Her days of work, worry, wonder

Times Staff Writer

Water Cooler Diaries

Women Across America Share Their Day at Work

Joni B. Cole and B.K. Rakhra

Da Capo/Lifelong: 320 pp., $15.95 paper



ONCE upon a time, in a land far away, a woman in a silk negligee given to her by her adoring husband stayed in bed until 10 a.m. Then she rose, slipped on the matching silk robe, drank a cafe au lait, glanced at the paper, dressed and went out to buy flowers. She had lunch with friends. Her children, the little darlings, magically arrived home at 3 p.m. and played quietly among themselves. At 6 p.m., she was ready -- fresh lipstick, glamorous evening dress, martini in hand. Enter adoring husband, with plans for a romantic evening.

Sound familiar? No? Then you’ll be glad to know that no diary entry like this appears in Joni B. Cole and B.K. Rakhra’s collection of 35 full-day accounts, interspersed with excerpts, from the 515 women who responded to their call across America for on-the-job diaries.

For starters, almost all the contributors to “Water Cooler Diaries,” except for those on graveyard shifts, rise between 5 and 7 a.m. They usually have to feed not only themselves but other family members and pets. They chauffeur, clean house, do laundry, buy groceries, besides going to work. Sometimes they exercise (more for peace of mind than out of vanity).

The authors cite on the salary for a stay-at-home mom, “if she were compensated for all the elements of her job”: $138,095. I’m guessing that few of the women represented here make even a third of that figure.

And yet, the authors write, only 52% of the diarists worried about money. Thirty-one percent held more than one job. The orthopedic trauma surgeon, the long-distance truck driver, the race car driver, the principal clarinetist -- in these and other entries, there’s relatively little complaining about money, which, to my mind, suggests brainwashing. Keep them so busy, so exhausted, so overworked and so grateful for their independence that they won’t have time to notice how fast they’re running just to keep up with what’s expected of them. What’s expected of them -- what it means to be a good mother, a good wife, a good employee, a good businesswoman -- hangs like a dark cloud over these extraordinary women, most of them too cheerful, too grateful, too alive to even notice it. Fifty-seven percent of the diarists believe they’ve landed their dream jobs. Very few mention getting ahead. It’s not about getting ahead. It’s about survival.

And being happy: Many of them have taken risks with their lives, have pushed to be true to some inner voice. “Can people ever be a failure if they are doing what they love?” asks a used-bookstore owner in Minot, N.D. “I’d rather die of stress than boredom,” writes a New York City fashion designer who, despite media attention and industry accolades, has trouble paying the rent for a studio. There’s a need to get out of the house and into the world -- a drive that is less about ambition and more about fulfillment. “I just need to get out there and I don’t know if anyone understands this,” writes a saltwater fly-fishing guide in Palm City, Fla. “I don’t know if my husband understands it to this day. If I don’t get out at least once a week and fish, things just don’t go right.”

There is, in fact, a suspicious lack of complaint in these entries. Worry, yes -- about how to get everything done -- but very little complaining. Unsurprisingly, one of the hardest days described is that of the stay-at-home mom, who lives in Plainfield, N.H., with 4-month-old twins and a 4-year-old.

Almost none of the women complain about depression, though the archivist and reference librarian (South Hadley, Mass.) who has to choose between a sick child and her job comes perilously close: “I know that dwelling on work will be a distraction from taking care of Asa. And I know that taking care of Asa will be a distraction from the upcoming changes at work. . . . The thought crosses my mind that I might just rather be at work, and then I quickly berate myself because only a terrible mother would think such a heartless thing.”

Let’s face it, Tonia N. Sutherland, 31, should not be in this position. None of these women should feel that work and children are in competition, and any decent democracy would include laws and incentives that protect women from the fear that they would lose their jobs if they stay home with their sick children. A compassionate culture would not dump such a burden of self-recrimination on women.

There’s something heartbreaking about this collection of days that I think the authors may not have intended. “Water Cooler Diaries” is, on the face of it, remarkably uplifting: all those women out there pursuing all those fascinating careers (mine geologist! snake dancer!). The women seem to me angelic: They try so hard; they believe that if they just run fast enough, they can get it all done. They even try, in their diaries, to be amusing and lighthearted on difficult days and in difficult situations. I worry about them, I really do. They deserve more money, more time to rest and more peace of mind.