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Author fires the latest salvo in the 'Mommy Wars'

In 1963 Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" set off a firestorm when she questioned the norm that women should be confined to roles as wife and mother.

The recently released "The Feminine Mistake" seems destined to raise as much controversy as Friedan's groundbreaking work, and already has stirred up the latest salvo of the "Mommy Wars."

Author Leslie Bennetts' book has outraged women, who are filling blogs to attack the premise, which is: Women who opt not to work don't realize how much they are giving up when they become dependent on their husband's income.

"I think this is the electrified third rail of American society," said Bennetts, who will speak at 5 p.m. Thursday in Room 330 at the North Campus Student Union at the University at Buffalo. The event is free and open to the public.

Bennetts, who writes for Vanity Fair and was once a reporter for the New York Times, said she wrote the book because the media gives such a skewed perspective on women's decisions to opt out of the work force.

"I found myself getting furious every time I read a story about women quitting work," said Bennetts, who is married and the mother of two. "They seemed so biased and incomplete. All the media treated it just as a lifestyle choice, and virtually never talked about the risks of economic dependency.

"And it's not just about divorce. Men die prematurely. They get sick, become incapacitated, lose their jobs. It's very difficult for most to survive on one income as it is, but when that one income is lost, you're in big trouble."

Bennett points to what she calls the "15-year paradigm" as the reason many women quit -- it's the time when the most active parenting is done and women are simultaneously hard-pressed to pursue their careers. "So they give up life-long best interests in the false belief that it's better for their children over a short period," she said, "and end up paying an enormous price for this sacrifice."

Bennett's premise is that even women who stay home for just a few years will likely find the "on ramp" closed, with their age and their perceived lack of skills held against them. The author supports her point with interviews with women across the economic spectrum, and across the country, and reams of research.

>Keeping skills updated

Molly Ives Brower became a stay-at-home mom 16 months ago when her son, Christopher, was born and she left her job in computing support for the University at Buffalo's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

At first, she said, her son had medical problems, mostly resolved now, that kept him in the hospital for two months. "It just seemed, at the time, the logical choice was for me to stay home and take care of him," said Brower. "There were a lot of things I wanted to be in charge of."

Still, she said, it was a tough decision. "I really liked my job. I liked working at UB and loved the people I work with, but I think it was the best thing for Christopher."

Besides that, Brower said she and her husband built up a financial cushion and knocked out their credit card debt, so she doesn't feel day-to-day pressure about finances.

"I think, when you are older, you have more under control," said Brower, who is 40. "I don't know if I could have done it when I was 30. And I don't know how younger people, especially when they have student loans, can do it."

Now, she works three hours a week, trying to keep her hand in, but she said she can't plan on getting back into technology because everything moves so fast in the field. If she wants to work again, when Christopher goes to school, one option she has is to get further education to add to her Masters of Library Science, she said.

"But my career has been very diverse, so I'm not too worried," she said.

While most women she knows who are working mothers are "managing perfectly fine," she knows she made the best choice for her situation.

"I'm not very good at multitasking," Brower said. "I realized I could be really effective at work or really effective as a parent. But I'm not sure I can do both effectively."

>Face the facts

What has surprised Bennetts about her book has been the uproar, she said.

"The stay-at-home moms are enraged that I'm even asking the question," said Bennetts. "I think they'd at least want to find out the facts before attacking and, also, realize that facts don't change because you refuse to look at them."
Bennetts said her goal isn't to tell women what to do or to add ammunition to the "Mommy Wars," though it has clearly fanned the flames.

"Everybody's needs and circumstances are different," she said. "There's no 'one size fits all' on how to handle any of this, least of all child care. But I do think child care gets a bad rap in this country. The New York Times just ran a piece about how kids in day care turn out worse, but if you go to Slate (the Web site), you see that the findings are misrepresented. The media continues to fall into this trap of demonizing day care.

Asked how women are to cope with the difficult decision of dropping off a baby or a reluctant toddler at a day care center, she said: "I can't tell you how to do it, but I can tell you that more than 80 percent of women in this country are happy with their child-care arrangements."

She thinks this generation has bought into the "Prince Charming myth," never experiencing what happened to previous generations of women, left abandoned and without resources when their husbands left them.

"I think it's just terrifying for women to confront the possibility that these traditional family roles don't work for us anymore and, ultimately, leave millions of women stranded," she said. "I'm not making up the fact that twice as many women end up in poverty as men. And that four out of five of them weren't poor while their husbands were still around. After a divorce, women's standard of living plummets and men's rises dramatically. Also, 70 percent of child support cases have arrears owed. Women aren't being protected but they don't know it until it's too late."

>Health concerns

Besides the economic impact, Bennetts points to research, including a longitudinal study by University College London, which found that full-time workers were significantly less likely to report ill health than full-time homemakers.

"Working is really good for women," said Bennetts. "It gives them not only money, but power in their marriages, options in the world, opportunity for self-expression and fulfillment, and it elevates their children's opportunities. Contrary to all stereotypes, the juggling act, those multiple roles, are good for women.

"From my interviews, I think the benefits of work become clearest in the older years. When children are young, working women are at their most stressed and conflicted and that's the point at which stay-at-home moms feel they are making the right choice.

"But cut to a few years later and working women who have stuck with careers are seeing big dividends, in money, recognition, success, satisfactions.

"It seems there is this huge information gap," she said, "and women weren't getting the information needed to make responsible choices in their own best interests."

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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