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Now and then

usually at day's end, in the car, midway through a good, healthy primal scream -- Tiffany Gaines thinks about not going to work so she could spend more time with her 8-year-old twins and year-old son.

But the thought lasts about as long as the scream, for she can't afford to spend a lot of time on either one.

She has to work.

"I work two jobs and I'm looking for a third," says the 25-year-old single mother, who relies on Medicaid to cover the family's medical bills.

But moreover, she wants to work.

"My work feels good to me," says Ms. Gaines, who arranges private-school scholarships for low-income students via the BISON Fund program. "I think my kids can tell when I come home feeling like I did something good that day."

Tammy Jo Morog is in many ways Ms. Gaines' opposite: 38, white, upper-middle-class, married, a lawyer. Yet her feelings about work are virtually the same.

"I don't know too many women who would be content to stay home, even if they could," the mother of two daughters, ages 10 and 12, says matter-of-factly over a lunch-hour can of iced tea. "Work brings richness to our lives."

Sarah Harlock is not just demographically in the middle -- 29, Canadian with U.S. residency, married mother of a 4-month-old boy, a part-time nursing home assistant -- she is emotionally in the middle, too, when it comes to contemplating her work.

"The house just isn't as clean, the laundry doesn't get done as fast. I do feel badly. I do get the 'guilts,' " she sighs.

"But I would be absolutely insane if I hadn't gone back to work. It is part of who I am."

All three women have an abiding passion
for what they do.

All three feel their work not only provides money, but keeps depression at bay and helps maintain a healthy level of respect in their households.

Yet all three -- and many more like them -- cannot ignore that among the vibrant roses of their lives, there are thorns -- exhaustion, never-quite-done housework and strained relationships.

And they show flashes of annoyance at the thought some might consider those thorns to be "myths."

For one thing, they note, the emotional and physical problems may not be huge. But that doesn't mean they don't exist.

"Working women do carry larger loads than working men. That is still fact," says Ms. Morog, noting it is likely women will feel the effects of carrying those loads faster, too.

'It's just not that way'

Ms. Gaines nods. The image of the plucky "You're-not-collapsing-so-you-must-be-OK" workin' gal irks her fiercely.

"We're portrayed as living very hectic lives but handling it just fine, and just sailing on through," she says.

"It's just not that way. Maybe we are handling it, but maybe we scream in the car on the way home. I do, sometimes. And what's wrong with saying so?"

As Mrs. Harlock puts it: Working women, especially moms, have as much right and reason to be driven nuts by the pace of their lives as they do to feel empowered by it.

"We may not be total wrecks, but boy, there are days," she says wryly, as tiny Kurt snoozes contentedly in his swing.

Another "thorn" that irritates many working women is how their own gender fights itself:

Working moms and stay-at-homes bickering and glaring at each other, then struggling privately with feelings of guilt and loss.

And older women shaking fingers and lecturing already worn-out granddaughters and daughters whose "greedy" needs to work for "luxuries" are supposedly harming the children and the marriage.

When, asks this current generation, will it be accepted? -- that the majority of women have jobs because they truly, madly, deeply need them.

That they might also enjoy them is not a sin, working mothers stress. But don't point to some fictive Caribbean holiday as the reason Mom pulls away at 7:15 a.m., Monday through Friday.

"If one more of my mother's friends tells me I'm working because I want more luxuries in life, I'm gonna pop her," says a food-court cook, flicking through racks of on-sale children's jeans at the Main Place Mall during her lunch hour.

" 'You kids don't know how to be frugal. You kids don't know about suffering. You want it all now,' " mimics the 32-year-old in irritation.

Ms. Morog has something in common with that cook. "I think a lot of this isn't at all coming from men who are threatened -- my firm gives me all the work I can handle," she says frankly.

"The idea that women have been collapsing, I think, may partly have been a conspiracy on the part of an older generation of women. They saw the importance of serving others -- our generation sees the importance of taking care of the self."

To older women, that may seem selfish, acknowledges Martha Buyer, 39, also an attorney. But to this generation of women -- who have grown up witnessing the collapse of marriage and many other previously sturdy institutions -- it is simple self-preservation, a hedge against being left penniless and powerless.

A final thorn, area working women say, is this: There is a very real tug of war going on in their daily lives. And it's hard enough to manage, thanks, without politicians' and the media's alarmist portrayal of the struggle.

For example, upon leaving Congress after 24 years, Patricia Schroeder dramatically decried the state of American life as being "like the Bermuda Triangle. It's just a series of oh-my-Gods: 'Oh, my God, we forgot the dog; oh, my God, the kids.' "

Oh, please.

And on the other end of the spectrum are the voices insisting it is not so bad after all, that no crisis exists.

It makes some savvy women bow out of the debate altogether.

"I get suspicious when I hear about articles like this," says one executive, who declined to be interviewed further when told about the New York Times piece accompanying this article.

"Why is the media trying so hard to tell us that we're not tired, or that our families are just fine if we work? We know that. And we know when (things aren't fine), too. Usually it's a mix. But you'll never read about that. It's either black or white."

Barbara Stanton, 34, who works in an accounting office downtown, agrees that the media distort the picture.

"You're either the executive who has a nanny, perfect makeup on all the time and no spit-up in your suit shoulder, or you're the rest of us -- you run non-stop all day."

And neither is the norm, frets the married mother of a son, 6. "Some of us 'have a grip.' Some of us don't." And some start out with a grip, lose it and regain it several times before bedtime that night, she grins.

"That's life. That's real."

Real or not, though, that ambiguous unpredictability does not sit comfortably with a society still struggling to define, in succinct, clear-cut terms, how working women (but not working men) should act, think and feel.

And it does not sit well with White House hopefuls -- four white males -- who seem to have tapped into the potent rage of the highly desired working-woman voter, but who so far have been able to answer it only with the feeble political equivalent of a dozen roses at the end of the little woman's hard day:

Hey, another day in the obstetrical ward for you, Mom! A V-chip when you're not there to monitor TV, Mom! School uniforms so you don't have to buy clothes, Mom!

Happy now?

Meanwhile, Buffalo-area women do just what their sisters do, across the nation.

They keep an eye and ear on the political rhetoric, and then keep on keepin' on.

Watch their stress levels

Ms. Gaines relies on her children's grandmother and some neighbors for child care. Ms. Morog has a nanny "and a really great husband" to keep the gerbil wheel of life spinning. Mrs. Harlock, too, relies on her husband, Russ -- who takes care of baby Kurt from 5 o'clock on each night -- a neighbor and an occasional sitter to keep child care gaps covered. Mrs. Stanton's little boy goes to a neighbor's to get the morning school bus, then returns there after school and waits for either parent to take him home.

The women try to watch their stress levels, and know that when the urge to yell strikes, they've done "way too much."

Connie Williams, 36, the mother of children ages 10, 7 and 5, budgeted carefully and tried to set up a support system of sitters and girlfriends, before leaving her job as overnight emergency room administrator at Sisters Hospital in order to be with her children more, while she figures out what to do next.

Even so, things are tight right now. For Ms. Williams belongs to the one group that is universally acknowledged to be every bit as stressed-out as previous media musings stated women might some day be:

Women in low-paying jobs with high demands, little control, several children, and support that is catch-as-catch-can.

Their number is large -- especially in Rust Belt cities -- and their better-off sisters know it. The women Ms. Buyer sees cracking "are the ones who are at home, with fewer options," she says.

"I see this in the secretaries all the time," adds Ms. Morog. "They are feeling this (strain and stress). They don't have the resources."

Adds Mrs. Harlock: "I don't feel ready to drop, but that state definitely exists. Just not for me, right now. I'm part time, and my job is not life-and-death. But for someone making huge decisions daily, or someone who doesn't have a partner or even the child care I do, the whole situation could feel very different."

Says Ms. Williams, after thinking in silence for a moment: "People don't understand, there are so many women who are trying to do it right, on very little money, and they are very stressed."

But it's not the work itself that's stressing them, she says.

It may be the lack of respect they get at work. Or the lack of money. Or the push to downsize them out of the work that feeds their children.

Or the idea that somehow they are supposed to be emulating the Ozzie and Harriet "American way of life" -- a way that really existed only for a brief, halcyon decade or so after World War II, and a way that left many a housewife depressed, eventually divorced, and unable to cope or fend for herself.

There is no going back, says Ms. Williams.

"To sit at home is to feel yourself losing what you have."

She thinks for a second.

"It's to lose who you are."