- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

When someone told me that my favorite store in Manhattan had opened a branch in the Washington suburbs, I replied: "It's more fun to get to the one in New York."

This was a glib and flip exaggeration, but for someone who grew up when downtown was where the action was, suburban shopping is a pale substitute.

It's easy to understand why people move out of the city greener grass, better public schools and enhanced security. The safety of your children trumps everything. Years ago when we moved into downtown Washington, one of our suburban friends asked snidely whether we intended to mount machine guns on the roof. The reaction of everyone in our extended family was incredulity: "You're not going to raise your children in the city?" But we did (without the machine guns).

Betty Friedan could never have written "The Feminine Mystique," the book that set off the feminist revolution, but for the 'burbs. In 1957, when she interviewed her sisters from Smith, 15 years out of college, that's where most of them lived. They were not, as Miss Friedan suggested, suffering from the infamous "disease that has no name." It had a name. It was called "drowning in the carpool." There was no public transportation, and though these women wanted to be full-time mothers they didn't want to be full-time chauffeurs. The road took a lot of the joy out of motherhood. The automobile became an extension of the body; a car seat was more important than a stroller.

But the suburbs have clearly won. In fact, many of the things we moved back to the city for the hardware stores, car-repair shops, the department stores have long since moved to Coffee Pot Lane.

My daughter, one of the vanishing full-time mothers, lives two blocks away from the house where she grew up. She takes her young sons to the same park she played in as a child, but rarely does she chat with a parent. The other grown-ups are mostly nannies. When the neighborhood park fell into disrepair, she joined a community volunteer group to lobby the city government to match neighborhood contributions to get playground equipment "like they have in the suburbs."

She was trained as a chef, but prefers to cook for her family rather than strangers (and at considerable financial sacrifice). She didn't choose to be a full-time mother for the children, though that was part of her decision, but she didn't want to miss the delicious delight of watching them grow up.

This point of view has almost disappeared from the public debate over "women's issues." Now that the 'burbs have public transportation and shopping malls, women don't have to do as much chauffeuring. But when they go off to the shop or office they're missing a lot of the satisfactions of full-time life with their children. Today in most neighborhoods in the city as well as the suburbs both parents are gone during the day.

The plaint of teen-agers, repeated almost as a mantra, the experts told a recent White House conference on teen-agers, is "we don't get to spend enough time with our parents." Mom and Dad are too tired, too stressed.

Policy wonks and feminists prescribe ever more day care for young children, but parental care shouldn't end with kindergarten. Some of the happiest childhood memories of earlier generations was the walk home for lunch. Kids sat at the kitchen table with their mothers, talking about the Big Issues of the day an impending math test, the girl who teases, the boy who pinches over a bowl of soup or a bologna sandwich and sweet pickles. The scene reeks of nostalgia, but also of security. My mother, like a lot of others (and now including my daughter), didn't see her life as a sacrifice but as one of life's pleasures (and pains). Now all that is gone .

At a pollsters' symposium on the women's vote the other day in Washington, one participant suggested the "perfect policy" for success: A way to give women two more hours a day for family life.

We've come a long way, Betty Friedan. Not all of the ride has been wonderful.

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