If you can't stand reading one more column about the thorny issue of child care, go ahead and turn to the comics or get a head start on your Labor Day barbecue. Because I've got to revisit the issue one final time. . . .
If I was shocked by the barrage of criticism that greeted my recent request for child-care advice, I was even more surprised by the deluge of mail I've received since then.
Almost 400 cards, letters and e-mail messages arrived in the week after we ran the column of readers blasting working mothers, and they are still coming in.
There were funny stories and sad memories, reassurance and regret, wisdom and wonder . . . all evidence of the emotional investment we have in the issue of how we provide and care for our children.
They came from single mothers who toil long hours at low-paying jobs and cry themselves to sleep at night from guilt and exhaustion; from professional women who have stepped away from prestigious careers to become at-home moms; from grandmothers who recalled their own children's youth as "latch-key kids" when it seemed that every other family had a mommy at home.
Today I'd like to share excerpts from a few:
"I am a single mom of 12 years with two teens and have never gotten a penny from their absent father. I could have very easily sat home and collected welfare. But what kind of lazy example would that have been?
"Yes, when I worked 3 to 11 p.m., it hurt to wake my kids up and bring them out of a warm bed into the snow and home to their own beds. But I am showing them that we can do anything we set our minds to and our hearts to, no matter what the odds. . . . And that they should do all they can to better themselves. Life is not easy, but my sons and I work together."
There were legions of letters like these, from mothers who have given up their fantasies of home-baked cookies for the hard realities of raising children alone.
And those who have the option of choosing whether to work or stay home often find the going no easier.
"My job performance is now judged on how my kids behave in the grocery store, and my 'bosses' are the very same irrational and needy souls I am supposed to nurture, educate, discipline and guide," e-mailed an attorney who left a demanding job at a firm in Century City to be at home with her three young children. "I am often lonely and find many aspects of my life at home tedious and unsatisfying. But I do not regret the decision I made."
A young widow raising her two children alone e-mailed: "At the end of the day, none of us will be judged as quality parents according to the number of cookies we baked or the precise amount of hours we spent in close proximity to our children.
"If there's any judgment at all, it will come from our own children. We will see if they love us and honor us into our old age. . . . "
So, let us hear from the children:
"I had an au pair when I was little and quite frankly, I loved her," e-mailed a 14-year-old from Pacific Palisades. "I love my mother too and having an au pair didn't make me love my mom any less."
Now, she said, her mom stays home and she sometimes envies friends who have baby-sitters, because "it's like having one extra person to love and love you."
And from the "teenage daughter of two working parents":
"Your column really made me think. Throughout my life, I've been to a half-dozen baby-sitters and child-care centers. Sure, I didn't like most of them and I didn't always get along with the other kids there, but I survived. . . . If anything, I learned how to compromise and get along with other kids.
"How exactly do people expect me to turn out? I am a straight-A student who doesn't smoke or do drugs. My parents have showed me nothing but loving support. . . . I feel incredibly close to both of them. What else do I have to prove?"
Nothing, I'd say.