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`Pioneer Parents' Put Family First

A growing chorus of men and women resist the notion that parenthood is secondary to career

LIKE many women of her generation, Wilma Nachsin assumed she would always combine child-rearing with a career. So when her first baby was born three years ago, she hired a woman to care for him in the couple's home, then returned to work. Months later, a friend visited the Nachsins for a week. After observing the baby sitter for several days, the house guest delivered some startling news.

``My friend said the sitter sat on one spot on the sofa the whole day and watched TV,'' Mrs. Nachsin recalls. ``I could look at the sofa and see where the cushion sagged. The blanket that my son was on wasn't even within interacting distance of that sofa.''

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Nachsin dismissed the baby sitter and found a child-care center. But then she made another distressing discovery. ``They put him in an infant seat and put the infant seat in a playpen and gave him his bottle that way,'' she says. ``They said they did it so the other kids wouldn't disturb him while he was drinking his bottle. I asked, `Why don't you hold him?' They said they didn't have time.''

With that, Nachsin quit her job as customer service manager for a large publishing firm and returned home to be with 14-month-old Jacob. ``I'm still amazed,'' she says with a laugh. ``I never thought I'd be a stay-at-home mom.''

Nachsin's story can be taken as a case history increasingly typical of the times. Through hard personal experience, she and other '90s parents are being forced to recognize the price paid for being full-time workers and part-time parents. They are not ready to return to the '50s, when Mom was in the kitchen and ``togetherness'' was the ideal of women's magazines. But neither are they ready to gloss over with glib talk of ``quality time'' the shrinking attention paid to family life in the years since.

April Watt, a chemical engineer currently at home with a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, speaks for the new breed of parents: ``It's really sad because we're bringing up the next generation, and how good a job we do will have a big effect on what happens in the future.''

Nachsin, Mrs. Watt, and a lot of other unpublicized parents like them signal that things are changing. They are also finding support from professionals in the field. Barbara Whitehead, a social historian in Amherst, Mass., is critical of those who discount full-time parents.

``We have shifted from a family culture to a job culture,'' she says. ``The primary source of adult definition and achievement now comes from the workplace, not the home. Being a parent is considered secondary to the contribution you make in your job. The notion that we contribute most to the overall well-being of society as workers, not as parents, is a very big shift in public philosophy that has been harmful to parents specifically and to the nation as a whole. I think you make a greater contribution to the well-being of society by raising healthy, happy, well-educated children with good values than you do as a worker.''

Randi Wolfe, program director of a nonprofit agency, Family Focus, and the mother of two children, speaks of feeling out of step in a ``job-culture'' world: ``Raising children is not even seen as a private enterprise. It's seen as a hobby.''

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If these are not yet the voices of parents in charge, they are parents who want to be in charge, and they are beginning to define not only their priorities but what it will take in the way of sacrifice to achieve them. Jeff Simon, a high school social worker and Ms. Wolfe's husband, says, ``For neither of us is money the main issue. We would like to make career moves that accommodate the rest of our life - the fact that we're trying to raise children.''

`WE are the pioneers,'' adds Wolfe, identifying herself with other mothers and fathers who are putting children first and jobs second as the parents of the future. ``I'm fairly confident things will change over time.''

To the ``pioneer'' parents tentatively exploring the next frontier of the American family, this is the way the '90s look:

The primary challenge - and the primary solution - is the family. When family is mentioned, politicians and the general public tend to see an agenda of related ``social issues'' - drugs and condoms on the playground, street gangs forming, teen-age pregnancies occurring at ever-more precocious ages, and so on. The ``pioneer'' parents may not agree on specific remedies, but they agree that healing must begin with the family, with parents being there on a day-in, day-out basis. Only on this quiet battlefie ld of preventive caring, they say, can the social wars be won.

The ``pioneer'' parents want more help than they are getting from the public and private sector, like all parents. But as much as practical help, they want society to support the dignity and worth of being a parent., as society still does in Europe.

Elizabeth Levine, the mother of two preschoolers, tells of a friend in Germany whose baby was born two years ago. ``She had practically a salary from the government,'' Mrs. Levine says. ``There were tax breaks and allocations for staying home. It encouraged more parental input into raising children.''

In the United States, she continues, ``We're going in the opposite direction. People want more day-care dollars. There's a greater emphasis on improving the lot of the working parent, not the stay-at-home parent. While I sympathize with the woman who needs to work, why doesn't somebody do something for me?''

Wolfe concurs: ``In this country, to the extent that the family is supported, it's to support workers. In France, the family support systems are there because there's a premium on setting up a high quality of life for families for their sake.''

Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School, notes that her daughter, who lives in Italy, gave birth to her first child in December. ``In Italy, people just react to a baby. They turn around, they touch it. There is an outpouring of feeling. If you are in public, people express a kind of friendship. In the United States there's a high social value placed on a returning soldier. In Italy, there's a high social value placed on the fact of being a mama.''

Wolfe has her measuring stick for just how family ranks among national priorities. ``When I heard the cost of a Patriot missile, it was amazing,'' she says. ``Money won't solve it all, but it will help. The day care industry would know how to create excellent centers if they had the money. We're not lacking models, we're not lacking the know-how. We're lacking the will.''

John Watt, April's husband and a manager of planning and analysis for Amoco, has his own similar test case for the corporate culture. ``You're going to have to get employers to accept family responsibility, so that when your child is sick, they'll accept that as a valid reason for not being able to come in. Many companies say family comes first, but they don't really mean it.'' I would be absolutely amazed if a CEO called off a meeting because his kids were sick.''

As one measure of progress, Mr. Watt notes that in his native Canada, Amoco and other oil companies close their offices every third Friday. ``They theoretically work the same number of hours that we do,'' he explains, ``but they organize it differently to allow employees more time with their families.''

This month the Watts are being transferred to Houston. After spending a total of two hours a day commuting from the family's home in Evanston to his office in Chicago, Watt says, ``From now on the choice of where I live, even my choice of a job or career path, will be heavily driven by the commuting time - by how much time I can spend with my kids. It's definitely affected where we'll live in Houston. We chose a house 11 minutes away from work. You could even think about coming home for lunch occasional ly.''

Another example of efforts to change the corporate culture came last month during the national Week of the Young Child, which was promoted locally by the Chicago Association for the Education of Young Children. As Susan Monroy, director of a day-care center and the mother of a two-year-old son, explains, ``Parents were encouraged to take their children to work or, more appropriately, to take pictures of them to indicate how many parents are affected by day-care issues.''

Ms. Monroy and other parents praise companies like Fel-Pro Inc. in nearby Skokie, Ill., a gasketmaker with more than 2,000 employees. So comprehensive are Fel-Pro's benefits that the company has below-average turnover. ``Why doesn't society see how wonderful that is, that they have a waiting list for jobs due to the excellent benefits they provide for families?'' Monroy says.

JUST as they accept that the reformation of America must begin with the family, the ``pioneer'' parents accept that the reformation of the family must begin with individuals. But as Wolfe notes, ``Everybody is on a thin line. It's a balancing act that is finely tuned.''

That balancing act can be dangerous as well as delicate. Monroy says, ``Today in the city you can't send kids outside alone. In order for them to have time to play, you have to go out with them. Kids can't even ride their bike around the corner. You can't just let them loose anymore.''

Striking a mean between all the pressures a parent feels, Shelley Gates, associate director of Women Employed in Chicago and the mother of a two-year-old daughter, concludes, ``The best of all worlds is to work part-time.''

Yet she also emphasizes the rewards of a career. ``When my life is working, I feel great. My work is wonderful. My co-workers are some of my best friends. I have a great family. I really feel very, very fortunate. I feel I have a lot in my life that my mother did not have access to. I wouldn't necessarily change a lot about my life.''

Fathers as well as mothers are in the process of fine-tuning the balance between work and family. ``We have to move this country in a manner in which either a mother or a father has to have less than a full-time working position,'' says B. Annye Rothenberg, director of the child-rearing program at the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto, Calif.

Ms. Glendon sums up the ``trap'' this way: ``You suffer disadvantages in the workplace if you devote any substantial time to child raising. The way things stand now, the more you devote yourself to caring for your children, the more vulnerable you are to economic disaster. That's a very strange thing.''

Glendon also articulates the new-old hope that keeps today's parents fighting for a proper valuation of parents' work. ``What we really need,'' she says, ``is a kind of transformation - a consciousness of how much we depend on our future citizens. It's generally framed in economic terms. People say, `We need a workforce to remain competitive with other countries.' Or, `We need people who are highly skilled so they can pay into the social security system and support aging baby boomers.' Those aren't the main reasons we ought to care about children. We ought to care about them because the principal way a society is judged morally is according to the way it treats its youngest members.''

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