Mothers in the Trenches

Being a pregnant woman in her mid 30s in the 21st century seems to attract strange questions that I thought would have been resolved by 2006. Numerous friends, acquaintances and colleagues have asked me variations on “Will you go back to work after the baby is born?” Most of these well-meaning questioners know that I have both academic and professional credentials that announce “Feminist,” and that I have studied and published on work life issues and women’s advancement in secular and Jewish organizations.

It’s disconcerting to see how a “trend” among some highly-educated professional women who’ve left high-powered jobs to stay home with their children seems to have invaded popular consciousness to the extent that I have to field questions like this one. So naturally I was drawn to Mommy Wars: Stay-at-home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices. Their Lives, Their Families (Random House. 2006, $24.95). This book is an anthology by 26 mothers commissioned by Leslie Morgan Steiner, an executive at The Washington Post, to write about their lives and the choices that they made regarding children, work, and their ambitions. The contributors, ages 25 to 70-plus, have a range of lifestyles— one-third work full time, one-third work part time and the rest have no paid employment outside the home. Some have also switched back and forth between the two arenas at different points in their lives.

The book’s press release declares breathlessly, “In communities all over America, stay-at-home and working moms notoriously separate into two defensive and self-righteous camps, unable to discuss the difficult compromises both sides are forced to make in order to achieve their own personal goals.” Yet, while some authors in this anthology loudly proclaim the tightness of their choices to either work or take care of their children fulltime, most explain their decisions as a result of necessity (dealing with an autistic child or single parenthood) or temperament—either their own or their children’s.

Contributor Susan Cheever cites fatigue as one of the flames that fan the “Mommy wars.” “For one thing, we’re too sleep-deprived to be tolerant or temperate….Working moms and stay-at-home moms are like the famous psychology experiment in which too many rats are put in a cage with too little food. The rats have had enough sleep, nevertheless, they kill one another.” Lois R. Shea believes society’s lack of appreciation for the skills parenting requires leads to conflict among mothers. Despite the fact that “stay-at-home mothers” are lauded in our society, she notes, “We don’t compliment parenting, I suppose, because parenting is supposed to be an innate skill, like breathing or digesting food. You should be rewarded for knowing how to breathe?” She offers “Mommy Association Awards” as a truce: if mothers “had those trinkets of peer admiration, we’d be less likely to see our failings in one another’s strengths.”

Few of the essays address the political context for the “mommy wars.” That there is no government support for childcare, or for parents who want to stay home with children, or for meaningful and well-compensated part-time work, are among the many external factors that fuel these ultimately destructive conflicts between women. We’re so busy fighting over who is a better mother that we don’t have the time, energy or thought to advocate for the social supports that parents have in the rest of the civilized world.

There is also one character group missing in these powerful narratives—the men who “got” these women pregnant (all of the contributors seem to be in heterosexual relationships). When men do appear, you realize one reason for these mothers’ resentment. Inda Schaenen. a self-described “radical feminist stay-at-home mom,” muses that on the double standard for men and women for childcare. “Men and women alike pronounce rousing huzzahs for any father who manages to tie shoelaces in a morning rush, or remembers for once that little Alex is allergic to soy sauce. What a Great Dad!” Other men seem to think that their economic contributions to the household excuse them from any childrearing responsibilities. Leslie Lehr’s husband can walk “right past a pile of dirty clothes to get to the back porch, as if his paycheck gave him a pass.” When she responds to his offer to join him on the porch by saying, “I have to finish the taxes and pay the bills,” he smugly corrects her: “I’m the one paying the bills…. We made a deal when Juliette was born that you would do everything else.” Maybe these mothers can’t bear the thought of unleashing anger at the men with whom they share their lives, for fear of where it could lead, so they find it easier to turn it on other women, who ironically might be stuck in similar situations.

Maybe we’ll know that the Messiah has come in her time when there’s a companion anthology about the “Daddy wars,” where “working fathers” and stay-at-home- dads duke it out on paper over who is a better parent.