., Nancy Cassidy inspects sportswear, and her life as a working mother, for flaws. "I think you can work and be a good mother," said the 42-year-old mother of two. "We're doing it. When people compliment you that they're nice children, then I think you've been a terrific mother."

Some women have found that they could not be good mothers in the old sense because working has become so important to their identities. These women say they know in their hearts that being at home all day does not automatically make a good mother.

"You can be there without being there," said Cheryl Moorefield, a labor nurse in Winston-Salem, N.C., who has two children.

Yet ask most women their image of a good mother, and the old verities come tumbling forth.

"A mother doesn't have a right to be tired or sick," said Deborah Gray, a 38-year-old mother of six whose shift can run 12 hours a day during the busy summer season at Heinz's pickling plant in Holland, Mich. "A mother must be available no matter what. A mother is a person that can perform miracles."

In Murray, Ky., which boasts the National Scouting Museum, tobacco and soybean farms, a state university branch and what seems like a church on every corner, Stacy Murdock comes close to this cherished ideal.

Mrs. Murdock, who gave up her teaching job, is up at 6 a.m., starts breakfast and then wakes her three children a half-hour later. The whole family eats breakfast at 7 a.m., and then her husband drives the two older children to school.

Her husband, one of a vanishing breed of small farmers who can work close to home, tends his 600 acres of corn, beans, wheat and cattle while his wife plays with her 14-month-old daughter, cleans, cooks and pays bills. At noon, he returns for a hot meal with his wife.

By 2:30 p.m., Mrs. Murdock is on her way to school to pick up her older daughters. Some afternoons, she takes them to dancing school, which she pays for by keeping the school's books. On Wednesdays, the children's grandmother drops by to babysit so that Mrs. Murdock can volunteer at the older children's school.

"The most important thing you're going to get in your life is your children," Mrs. Murdock said, explaining why the family has given up eating out, a bigger house and many other extras. "I just can't imagine giving that responsibility to someone else."

It is precisely because convictions about what kind of mother is best run so strong and deep that family values became such an explosive issue.

Despite all the talk about fathers becoming more involved with children, it is mothers who remain at the center of this debate, and mothers who shoulder the praise or blame.

Most women interviewed said they were worried about the future of the family, but many said the debate, at least as conducted by politicians, seemed irrelevant or insulting.

"Family values is a cheap way out," Mrs. Rumsey said. "We all believe in family morals and values. I'm not going to put down what you're doing and don't put me down for what I'm trying to do."

But for others, the verdict is clear: working and mothering small children cannot mix.

"I had these children and I wanted to raise them," said Celisa Cunningham, a Baptist minister's wife who returned to work designing and supervising asphalt mixes once her children started school. "I've given 10 years to my children and I'm going to give 30 to my career, and I'm going to see more from those 10 years in the long run than from the 30. I think many mothers cop out and make a life-style choice."

However, for many working-class women, Mrs. Murdock's life, and the comfortable certainties invoked by the champions of family values, are as remote as the television characters that helped shape their idea of the good mother.

Instead of family breakfasts and school volunteer work, Jan Flint works nights and her husband works days in a Welch's juice and jam plant in Lawton, Mich., so that one of them can always be home with the children.

"That's what God meant for me _ to stay at home, cook and sew, and I can't do that," said Mrs. Flint, who had to return to work seven years ago when money got tight.

Measuring themselves against an exacting, idealized standard, where good mothering equals how much time is spent with the children rather than how secure or happy the children are, many working women feel they fall short.

For the most part, these women struggle without help from society or their employers, who seldom give them long maternity leaves or flexible hours.

And because motherhood itself has been transformed in less than a generation, these mothers have no guides.

Anxiety deepens if mothers suspect their child care is not very good, a suspicion that experts in the field say is often correct. Working-class women usually cannot afford to buy one-on-one attention for their children. Most of the women interviewed either left their children with relatives or took them to the home of another mother who was looking after several children for pay.

The quality of such care, in terms both of the physical settings and the sensitive attention that children receive, varies considerably.

Some said they were making compromises that disturbed them, either leaving children as young as 9 at home alone until they returned from work or having to switch babysitters frequently.

Although she loves her work, Mrs. Moorefield is torn because she believes her recent change to a 12-hour shift may be hurting her children, who are not doing well in school. She is considering sharing a job, but she must first wait to see whether her husband, who works in an airline stockroom, goes on strike.

But most women generally say, with an air of surprise, that they believe their children are actually turning out all right, even if working interferes with their ideal of a good mother.

"For me, looking at my kids tells me I'm doing okay," Mrs. Rumsey said. "My kids are excellent students. They are outgoing. They have minds of their own."

Many mothers worry that they may be deluding themselves. "It looks fine to me," said Mrs. Lencki, "but maybe I'm not looking."

While there is debate about the effects of extensive non-maternal care early in life, experts agree that with conscientious, loving parents and high-quality care the vast majority of children do just fine, by any measurement of intellectual and emotional development.

Some studies suggest that mothers' attitudes are crucial; if they are happy, whether staying at home or working, that will have an enormous impact on their relationship with their children.

Employer flexibility clearly makes a difference, said Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist and author of The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (Viking, 1989), who is now studying the workplace and its effects on family life.

"We have to acknowledge that the majority of American women will work for the majority of their lives through their childbearing years and we have to adapt the workplace," she said. "Don't pretend they're men who have wives at home to do this."

One reason Mrs. Cassidy feels little guilt is that she was able to take off work to watch her children in school plays, or tend them when they were sick.

But other companies, particularly factories where workers' absences may slow assembly lines, are not so lenient. Several women said their employers required 24-hour notice for sick days _ an impossibility with children _ or docked pay if they wanted to go to an event at their children's schools.

But even if they did not choose to work, some mothers have found that working has brought unexpected benefits: a new sense of identity, a role in a broader community, pride in their independence, a temporary escape from children that may allow them to be better mothers in the time they share.

And while women may yearn for the safe world of mythic families, they have seen enough of the sobering reality of divorce and widowhood to cherish the financial independence that working confers. "My mother stayed home, and when my father divorced her she had nothing to fall back on," said Donna King, a hospital laboratory supervisor who is a mother of four.

In fact, most of the women interviewed said they would prefer working to staying at home _ but most wanted to work part time.

Mrs. Lencki dropped her voice almost to a whisper when she talked about enjoying her job, despite her guilt that her youngest son had not had her full-time presence.

Pride, embarrassment and defiance competed as Mrs. Moorefield talked about work.

"For me, the ideal mother is one who is able to choose," Mrs. Moorefield said. "Even if we could financially afford that I could not work, I still think I would need at least some other contact, part time. You want to be there for your children and on the other hand, you want to be able to provide for them well."