Kathy claims to be one of those rare stay-at-home moms who are completely happy. She's convinced she did the right thing when she gave up her career as a landscape architect -- not an especially promising career, to hear her tell it -- to raise her son, now 3 and a 1⁄2. Besides, in her mind she deserved a break. She's 45 and worked twenty years straight before she had her child.
"I love being home," she says of her family's little cottage with its postage-stamp lawn in Pelham. "I'm very intense about playing with my child. I'll set up the paints or the Play-Doh. Or I'll carve and peel the apples so all he has to do is throw them in the pie."
There is, however, a somewhat unsettling cloud on the horizon. Kathy's husband is a magazine publisher, his industry is in an advertising slump, and his future doesn't look all that rosy at the moment. He wouldn't mind if she found a job while he goes apple picking with their son.
"My husband is saying, 'How about I don't work and stay with him?' Why do I feel entitled to this relationship with my child?"
Her response -- and it's hardly the first time it's been used -- is that if she went back to work, she'd make only a fraction of what he's earning; if they both worked, the cost of a baby-sitter would virtually negate her salary. It's an argument that resonates, reluctantly, with some husbands.
Ann's spouse, for example, describes her public-relations career as a "loss leader" by the time you calculate what their baby-sitter is costing them. He fantasizes about firing the nanny, moving to the suburbs (over his wife's dead body), punting their two private-school tuitions, and having her stay at home while he commutes.
One such Westchester dad, who's already living that modest dream, admits he's the last person who thought he'd be happy in an Ozzie-and-Harriet marriage. "The sad thing is, I'm not sure I'd prefer it any other way," he says. "I feel one of us should be taking care of our kids. The only bad thing about it is, it's a god-awful job. I'm not man enough to stay home with my kid -- I've got a very spirited little child, it's exhausting -- so if my wife is willing to take it on . . ."
The stay-at-home moms who most infuriate the mothers who board the No. 6 train five days a week aren't those doing the heavy lifting with a couple of toddlers. No, it's the ones with the full-time help who claim to be so busy they can't see straight. "I know one stay-at-home mom who referred to herself as 'a full-time mom,' " fumes a lawyer who works for the legal department of a media conglomerate. "I thought I was going to vomit. Because, let me tell you, I may work outside the home, but I'm a full-time mom.
"A couple my husband and I know," she continues, "were having financial difficulties. So we asked him, 'Have you given any thought to having your wife take some of the pressure off yourself and let her get a job?' And he said, 'No, her place is with the children. That's what they need.' We thought it was the most preposterous thing we'd ever heard, because this wife doesn't spend any time with her children. She works out a lot. She shops a lot. She gets her hair and nails done a lot."
For some husbands, or so it would appear, being able to afford to have wives who spend their days in relentless pursuit of the perfect yoga butt passes as the quintessential status symbol. "They're all dolled up," observes a dad of the moms he sees at morning drop-off. "It's not as if they couldn't have worn something else. It's not like they just rolled out of bed. They got out of bed and pulled on some Lycra."
"Nonworking mother is an oxymoron," counters a stay-at-home mom who takes her workouts seriously. "I raise two children, manage a household, keep my husband going. I'm already full-time occupied with other people's needs. You try raising two kids and staying fit."
Ah, staying fit. One simply can't overestimate the pressure to be svelte. If you wanted to stay thin back in our parents' era, you smoked a couple of packs a day. And if you had a secret thing for Oreos and ballooned to size 14, you had lots of company at PTA meetings. But these days, moms (particularly those in the 10021, 10028, and 10128 Zip Codes) are expected to look like ex–ABT dancers. "The pressure is intense to be thin; it's just brutal," says one Upper East Side mom. Another says that now that she's not working full-time -- she has an interior-design business -- she finds herself in greater spiritual alignment with her abs. Asked the biggest difference between her days as a working stiff and today, she doesn't have to think hard before offering an answer: "I had a much bigger ass."
She continues: "When I was working outside my home, I was downstairs at 5 a.m. or 5:30 a.m.," referring to the gym in her Park Avenue building. "I'd be up, dressed, hair dried, makeup on, and then I'd wake my kids up.
"The time I could donate to exercise was 30 minutes maximum. Now I can take one and a half to two hours. I can swim for an hour, or go to the gym, or take a yoga class. If I decide this is a yoga morning, I'm not going to meet a client until 10:30 or eleven o'clock."
Sleep is what suffers most, several working moms report. And romance. "When you exercise at 5:30 a.m., you're comatose by ten o'clock," the interior designer explains. "Are you going to have sex? No. Good night. You never think you're going to be too tired to have sex when you're younger." Since she left the rat race, her sex life has changed: "It's definitely better."
Yet even the most blissfully content, physically fit, sexually satisfied stay-at-home mom will eventually be compelled to seek employment or come up with a good excuse for failing to do so. If the toppling economy doesn't send them back to the grind, their children, especially their daughters who have been raised on the limitless possibilities of their gender, will start asking unsettling questions.
One working mom who announced she'd be off the workforce for a few months was greeted by delighted whoops from her younger daughter, but an embarrassed frown from her teenager. "Can't you at least write a novel or something?" she grumbled.
"Sophie always says, 'Why can't you go out and get a job even if it's in a store on Madison Avenue for two hours a week?' " says another stay-at-home mother of a teenage daughter. "I'm totally flipped out right now. What am I going to do? Where am I going to go? You give up all these years to be there for them, and they say, 'Mom, why don't you do something? You're so lame. Everybody else's mother does something.' "
She felt her "insuperiority," as she puts it, most acutely on Take Our Daughters to Work Day. "There were so many working moms," she explains. "I realized a lot of my kids' friends' mothers weren't just working but had superior positions, not just a cubicle. My kids came home and shunned me. They said, 'All you're good for is schlepping us around in the Navigator.' "
A 3-year-old even got on her stay-at-home mother's case. "She said, 'Daddy goes to the office. Mommies don't go to the office?' I feel it's not setting a good example," her mother worries. "She says, 'There are no women in daddy's office?' I spent so much time at the office before she was born."