Author and award-winning reporter Ann Crittenden was in her early 40s when her first and only child was born. It was an epochal event in her life, leading to an epiphany of sorts. She was besotted, as she confesses in the introduction to her latest book, The Price of Motherhood (Metropolitan/Holt; Forecasts, Dec. 11, 2000): "I fell hopelessly in love with this tiny new creature.... I had taken a lot of trips in my life but this was the most exotic." She was on a six-month maternity leave from the Washington bureau of the New York Times when she decided to quit her job cold. Married for a second time, she had a husband who was a lawyer and a high-tech entrepreneur, fully capable of supporting a family.
Eighteen years later, on a Saturday morning in January 2001, Crittenden sits down with PW in the living room of the comfortable, well-appointed Northwest Washington home she shares with husband John Henry and their son, James, to talk about the second—and much less pleasant—discovery she made soon after James was born. "As a mother, I had shed status like the skin off a snake," she says. Child raising in the fast-paced, power-dominated culture in which she had made her reputation wasn't considered nearly as important, and certainly not as newsworthy, as work for pay. Even more a revelation, she found, was the financial sacrifice required of motherhood and society's relative indifference to mothering's efforts.
A tall, composed woman with carefully coiffed blonde hair, Crittenden talks confidently, earnestly. It isn't necessary to ask leading questions. She is thoroughly into her subject, pausing only to make her visitor some tea. President Bush has just formally announced his plan for a trillion-dollar tax cut, a move that consternates many, like Crittenden, who feel the budget surplus could be better spent to ease social burdens like the so-called mommy tax. "I don't think it would be considered extravagant to give mothers Social Security credit for their work," she asserts, recalling the time she would receive zero Social Security credit for years she spent at home and out of the paid labor force.
Not that she ever cut herself off completely from the challenges and satisfactions of the workaday world. Early successes made it possible for her to continue working part-time on satisfying projects as a mother. Her first real writing job was at Newsweek, after she turned her back on the academic world. She was pursuing postgraduate studies in history at Columbia University and spending a lot of time in the stacks when she decided, "I want to be out there working with people. I don't want to be a professor." Before joining the New York Times in 1975, the Dallas native took time off to travel on her own and write from Southeast Asia and South America, satisfying her wanderlust. She counts among her mentors the late Leonard Silk, columnist for the New York Times, "one person I just admired to death," and her immediate boss at the newspaper, John Lee, then a financial editor and now a retired director of development for the Times's regional newspapers. Honors on her plate—plaques are tucked away in odd places around her house—include the World Hunger Media Award for a New York Times series titled "A World to Feed."
Her son was born in 1982, and during the 1980s, she spent two years as executive director of the Fund for Investigative Reporting and was a project director for the Washington arm of the Aspen Institute. She also wrote two books: Sanctuary: American Conscience and the Law in Collision (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), which she describes as "a nonfiction narrative about do-gooders," and Killing the Sacred Cows: Bold Ideas for a New Economy, a 1993 Viking Penguin paperback collection of essays she calls "really a bunch of articles about bright ideas." Sanctuary was a 1988 New York Times Notable Book.
In 1993, she began researching The Price of Motherhood, originally called A Labor of Love. The play on words of the original was catchy—a reference to both the pains of motherhood and of literary creation—but the title was shelved in favor of a more explicit one. Her subtitle, "Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued," makes her focus clear. Crittenden's goal is nothing less than informing the world of the need to correct public policy concerning mother.
"It's like the elephant in the room. I was struck by what is so incredibly obvious—that parental love and concern are the key to successful human development in every way," she says, explaining how she came to devote almost six years to the project. "Child care has got to be the basis of the economy, because we know that human capital is it for economic development. You've got land, labor and capital, but now the experts are saying human capital is more important than all the rest put together. Ergo, this is Aristotelian logic: the people who take care of young children are the most important producers. It was so obvious, so fundamental, yet no one paid any attention to it. It just blew my mind. So I began to think: I know all this. I know it emotionally, but how can I write it in a way that people would read it?"
She wanted to write for a broad audience, and "not just the cognoscenti, or the converted," who were women struggling like her, conscientiously trying to do the right thing by their children. And she wanted to convince her readers with facts. "A good book to my mind is something that says something you already know, but no one has put together for you—something that gives you a framework and a language."
What surprised her was the amount of material available and the fact that it had not been pulled together. Therein lay her ultimate challenge: finding her way around the mountains of research she was amassing. "This book had no natural structure. You could have put this or that chapter here or there. You had to invent it from the ground up." She combed feminist writings and sought out legal scholars whose specialty is family law, then wrote her findings in layman's language, contributing her own insights and infusing her account with a sense of humor.
She calls her analysis realistic, though at the same time she is aware others might call her naïve to believe her proposals for making the country "more family friendly" could actually be adopted. It's not a question of making the federal government answer for every problem, she points out, since many of the solutions have to come from state and local authorities. "My book is saying, 'Let's make marriage fair.' It's not an equal partnership today. The Feds don't have anything to do with it. It's state law. It's judges. I like to raise consciousness about how very unequal marriage still is. I don't think it is outrageous to ask that every member of a family share the economic risk of divorce.
"I think the fact we have a more conservative national government could be good because, in a way, I'm trying to say, 'Let's call your bluff.' You think it's great to have women home with their children, to have children be cared for by their parents. I agree. Let's put our money where our mouths are."
If anyone is naïve, she suggests, it may be women who do not think ahead about expenses involved in raising children. She cites a study that calculates the direct costs and says the figures were used successfully in some cases to dissuade inner-city girls from getting pregnant. "Figures are way down for them. I think that is related to the economy, too—more job opportunities and education. Everything is linked to women's education."
"I think what I stumbled on," Crittenden continues, "was that both parents need to have their own economic resources for the sake of the kids. People divorce after an average seven years, as I understand it. Most divorces involve young people with young children. The percentage of [American] mothers who work outside the home is 70%, I think. The percentage is highest in Sweden, because they make it easy. We make it harder. As a consequence, fewer women have children here."
Crittenden's argument is simple: "We don't support the people who do the parenting job fully enough, and then we hold them accountable. To people who say that families should be more directly responsible, my answer is, 'Does anyone think children are strictly a private matter?' Children are the basis of a civilized society. What are we going to do if we don't have them anymore, or have them in an indifferent way?"
Referring to a popular book, she says, "No wonder many mothers talk about 'surrendering to motherhood' as if it were a gigantic defeat." She thinks that particular angle is just a ploy, an exaggerated way of getting attention, and laughs at the irony that her agent, Katinka Matson of the husband-wife firm of Brockman Inc., also handled a book entitled Mothers Don't Matter: Parents Don't Count. She praises Matson and her agency highly for taking on her own project and knowing just how to sell it: "They got the idea immediately. Not everybody gets it." Matson says she opted to work with Crittenden "because I thought she was really bringing a new perspective to a problem or solution that nobody had talked about in the way she was. Also, she was passionate and dogged and wasn't going to let go."
The original contract was signed in 1994 with another agent and another publisher on the basis of a 70-page proposal. Disagreements arose later that Crittenden says she isn't comfortable discussing. She switched agents and signed a new agreement with Holt. She credits Matson with helping her restructure the second proposal and shape the final manuscript. The delay, she says, resulted "in an infinitely better book." One result of her protracted labors is that she has collected enough material to write two more books. She won't divulge details, only stating that her new projects are natural extensions of the current book.
Living in Washington, Crittenden had the advantage of the Library of Congress and its vast collections, and she didn't hire any research help. Nor did she usually tape interviews. She didn't need to, in part because she was so fascinated by her subject. "I've never written anything that took so much time, but I found I wasn't bored for one second. I just loved it because, for one thing, there are so many disparate pieces. When I felt I was just running out of steam on one piece, I would wake up the next morning and say, 'I'm going to do this other one.' It was as though I was writing four or five stories at once. When I felt excited about one, that was the one I would work on that day."
Her office, meanwhile, "got messier and messier," she warns on the way upstairs to the large sun-filled room where she works. In one corner stands a Stairmaster machine and diagonally opposite is a computer and desk space. Books and papers are everywhere. A pile of old drafts overflows a large basket on the floor. At first she didn't even use the Internet, she says. "I was working too hard and didn't take the time." She had WordPerfect on an old computer and another machine for e-mail. Then the old computer seized up and died one week before the manuscript was due. A local shop managed to undo the damage and salvage her material.
As the interview winds down, Crittenden's husband comes into the room briefly to say hello and offer up a glass of freshly squeezed apple juice. Then son James appears to talk abut the logistics of the day's chores. He is a lanky, dark-haired high school senior planning to study film in college.
Crittenden's one regret is that her mother, to whom she has dedicated the book, died at 61 when the author was in her 30s. "I just felt that writing about motherhood, I should give this to mom. I really wish she were here. She never got to know my son."
Geracimos is a Washington, D.C.—based writer working on a child's memoir of divorce.