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Excerpt: Boom!

Boom Book Cover

I Am Woman
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
-- Helen Reddy and Ray Burton

As young parents of three girls, living in California during the late Sixties and early Seventies, Meredith and I couldn't help but be aware of the rising level of dialogue, debate, commentary, and proclamations about the place of women in society and about how to raise females in light of this raised consciousness. It made the new experience of parenthood more interesting, and we knew that our daughters would be coming of age in a world very different from the one in which we were raised. But, like most parents, we were not prepared to accept every polemic on how to raise women.

Some of the ideas we did find intriguing, even if they later turned out to be laughable. Sometime in the early Seventies, gender-free toys were briefly a popular idea. So at Christmas on the California beach in 1972, we downplayed the dolls with frilly dresses and loaded up Santa's sack with toy trucks and earth movers for our three daughters.

The last I saw of the trucks, they were rusting and abandoned in the surf, but the dolls found good homes in the bedrooms of their caring surrogate parents. What were we thinking? The place of women doesn't depend on their affection for the toys of boys; it is much more complex than that.

Our daughters were coming of age during a rising consciousness about gender equality. Throughout their school years — from kindergarten through graduate school, 1972 to 1992 — women were starting to take their places in areas traditionally reserved mostly for men. They were changing the face of law, medicine, business, education, politics, and the military. What did not change is that boys and men continued to dominate the leadership positions of all the important institutions of American life. In our family, Meredith and the girls have lived where my career took them, leaving behind their own friends and plans.

One of our daughters is now a physician; another is a vice president of a major entertainment company; and the third is a clinical therapist. They place no limits on their ambitions, but for them, those ambitions also have had to fit within the context of having children. For all the gains made by women, and the recognition within society of how important that is to a healthy body politic, we have not satisfactorily resolved the workplace consequences of having children.

I often cite Meredith as someone who managed gracefully to have it all. She stopped working when we began to have children and stayed home until they were all in school. Then she eased back into the workplace, first as a teacher and then as an entrepreneurial toy store owner and author of children's books. She went on a corporate board, was elected an officer of a major international environmental organization, and became passionate about horseback riding at the age of fifty. Of course, I think of her as exceptional, but she is not the exception in her generation of women, who seized the long-overdue chance to soar high above the nest of home and homemaking. By the time she was sixty Meredith had a complete set of experiences — motherhood, career, and active outside interests.

She is the first to acknowledge that her choices were made much easier by the security of our marriage and the financial dividends that came with my job. She had choices not available to, say, a single mom in a company where maternity leave was a benefit but also a penalty, or a wife whose family depended on two incomes to survive.

For most women the struggle to find a balance between work and family is a conundrum without a perfect solution. Maternity leave and day care centers are welcome and important steps, but they fail to address the larger issue of balancing the role of the mother and the father in child care and in the workplace, particularly at a time when the middle-class standard of living is becoming harder and harder to achieve.

The late Ann Richards, the silver-haired, tart-tongued governor of Texas, summed it up nicely when she observed, "They blame the low-income women for ruining the country because they're staying home with their children and not going to work. They blame the middle-income women for ruining the country because they go out to work and do not stay at home to take care of their children."

It led to what came to be called "the mommy wars," in which women were put in the uncomfortable position of arguing with one another over the choices they made, trying to justify their very personal choices about work and child rearing, to one another.

When Barbara Bush was invited to give the 1990 commencement address at Wellesley College, fully a quarter of the graduating seniors signed a petition protesting her appearance. They said, "Barbara Bush has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband. ...Wellesley teaches us that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not that of a spouse."

Mrs. Bush gave her speech, despite the protest. She spoke to the graduates as a woman who was just twenty years old when she married George H. W. Bush immediately following his service in World War II.

Early in their marriage, they endured the heartache of losing a daughter to leukemia, but they had five other children — four boys and a daughter. Barbara was a stay-at-home mom while her husband pursued a career in the Texas oil business and worked his way up through the ranks of the Republican Party.

She had been witness to some profound shifts in attitudes about marriage, child rearing, and families by the time she appeared at the Wellesley graduation and said:

We are in a transitional period right now, fascinating and exhilarating times, learning to adjust to changes and the choices we, men and women, are facing. As an example, I remember what a friend said on hearing her husband complain to his buddies that he had to babysit. Quickly setting him straight, my friend told her husband that when it's your own kids, it's not called babysitting.

Maybe we should adjust faster; maybe we should adjust slower. But whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change: Fathers and mothers, if you have children, they must come first. You must read to your children, hug your children, and you must love your children. Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House but on what happens inside your house.

For over fifty years, it was said that the winner of Wellesley's annual hoop race would be the first to get married. Now they say the winner will be the first to become a CEO. Both of those stereotypes show too little tolerance for those who want to know where the mermaids stand. So I want to offer you today a new legend: The winner of the hoop race will be the first to realize her dream — not society's dreams — her own personal dream.

And who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president's spouse. And I wish him well.

In my experience, women with whom I work are not at war with one another or their individual decisions on the issue of whether to stay on the job or have babies. Among our daughters and the women I know in the workplace, the discussions are much more about being supportive of one another than about being critical or divisive. One of the residues of the Sixties is the rise of a new category of womanhood: the single mom. A combination of rising divorce rates and a significant increase in children born out of wedlock has created the culture of the single mom. Google the phrase, and your computer will pop up almost three and a half million entries for single moms.

By the age of forty, one-third of all the boomer women who married early were divorced. Not all of them remained single, of course; the multimarriage household has also become a fixed part of the culture.

For those middle-class and working-class women who didn't remarry, getting out of a bad marriage was simply a transition to a difficult life, especially if there were children involved, since the kids almost always wound up with Mom for most, if not all, of the time. That created a large class of women who were a combination of breadwinner, mother-father, transportation chief, cook, housekeeper — and completely exhausted.

Sociologists wonder how these changes — divorces, multi-marriages, and single moms — will play out in ten or fifteen years, when the boomers start to reach their elder years. Will children pay as much attention to the stepdad or stepmom when one of the partners dies? Will single moms have an even more difficult time when their children move away?

No doubt women have many more choices as a result of the Sixties; but they're still in second place to men when it comes to the range of those choices — and their consequences.

Excerpted from Boom! by Tom Brokaw Copyright © 2007 by Tom Brokaw. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Tom Brokaw