Commentary: Women Work. The Support System Doesn't

By Catherine Arnst

In the late 1990s, single women were all the rage. Sex and the City, the HBO series about four bachelorettes in Manhattan, became a favorite water cooler topic, while the best-seller lists featured the blockbuster novel--and hit movie--Bridget Jones's Diary, about the misadventures of a London "singleton."

But time marches on, even for singletons. This season Sex and the City's Miranda (the lawyer played by Cynthia Nixon) has a baby, as does Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), one of NBC's Friends. ABC has a hit on its hands in Life with Bonnie, a sitcom starring Bonnie Hunt as a harried talk show host with three kids. And the best-seller lists feature two books focused on you guessed it, working mothers.

On the nonfiction side, there's The Bitch in the House, a collection of essays by 26 women about the travails of balancing work, love, and family. Climbing the fiction list is I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother by Allison Pearson. Think of it as Bridget Jones Gets Married.

Why, suddenly, are working moms hot? "Common sense tells you that there is an audience out there," says Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment's television group. Life with Bonnie "really celebrates being a working mother."

Could it be that America is finally ready to lift the guilt from the shoulders of the working mom? After all, the vast majority of mothers do work--72% of them in 2001, according to the Census Bureau. And though it may be politically incorrect to say so, many of these women actually like working. A survey by the nonprofit research group Catalyst reveals that 67% of women in dual-career marriages would continue working whether or not they needed the money. Hollywood, though, has yet to reflect the fact that while working mothers are the norm, the infrastructure to support them is sorely lacking: affordable, high-quality child care, husbands who assume more of the child-rearing burden, and family-friendly work policies. As a result, some women have been forced to drop out of the work force, even if they'd prefer to stay.

This may be why Pearson's novel has struck a chord. It tells the story of Londoner Kate Reddy's daily struggle as a high-powered fund manager who loves both her job and her children. She has a nanny who squeezes her for ever-more money, a husband who can't run errands, and a boss who finds any mention of children distasteful.

The Bitch in the House explores the same territory, with a lot more rage. Editor Cathi Hanauer says it was born out of her "domestic anger" over the difficulties of juggling work and family with so little support. At least some of this anger arises from a notion still held by many in the U.S.--that, ultimately, women's place is in the home, not the office. But most mothers have jobs. Deal with it. Let's move on to the real problem--the lack of government policies that would make child care accessible and paid maternity leave universal. This is not, incidentally, just a woman's issue. In an AFL-CIO poll of its members, almost 80% of men as well as women named affordable child care a high priority.

In The Bitch in The House, novelist Ellen Gilchrist writes: "Family and Work. I can let them be at war, with guilt as their nuclear weapon and mutually assured destruction as their aim, or I can let them nourish each other." Is anybody listening?

Senior Writer Arnst works full-time and raises a child.

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