By Susan K. Reed
May 05, 1986 12:00 PM

It is the domestic fantasy of the ’80s, and many couples are striving mightily to make it come true: Mom and Dad both have rewarding careers, and now they have two lovely children. The cheerful parents rise each morning, leave their well-adjusted offspring in some kind of day care, pick them up promptly after eight or nine hours on the job, rush home to a relaxing dinner, then settle down for some “quality ” time with the kids. Author Deborah Fallows believes it is the children who suffer the most painful consequences of this rosy-hued fallacy. “Parents are the most important people in their children’s lives,” she maintains. “Very often the children barely see them.” Fallows should know. A Radcliffe graduate who is married to James Fallows, an editor of The Atlantic magazine, she had her first child, Tommy, in 1977, while living in Washington, D.C. and completing her dissertation for a Ph.D. in linguistics. Her husband was working as a speechwriter for President Carter, and in 1979 she took a full-time job as an assistant dean at Georgetown University. “At first it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do everything,” she says. Soon persuaded otherwise, she quit to become a full-time mother, an occupation most of her peers equated with brain death. The author of A Mother’s Work (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95), Fallows, 36, discussed her view of motherhood and the day-care dilemma with Assistant Editor Susan K. Reed.

What made you leave your career to stay at home with your children?

When Tommy was 2, I started working full-time. My job was ideal—eight hours a day, in a little office with an older secretary who was very understanding when I’d sneak out early or come in late. Tommy was in a morning co-op nursery and stayed with a woman in our neighborhood in the afternoon. Then I started to feel it all unravel. I could see the tension in Tommy. He would whine that he didn’t want to go to school, or he would pull his shoes and socks off as soon as I put them on—doing everything possible to postpone our leaving. I was pregnant with our second child, Tad, and I thought, “If this is the conflict that exists with one, what’s going to happen with two?”

Was it hard to decide what to do?

It wasn’t a decision that came easily. I had a lot invested in my work. I had always assumed that I could handle both career and motherhood. But you’re either with your child or you’re not, and if you’re not, I think both of you miss something. My son, like every child, was going to spend most of his day with someone. I wanted that person to be me. I wasn’t choosing to stay home because I like housework but because I wanted to take responsibility for raising my children.

Are career and motherhood compatible?

If you’re organized, and lucky, things can work out pretty smoothly. The reality, though, is that if you work full-time, you’re going to give up a lot of the experience of raising kids. If you don’t work at all, you’re going to give up your career, at least for a while. Part-time work is an alternative, but it compromises a little of each.

Some working parents reassure themselves that they’re spending quality time with their kids. What’s wrong with that?

Well, certainly everybody knows that some times are better than other times. The myth is that you can arrange the good times to happen when you want them to, before or after work. Besides, if quality time were all that mattered, there would be no difference, say, between a couple that dated regularly and one with the experience of actually trying to live together under the same roof. Non-quality time might not sound very exciting, but mine with Tommy and Tad has been rewarding for all of us. It has consisted of hours in the park, afternoons at the swimming pool, stops at the post office and bank, explaining what the telephone repairman is doing up on the pole, reciting the days of the week and reading books. To a child, the quantity of time is important.

What are the options for working mothers who are considering some form of day care?

Child-care arrangements usually fall into one of three categories: family homes, where a person cares for a small number of children; individually hired baby-sitters or nannies; and group centers, where large numbers of children come each day. I visited daycare centers in Texas, Massachusetts and the Washington, D.C. area. The excellent ones were the exceptions—about 10 percent. The more typical centers were mediocre or bad.

Are you opposed to day care in principle?

Of course not. Most children are better off when their parents care for them, but it’s irresponsible to talk about a world in which day care doesn’t play an important part. Millions of children are going to spend billions of hours in these centers. It’s vital that we have higher-quality day care.

What are the drawbacks of day care?

Even in the best centers there are certain facts of life. You have a lot of children. Things have to be very well structured, organized and controlled. Otherwise you have chaos. So kids don’t have the liberty to follow their whims. They can’t go hide in the corner without someone coming to talk to them or wanting to look at their book. Not all children do well in those situations. My older son wouldn’t have had much problem. He’s very outgoing and social. Our second child is just the opposite. He really needs his time alone. Then there are the hours. I spent from 9 to 12 at each center I visited and came out absolutely exhausted. Most children stay in day-care centers 10 hours a day. That’s a long day for an adult, but it’s even longer for a child.

But many women work because of economic necessity. What alternative do they have?

The “need” to work varies enormously from person to person and often depends less on straightforward economic pressure than on material desires and individual definitions of success. Significantly, 47 percent of single mothers with children under the age of 6 are not in the work force, as opposed to only 23 percent of single mothers with older kids. That suggests that even under the strongest economic pressure, many women with very young children are deciding not to work. A schoolteacher told me that to spend time with her young children she quit her job, even though it cut the family income by about half. Then she and her husband moved to the country, sold the second car, cut up their credit cards and drew on their savings to live. Not everyone is willing to do that, but some young families may be willing to do it for six or seven years while the children are small.

Is motherhood becoming a political issue?

Child care represents the point where the world of work touches the world of family. Family has become an increasingly important symbol to the political right, which is unenthusiastic about supporting day care, feeling there would be no need for it if women were at home, where they ought to be. The feminist movement, on the other hand, maintains that work outside the home has opened up crucial possibilities for women’s advancement. The step that seems so vital to one side—a woman’s freedom to enter the workplace—seems to the other a threat to the family structure. Their positions have one thing in common: the subordination of children’s interests to a political goal.

Has legislation ever been considered that would substantially improve the U.S. day-care system?

At times of crisis the government has made limited responses. During World War II the Lanham Act provided funds for day-care centers for children whose mothers worked in industry for the war effort. Once the crisis was over, however, the women lost their jobs and the children lost their day care.

What happened after that?

In 1971 President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have provided child-care subsidies for welfare recipients, new child-care facilities and larger income tax deductions for child care. He didn’t merely decline to sign the bill; he called it “the most radical piece of legislation to emerge from the 92nd Congress.” He likened it to endorsing “communal approaches to child rearing,” echoing the old right-wing arguments about “Sovietizing” American children. Greater federal funding would improve conditions in day-care centers: for instance it could provide more and better-paid caretakers.

Don’t a lot of working women fear they would stagnate if they stayed home?

The potential for boredom and frustration is a hazard of life in the home, but you have to work to overcome those pitfalls. Some days the high ideal of raising your child yourself can degenerate into a struggle to maintain your sanity. The critical moment is just when things are getting comfortable. It may be as soon as the firstborn starts napping regularly or when the last born trots off to nursery school. Instead of sitting back plumping up the pillows and reaching for the chocolates, you should determine how you want motherhood to fit into your life at that point, and turn in that direction. Do something serious, whether it’s part-time work, school, community service. No one else will provide a magic formula for satisfied motherhood.