Globe and Mail

The new stay-at-home moms

Women are choosing to live like their mothers -- at least for a few years

SEAN FINE
The Globe and Mail
Monday, September 13, 1999



Jacqui Strachan, hugging her six-year-old son Ty Trollope, has closed her criminal-law practice to be at home with the children. At left, neighbour Jess Farncombe, 10, and Ms. Strachan's other son , Devin Trollope, 4, centre.



Jacqui Strachan is the centre of attention for Ewen Farncombe, left, Ty Trollope, in back and Jess Farncombe, right.



Jacqui Strachan watches over a brood of children in her living room: from left on the sofa, her son Ty Trollope, 6, Ewen Farncombe, also 6, and Jess Farncombe, 10, and on the chair, her other son Devlin Trollope, 4.



It's often a whirl of activity in Jacqui Strachan's home in east Toronto: Clockwise from left, Ewen Farncombe, Jess Farncombe, Ms. Strachan, Devlin Trollope and Ty Trollope.



Olga Herrmann, left shares a pleasant day with Jacqui Strachan, lifting her son Ty Trollope, Jess Farncombe, right, and other friends and neighbours.



Toronto -- No one is more surprised than Jacqui Strachan at how her life has turned out.

A 34-year-old lawyer, a lifelong feminist, an intellectual with Dostoyevsky and James Joyce on her overflowing bookshelves, she has left her criminal-law practice to stay home raising her two children. To help keep the family afloat, she runs an informal daycare centre in her cramped two-bedroom flat.

Here she is on a weekday morning crouching on her hands and knees on a neighbour's carpeted playroom floor. A robust six-year-old, Nathan, straddles her back and urges her to giddyap. The room suddenly seems chokingly hot.

"I think your horse just died," she tells him.

The usual bedlam now verges on pandemonium. Her own six-year-old, Ty, flies through the air like a human cannonball and flattens his four-year-old brother, Devlin, who bursts into tears. Another boy snaps off the lights, and the room goes black.

Stay-at-home mothers are back, much to their own shock (and occasional horror). After all, these are women with choices. And yet they are choosing, at least for a few years, to live like -- well, their own mothers.

"My feminist views have changed substantially over the years," the tousled-haired, spirited Ms. Strachan says in a quiet moment at her kitchen table. "If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be a stay-at-home mom instead of being a lawyer, I would have laughed at you."

She is in good company.

Next door to Ms. Strachan is Lelia MacDonald, articulate and curious, a former banker who is staying home with her curly-haired two-year-old, Andrew. A few doors down is Christine Carson, creative and voluble, who left her job designing Levi's clothing on computers to raise her two young children. Across the street with her two little ones is Olga Herrmann, thoughtful and probing, a linguist and journalist.

Ms. Herrmann is reading Betty Friedan, who reported three decades ago in The Feminine Mystique that home had become a "comfortable concentration camp" for housewives.

So why are these women with heavyweight educations and stimulating careers, or the prospect of one, choosing to return to their prison? And what do their choices suggest about modern family life?

Exploring these questions leads inescapably to one overarching conclusion: The national debate about how to raise children and support families is out of whack with the reality of the street.

The debate has largely pitted the traditionalist supporters of the male breadwinner against the liberal advocates of daycare and women's equality in the workplace.

But those rigid categories are of little help in understanding what is happening on Ms. Strachan's street in downtown Toronto, or indeed in homes across Canada, as revealed in a groundbreaking poll done for The Globe and Mail by the Angus Reid Group.

None of the stay-at-home mothers on Ms. Strachan's street is an ideologue of the traditional family.

The feminist Ms. Strachan herself is a New Democratic Party supporter who believes in formal, state-supported daycare -- though not for her own children. The ex-banker, Ms. MacDonald, snorts when asked for a quick reaction to the phrase "traditional family." She associates it with dreaded suburbia. "My skin crawls. It's Scarborough! It's 905!"

And yet it is undeniable that, at least on the surface, these homes resemble the traditional families whose death knell Ms. Friedan helped to sound in 1963.

Clearly, these women's views pull them in two directions at once, and they are not alone. Throughout the Western world, polls have found that people are torn between their belief in equality for women in the work force and their worries about the young children whose parents leave them in the care of others each day.

The same ambivalence is rife in Canada. Canadians have good things to say about daycare, they believe strongly that working women can have secure relationships with their children and yet Canadian families would love to be able to keep a parent home with the children.

Fully 66 per cent of parents (and 60 per cent of all Canadians polled) said in the Angus Reid poll that they support measures "to do everything possible to encourage one parent to stay home." (Mothers believe even more strongly in this than fathers -- 68 per cent to 62 per cent.)

For policymakers, the message in the new flexible family is that parents want choices, not a return to the old ways or a rigid modernism. They may opt for traditionalism, but it is a temporary and tolerant traditionalism.

It is not the 1950s here among Ms. Strachan, Ms. MacDonald and their neighbours on a street dense with children. The women tend to want careers at some point; the men tend to want the women to choose what makes them happy. So these families, while their children are small, incorporate the traditional models while seeking a thoroughly modern fluidity.

They want to change as their children's needs change. These desires transcend narrow political differences, as the Angus Reid poll found. There is widespread support for encouraging a parent to stay home. And Canadians of all political stripes believe that preschool children suffer if both parents work.

On the other hand, Canadians do not want to scapegoat women or chain them to the kitchen table. Just among Reform Party supporters do a majority (52 per cent) agree that families would be in much better shape if only mothers stayed home.

Jacqui Strachan, wearing a T-shirt bearing the message, "I was born in Toronto but I emigrated to the Global Village," regales her friends with the tale of how she interrupted a thief at work in a neighbouring yard.

"I see you," she had cried out, and then as the robber fled from one yard to the next, "I still see you!"

Her mother said later, "What were you doing? He could have had a gun!"

"Oh mom, it was a B and E and he doesn't have a gun."

In Toronto, a city of neighbourhoods, Ms. Strachan's Danforth village stands for a cosmopolitan middle class so attracted to downtown life that it pays dearly for small, attached homes on tightly packed streets that once belonged to the working class, and to Italian and Greek immigrants.

Jacqui Strachan and Kim Trollope feel at home here. They had never seen themselves as traditionalists; for instance, they have never bothered to marry.

He was a sound engineer working nights with Harbourfront's Premiere Dance Theatre; Ms. Strachan was working part-time hours in her private criminal-law practice. This was during their son Ty's first year.

For a while things worked out. While Ms. Strachan argued her clients' cases in court, Mr. Trollope looked after Ty.

But then Mr. Trollope's work began shifting to daytime. And it was difficult for Ms. Strachan to make a good living without working 12 hours a day. The law society's annual fees and insurance costs were $15,000 to $20,000. She closed her office and set up shop at home. But with Ty underfoot, she couldn't get her work done.

Mr. Trollope offered to stay home as a househusband. "I said I was happy to give up working and be a full-time dad if she wanted to pursue her full-time law career," the slim, softspoken 40-year-old said. "I didn't want two of us to be working full-time, and then when we do come home, [we say], 'Okay, let's get the kids into bed so we can relax together.' I want to spend time with my kids growing up."

Setting up as a traditional family was simply another form of unconventional behaviour. Ms. Strachan closed her practice. Mr. Trollope took a full-time supervisory job as technical director at Harbourfront, the city's lakeside entertainment showpiece. "As much as I hate to say it, it's a steady paycheque," he says. "Given my left-wing leanings, being part of the establishment went against the grain."

A steady cheque, but not a large one: He is paid $37,000 a year. Her daycare income helps, and Mr. Trollope feels they do not want for anything, though "it's a day-to-day existence."

For $935 a month, they have a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and small sitting room, all in a row, and then, upstairs in the attic, a tiny "watch-your-head bedroom" for themselves, as Ms. Strachan calls it. (She notes that she has put her education to good use: Her sofa is held up by a pile of old law texts.) Outside is an attractive but shared back yard.

Already they are chafing; for a family with two boisterous headstrong boys (sent to their room for misbehaving, they once announced they were going on strike), plus as many as three other children cared for by Ms. Strachan, there is no escaping one another.

Mr. Trollope suggested recently that they need more space. Ms. Strachan responded, "People in Japan live like we do."

Humour is her constant ally in the daily uproar. "I love living in poverty. It's my favourite thing in life," she crows.

An exaggeration, but not by much. Their sacrifice is large. Buying a home is a forgone dream; even semi-detached houses cost $250,000 and up in this area, and they want to stay in the neighbourhood.

Preschool for Devlin is beyond their reach. "He just needs more at this point," Ms. Strachan says. "I keep thinking, 'I wish school started a year earlier.' He's a January baby so he has to wait until September, 2000."

The sacrifice affects the distant future too. She worries about how they will afford university educations for their boys as they fall further into debt as the years pass. Last month, they cashed in a $500 RRSP for a camping vacation.

"It was just an instinct," she says of why she chose to stay home with her children, rather than putting them in daycare when her part-time practice did not work out. "It's almost a protective instinct. Does that sound strange? If they're not with me, I don't know what happening."

Even after the boys are old enough for full-day school, she wants to be around when they come home, to help them with their homework.

Now the children are playing quietly, leaving the adults free on a warm summer morning to savour their coffee in Olga Herrmann's back yard.

"When people think of stay-at-home moms, they think we're doing what our parents did," Ms. Herrmann says.

"I don't think we're doing that at all," Christine Carson says.

"We have cleaning ladies," Lelia MacDonald jokes.

"I don't have a cleaning lady. We do a lot more developing of our children. We take them to the museum," Ms. Carson says.

"I think our mothers were stronger. They took a lot more than we're willing to take. I think we're more likely to say, 'What's Plan B?' They worked hard. I'm in awe of that spirit that they had," Ms. Herrmann says.

"Yeah," Ms. Carson replies, "but a lot of them were drinking in the afternoon."

Between these women and their mothers stands the modern women's movement, which was built on the rejection of full-time motherhood sparked by Ms. Friedan.

But perhaps Ms. Friedan misdiagnosed the Problem With No Name. To the late culture analyst Christopher Lasch, the housewife's sense of emptiness and nothingness was less about the oppression of women than the "suburbanization of the American soul." People sought in suburban life seclusion from family and neighbours; they wanted the freedom to choose their own ways. The home was their haven.

But that freedom soon palled. Women envied men their careers, while men envied women their domestic security; meanwhile, the children, supposedly the beneficiaries of this lifestyle, grew aimless and pampered. Home became jail.

Eventually, in the 1980s, came the era of the "superwoman" who tried to "have it all." Seventy per cent of Canadian working mothers held full-time paying jobs in 1991, a far higher proportion than in most of Europe. And men still didn't share the housework; the superwoman was superstressed.

Although the women's movement adopted a slogan of "choice," Mr. Lasch said, it in fact recognized only one choice -- the family whose members work full-time in the marketplace. The proof of this, he said, is that mainstream feminist groups called for support for daycare, but largely ignored stay-at-home mothers.

These Danforth women still want it all, but not all at once. If there is a backlash, it is not against feminism, not against working mothers or their own mothers, but against the money-driven, consumer-driven life.

Olga Herrmann opens a book at her kitchen table and points to a picture. "What's that?"

"That's a kwuck. And a tar. And a kwuck." Daniel, a sweet-faced boy a month short of 4, has trouble with his k's and t's, and his mother sits patiently at the kitchen table working on his consonants, as recommended by Daniel's speech therapist. She worries about him. He is an intense, sensitive boy and what if he is teased?

"Teh, teh. Keh, keh," Ms. Herrmann says.

"Teh, teh. Keh, keh."

"Truck."

"Truck."

They cut out pictures and Daniel glues them to Tony the Terrific Tiger, telling Tony as he goes along what he is gluing to him. He makes progress -- "that's a nice 't,' his mother says -- and he falls back, and edges forward again. His father comes home at 2:20, an hour or two earlier than usual. Daniel shouts, "Daddy, it's a kwee koad!"

"A tree toad!"

"A kwee koad!"

Nothing she has done has been more challenging than being a mother, Ms. Herrmann says. And yet if she is asked, at a party, what she does, her reply of stay-at-home mother is a conversation killer. Ms. Herrmann and her neighbours find that people think stay-at-home mothers incapable of intelligent, adult talk. So instead of proclaiming their status, many have learned to keep quiet about it.

No wonder then that the stay-at-home mothers have been all but invisible politically. It is not only government that has shut them out; the general social atmosphere has not been friendly.

In both Ms. Carson's and Ms. MacDonald's professional circles, the assumption was virtually universal: When women have babies, they return to work within a few months or a year. (So strong was this assumption that even while these two women were in labour they had not yet contemplated staying home.)

But more and more women such as Ms. Herrmann insist on being home with their young children, financial circumstances permitting. (Their husbands no longer feel in a position to insist on anything, but are happy with their wives' choices to stay home.)

"For me, it's a very sentimental decision," Ms. Herrmann says of staying home. "I know that a child's time with his or her mother is precious."

When Ms. Herrmann was 15, her mother died in a car accident. Her mother did not have the luxury of a "traditional family;" she worked ferociously in a life that did not give her all the choices today's women have.

Ms. Herrmann's parents were first-generation immigrants from Greece who settled in Toronto's Riverdale area; her father was a barber, and her family took boarders into their three-storey home to make ends meet for their three girls.

But keeping house for the boarders was hard on her mother, and so the family moved to a smaller house, and her mother went out to work part-time as a cashier in a grocery store. Her father's sister came from Greece to look after the children.

"My mother was an incredible woman," Ms. Herrmann says. "I try to live up to her ideal in today's times."

But the 33-year-old is a modern woman. She went to university and earned a degree in language, literature and translation -- she is fluent in four languages -- and later earned a two-year diploma in journalism, which she describes as an indulgence.

Even a modern woman's life does not always go as planned. "I think I've done things backward," Ms. Herrmann says. "It just happened that I got married way before I ever imagined that I would. I saw myself perhaps being a diplomat at 30. But I got married at 25."

At 34, she is the mother of Daniel and two-year-old Jake. Other women on the street, like Ms. MacDonald, had time for a 10-year career before motherhood.

The big challenge of being a parent, as she sees it, is to instill values in children before they reach school, before they develop their own circles of influence. "I would like them to learn to be polite, to respect people and their property. That's something I think I need to be on top of. I think a nanny or a daycare worker might not have the same motivation or vigilance."

But all stay-at-home mothers must deal with the loss of adult conversation and the sometimes crushing burden of routine. Such mothers need a break, Ms. Herrmann says; she doesn't think she could do her job without a fully involved partner. Her husband, Patrick Herrmann, who moved to Canada 10 years ago from Germany after meeting her in France, shares the workload when he returns home, usually by 3:30, from his job as a computer consultant. (She says she has given her children baths by herself only three times; he has shared the load.)

Preferably, a mother's break will involve doing something she loves, Ms. Herrmann says, and for her, that means writing. She has just taken a part-time job as editor of Learning Curves, a 12-page newspaper about adult education for which she must produce five issues a year.

She can work from home, in a study on the second floor of her house. Her husband has placed a sticker at the entrance: "Canadian author." She sees herself as a writer. She has an idea for a book, something part fiction and part memoir. When the children are older, she would like to take a year before going out to work full-time to write that book.

"I feel like I'm a writer. It's a very difficult thing to go through," she says of not being able to sit down and write. "But if I focus on writing, I worry that I'm going to neglect what's here in front of me right now."

Even so, Ms. Herrmann does not see her decision to stay home as involving a personal sacrifice. "I'm just putting off what is for me until later," she says.

She knows what psychologist Shari Thurer meant when she wrote that "motherhood versus personal ambition represents the heart of the feminine dilemma."

Ms. Herrmann once wanted to have three children, but now she has decided to stop at two. "I know that my third child will be my career. One day when they're a little bit more grown up, I'll have time for something else. But I'm patient enough to wait for that."
NEXT: Quebec is tops

Mothers don't envy adult daughters

From the far side of the generational divide, the grandmothers are watching.

But they do not envy modern mothers their freedom. No, they pity them. The pressure to rush back to work after having babies, and then racing home after a full workday to chauffeur their children to swimming, hockey, soccer, piano . . . .

"I feel sorry for them," says Pamela Bradley, 75, who recalls staying home happily (no "slow death of mind and spirit," as Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique)raising two children, including Chris Bradley, Lelia MacDonald's husband.

And they object to a culture that in their view devalues motherhood. "Staying at home with the children doesn't give them their potential and all this tommyrot," says Sybil MacDonald, Lelia's 82-year-old mother, who raised seven children.

Lelia herself, a former banker, says she is staying home not for the sake of her two-year-old son, Andrew -- he would do just as well in daycare, she says -- but for herself. "Andrew was just a society-approved way for me to take time off from my career."

Can it be that nostalgia has something to do with why there are so many stay-at-home mothers on Lelia's street?

Mrs. Bradley says her 39-year-old son, a lawyer, told her recently how glad he was that she was always there for him when he came home from school. "His first word when he came in the door was, 'Mom!' "

Or perhaps rather than simple nostalgia this street suggests a yearning for something different -- for a measure of personal control in the impersonal global economy. "People think there was a lot to be said for the quiet peaceful life without the pressure," Mrs. Bradley says.
Sean Fine

WORKING WOMEN

Percentage who agreed with the statement: "Having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person."

Over all                  56%

By gender

Men                       56%

Women                     56%

By region

British Columbia          50%

Alberta                   43%

Saskatchewan/Manitoba     54%

Ontario                   54%

Quebec                    56%

Atlantic                  47%

-***
Percentage who agreed with the statement: "A job is all right, but what most women really want is a home and children."

Over all                  39%

By gender

Men                       38%

Women                     40%

By education

Less than high school     67%

High school               48%

Postsecondary             32%

University                28%

By age

18-34                     29%

35-54                     35%

55 or more                58%

-***
Percentage who agreed with the statement: "Both the man and the woman should contribute to the household income."

Over all                  72%

By gender

Men                       72%


Women                     73%

-***

CARING FOR CHILDREN

Percentage who agreed with the statement: "Daycare is good for children."

Over all                  68%

By gender

Men                       65%

Women                     71%

By region

British Columbia          55%

Alberta                   55%

Saskatchewan/Manitoba     66%

Ontario                   69%

Quebec                    78%

Atlantic                  72%

-***
Percentage who agreed with the statement: "Families would be in much better shape these days if mothers would only stay home with their children."

Over all                  42%

By gender

Men                       43%

Women                     41%

By education

Less than high school     64%

High school               49%

Postsecondary             38%

University                30%

By age

18-34                     32%

35-54                     40%

55 or more                57%

The Globe and Mail / Angus Reid

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