WO Midstream ArtBy Lynn Shattuck

They move north and west. The low weight of eggs in their belly propels them. Their bodies move through the saltwater, past the glittering lures of fishermen. They turn and twist until finally, suddenly, they are home.


In the morning, I wake up just as Violet begins to stir. I kiss the soft slope beneath her chin, smelling the faint scent of my own milk. She moves into a light sleep cycle, her mouth pulling up into a sliver of a smile.

Her eyes open. Round and blue, they burst with light. She smiles with her whole round face and her eyes half close into little crescent moons. Her mouth turns up to meet them, a crinkle mid-nose. Thin tufts of reddish hair bend in several directions. At just over a year old, she is nothing I expected.

“Hi baby girl,” I whisper.

“Mama!” I hear from downstairs. I ignore the sing-song call of my son for a moment.

“Mama!” He hollers now, his voice louder and coarser.

“Let’s go see Maxie,” I whisper to Violet. Scooping her up, we head down the stairs to Max’s room.

“Hi Mommy!” my four-year-old roars as he runs to greet us. I shift Violet to make room in my arms for Max. Max does a little dance and charges toward us, crashes his way into a hug and begins vigorously rubbing the baby’s head. “Hi Biiiilet!” he greets her.

It is Wednesday, which means that my husband left for an early meeting before the rest of us were even awake. The day stretches ahead of us, unstructured. We parade down to the kitchen, my focus set on procuring coffee. Violet clings to my hip like a koala cub. “I wannnn booberries!” Max whines, trailing after me. I wannnn coffee, I think. For a second, I think of the days before I had children. Sweet quiet moments with my journal and a cup of coffee. No one clutching at my body or barking demands.

“I wannnn booberries!” Max repeats. Do we have blueberries? I wonder.

“Can you use your regular voice please? I can’t understand you when you whine,” I lie.

“IIIII wannnnn booberries!” he yells. I take a deep breath and set my half-filled coffee mug down and plop Violet onto the floor.

“MAMA!” she protests. Her arms lift toward me in a V her face crumpling.

“Just a second, Vi,” I sigh.

“I wannn Dada!” Max shrieks. Me too.

It is 7:15a.m. There are about twelve hours to fill until bedtime.


Each August just as the stores were starting to display number two pencils and Trapper Keepers, my mom, dad, brother and I drove out to the cluster of streams near Juneau, Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. In the shadow of the glacier, a receding mountain of ice that varies from a cool blue to dirty grey, we watched the spawning sockeye salmon. We’d tromp down a short dirt trail towards a stream, my dad holding the prickly Devil’s Club bushes out of our way with his jacket. The four of us stared into the water, trying to spot the fish. My dad, who was as at home in the Alaskan soil as he was behind the desk at his insurance agency, was always the first to point out the salmon. At first, all I saw were slippery, mossy rocks or an errant pine branch leaning into the stream. But after a few minutes, our eyes adjusted and we could see that the water was clogged with fish, their green heads and red bodies a surprise splash of Christmas in the ebbing summer.

A few weeks later, we would head out to the glacier for another glimpse at the salmon. This time, the fish that were still alive were tattered. The vibrant reds and greens that had bloomed to attract mates had faded. Their fins were mangy, their bodies battered by the rocks and the current. When it is time to breed, the salmon stop eating and devote what is left of their life force to propelling the babies they will never meet into the wet world. My brother and I would point out all the dead ones floating in the shallow streams or beached on the rocky banks. “There’s one! Gross!” we’d say, plugging our noses against the overripe stench of fish.

We peppered my dad with questions.

“Why do they have to die after they lay eggs?”

“Why do they smell so gross?”

“How do they find their way back to this exact stream where they were born?”

“Nobody really knows,” my dad said, his eyes moving from the fish to the mountains stretching above the stream. Last year’s dusting of snow at the mountaintops had only just melted; soon it would start to collect again. My dad’s eyes roamed the mountains as if the answers were buried somewhere in the green and brown. “Nobody really knows.”


“Why are you stopping, Mama?” Max asks from the backseat. It’s late morning, and in an attempt to break up the day, we’re out for groceries and gas.

“Because there’s a red light.”

“But why?”

“Because…because we have to take turns with the other cars,” I say.

“But why? Why, Mom?”

“So we don’t get in an accident, Maxie.”

“Oh,” he says, and for a slip of a second, he is quiet. Blissfully quiet.

Sitting at the red light, I practice the breath we do sometimes in yoga, breathing in for three counts and out for five. Two, three, fo-

“Mom! Why is the gym there?”

“I don’t know. It just is.”

“Why is Bilet asleep?”

“Because babies need lots of sleep,” I sigh. Because she was tired of listening to your questions and plummeted into the sweet release of slumber. I pull up to the gas station.

“Why are you going here?” he asks.

“I’m going to put some gas in the car, Maxie. I’ll be right back.”
“But wh—”

I close the door a bit more forcefully than necessary. Breathing in the rich smell of spilled gasoline, I glance at Max through the window. He is smiling at me. His lips are still moving.

Max’s whys are exhausting, and the lack of quiet is maddening. But there is something more. Each “why” brings a small, orange burst of panic. It’s the same panic I’ve felt when starting a new job, when I am getting to know someone I admire, or when I realize I still haven’t learned to cook: the fear that I am a complete fraud and will soon be found out. How long will it be until he’s asking me the questions I truly can’t answer—questions about why people do bad things, why do people have to die, why will the sun someday burn out? Through the car window I can see my son’s beautiful blue eyes, full of complete trust that I know the answers to all his questions. He has no doubt that I am lightly holding his world.


Science, like my father, has been unable to completely explain how the salmon find their way back—against the current and all odds—to the very stream where they hatched. Some believe that the fish can smell their way home, having imprinted the subtle trail of scents on their journey to the sea. Others believe that the earth’s magnetic fields guide them, pulling them home like a magnet.


As a child, words were my home. I scrawled poems about rainbows, and curled up in my closet, devouring Judy Blume books. Later, I wanted to be an actress, a therapist, a musician. It took me ten years to earn my bachelor’s degree as I traipsed from one major to another, attending four different colleges in three different states. I wrote and stopped, wrote and stopped, never having the courage to commit fully to writing, though it is one of the few things I’ve loved without pause. I’ve worked at a retail women’s boutique and for a professional hockey team. I’ve slung coffee and I’ve temped. I drove from my homeland of Alaska to Maine, where a warm, braided force tugged at me from beneath the cobblestone streets, urging me to land and build a life. At times, I wrote. But facing the blank page often felt like swimming against a fierce current—too painful, too many sharp stones to batter me.

Then, I had children. Fatigue and lack of time edged the words out—and most everything else, too.


Like me, the salmon are also changelings. In the winter, they leak into the world from their pink, opaque eggs, already orphaned. Oblivious to the white world above, they burrow into the gravel. They soak in the nutrients from the egg that once held them. They wait for spring.

As they grow, they sprout dark spots and lines for camouflage. Their gills and kidneys morph, preparing for the migration from freshwater to saltwater. They hover near the sea. Their bodies turn iridescent. They enter the ocean, swimming into the unknown.


On the days Max is at preschool, Violet and I go for walks through the cemetery. I strap her into a baby carrier, and her eyes widen as they take in the sweeps of green, the yellow bursts of dandelions, the leaning tombstones. When it becomes too much world to take in, she rests her head against my chest. She doesn’t know that I don’t know the answers, that I worry about money, marriage, mortality. That at nearly 40, I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up. She doesn’t know that I’m not sure if I’m going to turn left up ahead and walk towards the duck pond, or go right at the gravestone encircled with fake flowers and angel statues. But there is the weight of her head, her full white cherub cheeks against my chest. My heart, her first sound. Her eyelids dip and open, dip and open. She slips into sleep. I turn left, towards the raspy call of the ducks.


In sixth grade, we had to write about what our life would be like in twenty years. I will have two kids, I wrote. I will mostly wear sweaters and jeans. These turned out to be true. But I also wrote that I would live in Alaska and take my place in the family insurance business.

Maybe, sometimes, we can map out the big milestones of our lives. But there is no way to predict the quirky details: At 38, you will have a torrid, wholly unexpected love affair with Brussels sprouts. You will take a road trip that plunks you down in Portland, Maine. The evil fashion trend of skinny jeans will infect the world. Your son will have the same blue eyes of your brother, who will die at 21. Your daughter will have red hair and skin the color of pale cream.


In the sea, in a liquid vastness that dwarfs their home streams, the salmon spend the thick of their lives. They dart from orcas and seagulls. They eat and grow. After a year or two or three of wildness, they retrace their journey. They head home, following the familiar curves of shore, their bodies swiftly adapting from salt water to freshwater, from a wide life back to a narrow one.


Today, between waking and bedtime:

One dance party to Footloose, two to Gangnam Style.

Max pulls his pants down in front of my dad, shakes his bum and says, “I’m going to poop all over Papa!” before laughing hysterically.

Max refuses to get in his car seat after preschool. I sit in the front seat to wait as he cackles and attempts to launch himself into the passenger seat next to me. My blood boils.

Violet takes a handful of stilted steps before plopping herself belly up on a beanbag, like lazy royalty.

“Gentle,” I say to Max. Twenty-three times.

One moment where Violet blows on a little yellow piece of plastic like a horn. This makes Max laugh, which makes Violet laugh. They spray spittle on each other. They are a small pair of insane people, and I melt.

How easily the salmon seem to shift gears, how they shape-shift, while I still flounder from the shock of parenthood. From the jolting pace of the days, the stop-start of tantrums and hugs, vicious boredom and sweet toddler skin.


They make their way home. Slowly, steadily. Perhaps the vibration of home echoes in their small, electric hearts, pulling them north. At the end of their journey, just before they breed and die, their fins go crimson. Their heads turn pine green. They brighten, ready to mate.

Afterwards, they are brittle and wasted. But they are home. They are completing what they were born to do, fulfilling their fate.


As the sun retreats, I glance around the living room. Peanut butter is smeared across Max’s face, hands and the couch. A small smudge stiffens a tuft of Violet’s hair. The floor is strewn with trains with little grey faces, popcorn seeds, and, not surprisingly, a small army of ants. My husband sits in his chair, still in his work clothes, absorbed in his iPad.

My husband and I used to go to the movies. We used to talk to each other. I used to move so often that I kept the boxes to anything I owned that was electric. Ten years have passed in a breath and suddenly we have two kids and a house and we are tired.

Tired and lost. My mind is full of half-finished goals: organize our finances, learn to cook, de-clutter the house, write a book. I feel like I am swimming upstream. I miss the wide, wild sea, the taste of salt on my lips.

How do the salmon do it? How do they find their way home without signs? Without anyone to tell them they are moving in the right direction, to bear left here, to steer clear of that stream over there? How do I know if I’m doing anything right? When there is no supervisor at the end of the day to say, “Hey, nice work today.” Or, “Um, it looks you could use some help over here.” If the kids are alive, somewhat clean and somewhat fed, I guess it’s a successful day. But there’s no one to tell me that, no sign.


And then, sometimes, there is. At the mall the other day with Violet, I pushed her stroller, the blare of music and lights exhausting us both. As her eyes opened and closed, attempting sleep, I stopped to glance at the mall directory. Amidst the blocks of stores, doorways and bathrooms, I spied a small yellow triangle. You are here.

I often feel lost and irritated, and my jeans have unidentifiable smears on them. But if I pull back from the map, I can see I am somewhere in the middle of a lovely, twisty, hard maze of a life. I am a right turn past here, a zig-zag short of there. My life is not circular like the salmon; I am not consciously predestined. But I am making my way, sometimes pushing upstream, sometimes easing through salty seas. If I can remind myself that I only need to follow the next curve of shore, I am okay. I made my way from Alaska to Maine, from alone to tethered. My body carried two babies and now they are here. Now we are here.

And now, finally, they are sleeping. Their sweet pink mouths suck, a body memory of comfort, of home. Of me. Their faces, round and soft, are constellations I could have never envisioned. Blue-eyed, creamy-cheeked and dimpled, they are my little moons. They look like the future: different than I would’ve imagined and lovely. Dreams wind through their heads, unseen and unknown to me; already they are separate, already they are full of mystery. My fingers find the keys and softly click. I breathe and wait for the magnetic pull in my chest, in my fingertips. The copper smell of rocky streams. And like the salmon, as I begin, I remember: It is words that ground me, that pull me home. You are here.

As a mom of two young children, Lynn Shattuck attempts to balance diapers and laptops, yoga and running, and tucks as much writing as she can into the remaining nooks and crannies of her life. Besides writing for her blog, http://thelightwillfindyou.com, she is a featured columnist at the Elephant Journal and blogs for Huffington Post. She also has pieces in the anthologies Clash of the Couples and Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor.



Get a Real Job

Get a Real Job

Art Get a Real Job

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Minnesota winters are brutal on stay-at-home mothers with young children. It is so hard to get outside. Slippery sidewalks, slushy roads, kids who take twenty minutes to get bundled up and only then announce, “I have to pee!”

The winter my twins were infants, I felt nearly suffocated by the early darkness, the cold, the isolation. I needed to exercise and to get out of the house. I started taking the twins to the Mall of America. It was a thirty minute drive on a non-snowy day and the mall had four floors, each an entire mile in circumference.

I never shopped, we couldn’t afford anything but diapers and the basic groceries that supplemented our WIC coupons. I walked. The mall was free, warm, and not my house. It had that white noise background that can (sometimes) soothe anxious babies. In the middle of the day it was filled with two kinds of people: other stay at home moms who were empathetic and equally desperate, and elderly people also out for a non-slippery walk. The elderly were my favorite because they loved seeing infant twins. Their comments and smiles would remind me, in the haze of those sleepless months, that my children were precious and cute and treasures.

So we walked. My double stroller that was so hard to manoeuver and my massive diaper bag that knocked into other walkers and my weary spirit, thankful for a few hours out of the house, pretending we were real people with money to spend and friends to meet and not just a mom and two babies hoping to make it through another day.

One of the best things about the Mall of America was the nursing mother’s room at Nordstrom’s. I could time my walk to end up there just at feeding time and we would wander through the beautiful clothes to the bathroom.

Inside this bathroom were several beige couches, big clean mirrors, flowers, calming music piped in, a changing table, and privacy and quiet where my babies could eat in peace. I could rest one in my lap and prop one up on the couch pillows, much easier than trying to accomplish feeding both on a mall bench or fast food restaurant plastic chair.

One day, while in the nursing room, a woman came in. She looked to be in her upper sixties. She wore a raggedy faux-fur coat, a pearl necklace, and hot pink lipstick that had smeared outside the lines and snagged on dried skin on her lips. Her hair was ashy blond with streaks of gray, dry and cracking at the ends. She walked briskly past us, into the bathroom part of the room.

There was a phone on the table next to me and when she came back out, she picked up the phone. There wasn’t a dial tone and she slammed it down.

My babies jerked their bodies at the sound but continued eating.

She picked up the phone again, yelled into it, and slammed it down again. She turned and glared at me. I offered a half-smile, hoping it came across as neutral or sympathetic. She started at the babies, my stroller, the diaper bag, back at my face.

“Get a real job,” she shouted, and then she ran out the door.

Her words echoed in the nursing mother’s room. Get a real job. Get a real job.

I’d had a real job, before these babies were born. I had a university degree, albeit a fairly useless one for earning a decent salary. I was twenty-two years old. I had ambition, albeit on hold for now. Was strolling through the Mall of America on a crisp winter day not enough?

I looked at my babies. They were done now and needed to be burped, needed their diapers changed.

Day care for infant twins cost almost more than I could earn at all the real jobs I’d had or applied for and qualified for. Already, I struggled to get through the day and to keep my family clean, clothed, and fed – both financially and physically. Maybe a real job would be in my future, maybe when I slept more than two hours straight at night, I could be useful in a real job. Maybe I was wasting my skills or time and they would be better spent at a real job. Maybe…

I stopped myself. Real job?

What could be more real than keeping two human beings healthy and loved? No one paid me for it but that didn’t make it less of a job. I would have different jobs in the future, I know that now, fifteen years later, but they haven’t felt any more real than those early parenting years. The opposite of real would be fake or imagined and I certainly wasn’t faking. The stretch marks, c-section scar, sleepless nights, breast milk stained shirts, Bob the Builder lyrics running through my head ad nauseum, endless rounds of patty-cake, I imagined none of it.

When both babies started crying at the same time and I still had to clean up burp rags and dirty diapers and settle them into the stroller, I knew. This was as real as jobs get and I didn’t want a different one.


Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.



Mama Wants a Brand-New Job

By Katy Read

winter2010_readIn unexpected ways, the Great Recession has been good for Amy Stone. Oh, not the fact that her family has had to slash expenses: downscaling the cable and cell-phone plans, cutting back on restaurant meals, dropping their dental coverage. And certainly not the fact that her husband was laid off and, though he has a new job, is now making $50,000 less than he formerly earned.

But for Stone, the hard times have presented an opportunity to build a business doing work she loves to do: creating handmade baby gifts, ceramic baby hand and feet impressions, murals, jewelry, pottery—basically offering her artistic talents “to anyone who has an idea.”

Stone, a former FedEx executive who took a buyout to be a stay-at-home mother—she now has two daughters: one four years old, the other eighteen months—has an art degree. She put it to use about four years ago, when she began cutting, painting and renting out wooden stork-shaped “new baby” yard signs (having been inspired to improve upon a sign she received for her older daughter’s birth that was “absolutely ugly”). The venture grew slowly at first, by word of mouth. But after her husband lost his brokerage job, Stone decided to get more proactive. In January, she launched a website advertising her creations and offering an expanded line of merchandise.

“Now I’ve got so much work I can hardly keep up,” says Stone, forty, who lives in Byhalia, Mississippi. “I have people from all over the United States calling me asking me, ‘Can you do this,’ ‘Can you do that.’ And I’m one who has a hard time saying no, so I usually try to accommodate everybody.”

She doesn’t make nearly what she used to make at FedEx, but as a tradeoff for being home with her children and homeschooling her older daughter, “it all breaks even to me.”

For the chance for a parent to stay home and care for the children—to take them to playgrounds and the beach, to be there when they get home from school, to avoid the frantic schedules and frustrating compromises involved in balancing full-time work and raising children—many families willingly make sacrifices. Plenty of single-income families cheerfully forgo new cars, fancy vacations and other luxuries. But in the current recession, the worst in recent memory, those measures may not be enough. What once seemed like a reasonable and rewarding choice has forced many single-income families to rethink their decision.

Not all stay-at-home mothers are as lucky as Stone, able to monetize their talent and ideas in a pinch. But many are casting about for ways to improve their earning power. With spouses’ jobs threatened, investments and home values clobbered, and household budgets straining at the seams, mothers who have spent years comfortably at home have started brushing the dust off their résumés, or looking for ways to make extra income on their own.

Experts aren’t certain exactly how many stay-at-home mothers have returned to work, or where, or doing what. And although economic cataclysms can bring about long-term changes in social, economic, and political behavior, it’s not yet clear what the consequences will be this time around. “You can never be in the eye of the storm and know what’s happening,” says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University and the author of Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (1990). But the logical assumption that hard times might push at-home mothers back into the workplace seems to be supported by federal statistics, Goldin says. The number of women in the labor force, which includes women actually working as well as those just looking for work, has inched upward, suggesting that some women who had previously kept themselves out of the labor force (including at-home mothers), are at least trying to get back in.

“This recession has brought home to huge numbers of women that opting out is just too scary from a family finance point of view,” said Joan Williams, a legal scholar and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. “It has been a rude awakening and has dramatized for people the true economic consequences.”

Women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, now hold about half of all jobs. The recession, sometimes called a “man-cession” or “he-cession” because about three-quarters of those who have lost jobs are men, has battered male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, whereas jobs in female-dominated professions like healthcare and education are stable or growing.

Though still digesting what women might gain from this new strength in numbers, some observers hope that it will finally prompt long-sought changes in both homes and workplaces that could potentially improve mothers’ lives. A national study of women’s status published in October, titled A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, examines various issues that complicate the lives of working parents—particularly those of mothers—and floats the idea that women’s increased representation in the workplace could spur dramatic societal change. Spearheaded by California First Lady and Kennedy clan member Maria Shriver, along with the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, the report argues that government and businesses should adjust policies to meet the needs of their women employees. The report also suggests that men are seeing, or at least at some point will see, the need to do their fair share at home, becoming equal partners with their co-breadwinners in household chores and childcare. Some commentators, including feminist leader Gloria Steinem, have noted that women’s mere presence in the work force may not be enough to spur these changes, but applaud the report for putting the conversation on the table.

Most mothers want to work, even if many would prefer part-time. A 2005 poll by the Institute for American Values demonstrated that, if given the choice, more than two-thirds of women would opt in to working, at least part time, while their children were young. The good news is that their contributions seem to be welcome; in a recent study conducted by Time magazine and the Rockefeller Foundation, majorities of both men and women said mothers are just as committed to their jobs as women without children, and just as productive at work as fathers. (However, the respondents seemed conflicted about how this might play out at home: Fifty-seven percent of men and fifty-one percent of women agreed that it is better for a family if the father works outside the home and the mother takes care of the children.)

With more women bringing home the bacon, families and employers may better appreciate the importance of women’s earnings, said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “Policy makers are hopefully going to start taking seriously the need for workers to balance work and care—not just women but all workers.”

That would be great news for mothers who’ve felt unwillingly squeezed out of the workplace by policies that don’t accommodate the needs of families, according to Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (2007). In her book, Stone (no relation to artist Amy) interviewed mothers who “actually loved their jobs, wanted to stay in their jobs” but eventually left them because they found their demanding schedules made staying at work and raising children too difficult.

Much as mothers might need and desire more workplace options—flexible hours, part-time work, telecommuting—in tough times some employers conclude that they can’t afford to offer those things, possibly becoming even more inhospitable to parents’ needs, Williams, of Worklife Law, says. And employees, thankful to have jobs at all, are more afraid to rock the boat. So at-home mothers returning to work may find the workplace more hostile than it was when they left.

Indeed, Pamela Stone says, the recession might have changed the outlook of women like those she interviewed, forcing them to find ways to stick it out at work, a decision she says would probably be for the best. “Because it’s too perilous a time,” she says. “Based on where things are now, and what I know about some of the difficulties about returning to work, if you’ve got a job that you can make work, make it work.”

But there are some indications that workplaces are already becoming more flexible, not just to make moms happy but also to control businesses’ own costs. A study conducted in 2009 by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that eighty-one percent of employers have maintained the level of flexibility they offered before the economic meltdown, and thirteen percent have increased it, offering perks such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, voluntary reduced hours, and phased retirement.

“Workplace flexibility is one of the hidden, strategic workplace management tools that has allowed employers to respond to many different ups and down,” said Lois Backon, vice president of the Institute.

Turns out such measures aren’t just a boon to parents and others employees who’d like to work fewer hours: They also help businesses cut costs, not to mention hang onto valuable employees rather than lay them off, Williams says. “One of the great problems in managing a recession is gearing up once it’s over. If you give everybody the opportunity to flex their hours and reduce them if they want … once the demand returns, you already have the people you need on staff.”

Those flexible options may be great for many parents, but mothers reentering the work force after years away may be reluctant to take advantage of them, for fear of seeming less than fully dedicated. New employees often feel they first need to prove themselves, said Melissa Stanton, author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-Tested Strategies for Staying Smart, Sane, and Connected While Caring for Your Kids (2008). Stanton, who has three children and lives in suburban Washington, D.C., is job hunting herself these days. She applied for one contract position that would have required her to commute into the city five days a week. When she asked to work from home twice a week, the employer declined, and she didn’t get the job. Now she feels she should have taken the job as it was offered, proved her value, and then asked for a partial telecommuting arrangement.

“That’s advice that was given to me by a woman who’s got a really great job that she can now do at home,” Stanton said. “You go in and you work your butt off, and for a year or two your children and your spouse need to know you may not be at home until eight o’clock at night, the kids might be in bed by the time you get home.”

But that kind of full-throttle work commitment is a pretty tall order for many mothers, still burdened with more than their share of housework and childcare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even employed married mothers of young children do two-thirds of the household work. Men have started doing more around the house, but still far from half, said Dianna Shandy and Karine Moe, authors of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family (2009). Despite all that women have gained in the workplace, the division of household chores can sometimes seem “like a page ripped out of a history book or something,” Moe says.

One woman the authors interviewed for their book, a woman who held an MBA from an Ivy League school (as did her husband), said that after becoming a mother she noticed all of the changes she had made in her life to accommodate her new role.

“And she looked at her husband, and he had not made one single change,” Moe says. “She said, ‘We’re like this 1950s couple, and I don’t know how that happened.’ “

Kathy Pape of Las Vegas has been frustrated with the division of work in her family. Pape left a job as a television reporter in Monterey, California, to stay home with her two small sons. But since her husband, a photojournalist for a television network, had his pay reduced, cutting the family’s income by hundreds of dollars a month, Pape has been helping make ends meet with freelance public-relations jobs. Now she works about forty hours a week (her husband works about fifty), but she still does all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and shopping.

“I love my husband, but he doesn’t do any of that stuff,” says Pape, thirty-five. “He gives me the old, ‘I go to work every day, I’m tired.’ He has no clue how it is, none.”

Meanwhile, the recession also is limiting the extent to which families such as Pape’s can pay for conveniences and outside help with domestic chores. For example, Pape has had to cut back on both ready-cooked deli meals and babysitters. Lately, when she’s at the computer in the daytime her sixteen-month-old has started “pulling the bottom drawer of my desk out, standing on it, trying to hit the mouse, hit the keyboard,” so she does most of her public-relations work at night, when the kids are in bed.

Yet she’s glad to have the chance to be home with her kids, she says. “You only get that shot once, and then they grow up.”

Could the recession mean the end of the so-called helicopter parent, who feels obliged to monitor his or her child’s every move and schedule the child with wall-to-wall classes, sports and activities intended to ensure his success in school and later life?

Logic suggests that strapped parents are less able to spend either time or money on their kids. Indeed, Pamela Stone suggests, at-home mothers who have felt obliged to sacrifice jobs and financial gain on behalf of their kids might eventually decide that providing financially for one’s kids is also part of caregiving, and that financial decisions that jeopardize mothers put their kids at risk, too.

“I think that there’s so much in our culture that really puts pressure on working moms to quit—the guilt trip and the like,” Stone says. When it gets tough, it helps to “keep remembering that the vast majority of moms are working.”

But hyperparenting may not die out so easily, says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (2008). After all, overprotective parents usually act that way out of anxiety, and a recession certainly doesn’t help to allay anxiety.

“Anxiety doesn’t follow logic,” she said. “Anxiety has been ratcheted up in the recession. Parents are even more worried about the future of their kids. … It filters into a style of parenting that you have to be more vigilant, you have to monitor, there’s no room for a mistake. Perfection becomes the goal.”

Marano said that when she speaks to groups of parents, people in attendance seem more anxious than ever. For example, she says, some parents feel it’s even more important now for kids to get into competitive colleges. So they are “hiring tutors for this, tutors for that, are much more eager to see their kids on travel teams so the kids could get onto the varsity team.

Even in the best of times, re-entry in the job market can be tough for mothers who have been at home for a while. Experts say they already face various stigmas and assumptions, from ageism to the suspicion that they’re not sufficiently committed, dependable, ambitious or capable. In a 2007 study by psychologists at Northwestern, Princeton and Lawrence Universities, researchers measuring public perceptions of different groups found that “housewives” were perceived to be approximately as competent as elderly and mentally retarded people.

Jennifer Piehl has faced this uphill re-entry battle firsthand. For more than eleven years, she was a mostly full-time at-home mother to her three children, taking a few jobs as a tutor but rarely working more than a few hours a week. Being at home gave her the flexibility to get extra help for a son who has a hearing impairment.

Now, though, she is getting a divorce. Although she and her husband jointly made the decision for her to stay home, it is Piehl who is paying a steep and personal price for it. At thirty-eight, she has little means of supporting herself aside from whatever she winds up with in child support and alimony.

The financial inequities between Piehl and her soon-to-be ex-husband are stark. He earns more than $100,000 a year as a project manager for a large company, and hopes to buy out her share of their 3,100-square-foot house. Piehl earns $60 a week (at best) when she can get private tutoring jobs, plus whatever child support and spousal maintenance her husband winds up contributing. She will have to pay for her own health insurance. Her husband has urged her to buy a condominium, but she doesn’t want to do that because she can’t count on a steady income over the life of a mortgage. “My spousal maintenance doesn’t last thirty years. My child support doesn’t last thirty years,” Piehl says. “When my oldest turns eighteen, which is only seven and a half years from now, I start losing money. I can’t bank on getting remarried.” Instead, Piehl has moved in with her parents in a suburb outside Milwaukee.

Piehl has begun looking for a job, but having sent out more than fifty résumés, she’s been called for only a handful of interviews. Though she has a master’s degree in education, she has never taught full time, which she fears makes her appear simultaneously overqualified (teachers with post-graduate degrees get higher salaries) and underqualified. There’s no question that her years out of the full-time work force have placed her at a serious economic disadvantage.

She is hardly alone. According to recent numbers, getting hired is more difficult than ever for almost everyone. According to Boushey, the economist, thirty-six percent of unemployed workers have become so discouraged that they’ve dropped out of the job market altogether for at least six months, the highest percentage since World War II. (The previous peak was twenty-six percent.) The employment picture varies from one industry to another, Boushey says, but statistically speaking, for every available job there are 6.3 people actively seeking work. In other words, someone applying for a job can expect, on average, more than five competitors—particularly dismal odds for those with gaps in their work history.

“For mothers, with that kind of competition, it kind of makes my stomach drop a little bit,” Boushey says.

Meanwhile, some mothers have found themselves opting out involuntarily. Margot Diamond, once a fast-track executive has been an at-home mother since she was laid off a year ago. Although she has made the most of her chance to take her two girls to activities, help with their homework and fix healthy meals, she wants to go back to work. So far, she can’t.

“I graduated college in 1987, and I have never seen an economy like this one,” says Diamond, a former product-development executive in suburban Dallas.

She has been laid off before, but other times she was able to get back to work fairly quickly. Recruiters courted her; big companies flew her around the country for interviews. This time, the phone isn’t ringing; the two hundred and fifty or so résumés she has sent out have generated only a handful of interviews.

“Somehow, whatever worked before is just not working this time, because no one’s hiring,” she says. As time goes on, she worries that employers will question her absence from the work force. “I know it’s more understood now, the way the economy is. Still, a year is a year.”

She’s willing to take a pay cut. In fact, Diamond, who once made more than $90,000 a year, has applied for unskilled retail jobs at the local mall—at Coach, J.Crew, Ann Taylor—without any luck. Which might be just as well, she acknowledges, considering that those jobs entail less-than-ideal hours and wages.

“Do I want to work on Saturdays and Sundays and not see my husband and kids, for eight dollars an hour, which is going to get taxed?” she wonders. “Or should I be providing value for my family?”

Author’s Note: I’m recently divorced after working very part time for many years. So I’m looking for a steadier paycheck, and can more than empathize with the women in this story facing their own financial predicaments. Much as I’d like to have found better news for all of us, it still seems too soon for much optimism. Frankly, in many professions, it sucks out there these days. But I’m inspired by people like Amy Stone, and other women I talked to, who look at the tough times as an opportunity to remake their lives—maybe even in a way that suits them better than what they would have chosen under easier circumstances.

The other great thing about looking for work in a recession is that you don’t feel lonely. It’s yet another reason for mothers—working full time or at home with children or somewhere in between—to stick together. Whatever our employment status, we all know the difficulty of trying to squeeze in all of our responsibilities, and maybe find a shred of time here and there for ourselves.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2010)

About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.