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The Public Eye: Mom's Way And My Way

It's hard to know who came out ahead

Time cover

By Margaret Carlson

(TIME, October 20) -- Where's the girl that once I was? I hear that sentiment frequently from friends approaching midlife. But I never heard it from my mother or the women in the neighborhood, and that wasn't just because they didn't go around paraphrasing Broadway musicals. Unlike Baby Boomer women, dear old Mom just soldiered on without theorizing too much about it. She didn't look for meaning in a diaper, or make distinctions between quality vs. quantity time. She wished she were not so plump, but it would have never entered her mind to take two hours out of her day to jump around to an exercise video. Rocky marriages were talked about over coffee perked in a Farberware pot. But most women didn't expect to find the moon and stars in another human being, or to perfect the institution of marriage. My parents had the good sense not to look for so much from each other that they couldn't stick with each other.

When '60s daughters became '80s mothers, though, we looked back and saw our moms as chumps. They didn't have it all, or even enough. We'd run banks, law firms and corporations while raising picture-perfect children who would like us as well as love us. We'd find husbands who would treat us as equals and not call it baby sitting when they stayed home to watch the kids.

So as Hillary Rodham Clinton and her cohort of leading-edge Baby Boomers turn 50, it's time to take stock. Women are no longer forced to decide between children and careers (although our salaries are still only about 70% of men's). The kids survive; some thrive, despite the time bind of two parents running from work shift to home shift. We're tired--studies find women sleep fewer hours a week than their husbands--but happy.

Or are we? Fathers today talk a sensitive game, but why do so few take paternity leave? The yuppie dad will put the baby in the Snugli, pick up a steak and light the grill Saturday, then boast about having fixed dinner and taken care of the baby all day. Come Monday he'll post a piece about it on the Internet.

Many more of us are divorced now. Our kids have their clothes and hearts in separate houses. Middle age remains less forgiving to women than to men--and no women's movement will ever change that. Our dads may have tuned out in their La-Z-Boy recliners, but fewer of them dumped a first family for second wives and second lives. Women may now have the means to leave dead marriages, but few go on to collect trophy husbands or start new families.

Some days I look in the mirror, see my mother looking back and, after the shock passes, give in to it. Why was I so sure I could do it better? As Letty Cottin Pogrebin says in Getting Over Getting Older, it's not so much our fading youth we worry about as our fading future. Hillary may have talked wistfully about adopting a child just as Chelsea was planning to leave home, not for the family-values vote, as cynics suggested, but to duplicate her one unambiguous triumph, the most successful and important enterprise of her life.

Every summer my parents rented a cottage at the shore, lugging Melmac plates and jelly glasses, setting up a beach encampment by day, playing cards by night, always with the same families. Part of the pleasure came from there being ever more children and grandchildren--and the same spouses. All wasn't sweetness in the family: doors were slammed, tears shed, dreams thwarted. With her energy and brains, my mother might have run General Motors. Instead she ran us, and felt there was no greater happiness. As we race from boardroom to courtroom, soccer practice to PTA, with hardly a moment to savor any of it, the thought occurs to us that she may have been right.





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