The "Mommy War" goes into full combat mode every year or so. Ms Magazine ran this article in April. Anne Marie Slaughter's article in Atlantic magazine is only the latest missile launched in the war between, and against, mothers. I have several other pieces and angles I plan to tie into my take on this, but I will start with the following: a paper I wrote on the subject in December of 2008.
Mommy Wars: Give Up the BattleThere is a war being fought in our country. A war among mothers, with each side firmly believing that their way is the "right" way. Stay-at-home mothers and working mothers are facing off in what Nina Darnton dubbed the "The Mommy Wars." In her Newsweek article written almost twenty years ago, Darnton gave a name to this feud among mothers. These women have motherhood in common, but their views on their roles as mothers strongly divide them.
This division of mothers is represented in recent literature. A book search on Google for the "Mommy Wars" turns up 1,094 hits. Two of my favorites are Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner and The Wall between Women written by Beth Brykman. In Mommy Wars, Steiner "commissioned twenty-six outspoken mothers to write about their lives, their families, and the choices that have worked for them. The result is a frank, surprising, and utterly refreshing look at American motherhood" (Steiner, front flap). While Steiner's book is essays of mothers defending their choices, Brykman's Wall addresses the conflicts without any bias. She makes the point that "women today struggle to make difficult choices involving their children and their careers—why do they simultaneously criticize, undermine, and point fingers at one another?" (Brykman, back cover) Rather than choosing a side, this book addresses the issue that contemporary motherhood is challenging. In this book she offers solutions, specifically modification of marriage to instill coparenting.
These books each address the conflict between stay-at-home and employed mothers. A Google search for books about stay-at-home moms results in 2,440 hits. "Bye-Bye Boardroom" by Rachel Hamman and "The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide" by Melissa Stanton are sources of information for stay-at-home mothers to maximize their roles. "The Comeback" by Emma Gilbey Keller and "Back on the Career Track" by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin are just two of the 1,276 Google hits for working moms. Each of these books defends the decision it stands for in a non accusatory way. These books are used by mothers as sources of information and as support for their choice of motherhood role.
Stay-at-home mothers believe they are the best caregivers for their children and are willing to sacrifice their careers in order to fully immerse themselves into the role of being a mother. Working mothers choose to shake off traditional gender roles in order to define themselves outside of motherhood. These "wars" have produced a large amount of literature in the last decade with each side aggressively defending their position. With such extreme ends of the motherhood spectrum being expressed, one has to wonder if there is possibility of compromise. In other words: "Can this war be won"?
Some mothers choose to stay home simply because they want to. Others "become Stay-at-Home moms because circumstances require it—such as when quality childcare options aren't available, or too much of the household's income goes toward the cost of daycare, or both parents' jobs are so demanding that neither is home much for the kids" (Stanton 3). Stay-at-home mothers enjoy the opportunity of being totally in charge of their children. The aspect of "quality time" is usually mentioned as the most fulfilling aspect of being a stay-at-home mother. On the contrary, being solely identified as a mother can be depressing to a woman who feels she has other qualities to define her. Working mothers view stay-at-home mothers as women who have "said 'uncle' to patriarchy, spent too much time fondling Tupperware, and because she didn't work was a poor role model for her kids, especially her daughters" (Douglas 203). The loss of identity and income are two cons stay-at-home mothers face. A stay-at-home mother is also financially dependent on someone to sustain her lifestyle. These sacrifices stay-at-home mothers willingly make.
Working mothers, also, may work simply because they want to. "Employed women savor having an identity beyond a mother, being independent by receiving compensation for their labors, and interacting with adults on a highly intellectual level" (Brykman 43). These mothers have worked hard to get where they are in their careers. After achieving so much, they find it difficult to step entirely out of the career they have built. Stay-at-home mothers view the careerist mother as someone who "neglect[s] her kids, [is] too stressed out when she [is] with them, and deserve[s] whatever guilt she fe[els]" (Douglas 203 ). The most frequent complaint of working mothers is balance between their work and their family. This stress may complicate a working mother's life, but it is not enough for her to sacrifice her choice to work.
Both types of mothers have opinions about their own choices and the other side's choices regarding motherhood and in many cases their ideas do not coincide. However, one thing that they all agree on: guilt. Almost every mother has feelings of guilt regarding her choice of mothering. Stay-at-home mothers wonder if they are being good role models for their children, especially girls, while working mothers feel guilty for putting their children in daycare instead of being the primary care provider. Each mother internally doubts themselves. Should I spend more time with my children? Is quality time really better than unlimited access to me? How do I tell my daughter she can choose anything for a career when I have taken the traditional route? How do I show my sons that women are capable of more than domestic duties? Each type of mother wants the best for her children, yet when writing up their personal "pros and cons" list, sees and equal amount in each column.
Betty Friedan raised stay-at-home women's conciousness with and caused women to seek employment outside the home with The Feminine Mystique. Friedan addressed the lack of fulfilment in women's lives and jumpstarted the women's movement currently labeled second wave feminism. Almost forty-five years later, Leslie Bennetts revisits the topic with fresh insight in The Feminine Mistake. Some of Bennetts' arguments for why it is untrue that mothers should stay home with their children are: difficulty returning to the workforce, divorce, death of a spouse, and financial insecurity. While Friedan raised conciousness to "the problem with no name," Bennetts takes the next step with showing how to make enlightenment work as motivation.
Just as many of the critiques of "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan were in regards to her focus on white, middle to upper class women, so to can the same critiques be applied to "the mommy wars." Some mothers do not have the luxury of choice to stay home or not. Many mothers have to work (i.e. single mothers, low-income households, etc). Some of these women may say that they wish to stay home with their children, which may be the true reason, but may actually be the desire for the financial security that comes with the ability to have a choice.
I agree with Bennetts because…and I believe that mothers who work outside of the home will bring attention to the needs of corporate provided daycare and flextime. They will also close the pay gap . So many brilliant women have dropped out of the workforce in order to become stay-at-home mothers only to find it difficult to rejoin the ranks of the working class after taking so much time off. The loss of bonuses, raises, and continued learning while they were not employed works against women. This loss of financial footing in the corporate world may lead some women to simply continue to stay-at-home, ensuring the patriarchal cycle of men being paid more because they do not leave jobs to become stay-at-home fathers.
I believe that in order to attain equality among the sexes that parenting roles and responsibilities have to be equally divided. The traditional roles of father as breadwinner and mother at home have to be eradicated. The biggest obstacle to achieving this new system of parenting will be the fathers. They have not had to make sacrifices while climbing the career ladder and they happily handed over child rearing duties to their wife, whether she wanted them or not. If the job of parenting was equally divided, then the playing field would be level for each parent to pursue their career without one making a sacrifice for the other.
If more egalitarian parenting roles became the norm, women wouldn't be so divided over which type of mothering is the "right" kind. Instead of arguing with other mothers over which way is the "right" way, mothers should band together to fix the problems they share. United we can make more companies recognize the need for "flex time" so both parents can be there for their children and achieve career success. The role of "mother" and "father" should be no different than "parent." Each can contribute both inside and outside the home equally. Women can achieve much more banded together rather than divided against one another. As long as the battle lines remain drawn the focus will be on who is right rather than solving the problems that are plaguing all mothers.
Which brings me to a large missing piece of a puzzle in this "war": the father. Why are women told that they can't "have it all" but men are never told this? Because it is culturally acceptable for a man to "opt out" of fatherhood, either physically or just emotionally. What seems to be really fueling the fire for this war is the role of the father. Stay-at-home mothers are generally financially supported by their children's father. This financial dependence puts the power in the hands of a man. On the other hand, the working mom complaining of not being able to juggle two full time jobs gives power to the man by not making him assume any responsibility in regards to the children. Just as not every woman needs to be a mother, not every mother needs to be the primary caregiver. If a man and woman both work all day, why is the woman responsible for the "second shift" work when they return home? The fact is that many men still believe in the traditional gender roles that make it harder for working women to achieve equality both inside and outside the home.
The most notable exception to these arguments would be single mothers. By not fitting into the patriarchal ideal of a household run by a mother and father, these women are the most affected by low pay and adequate child care. While the argument is currently being heard from voices with privledge, those without are being excluded from the forum. Just as critics blasted Betty Friedan for not including women outside of middle-class, White, America, the mommy wars are focusing on the same narrow spectrum of people almost fifty years later.
Works CitedBennets, Leslie. The Feminine Mistake. Voice/Hyperion. New York: 2007.
Brykman, Beth. The Wall Between Women. Prometheus. Amherst: 2006
Darnton, Nina. Newsweek June 4,1990.
Douglas, Susan. The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women. Simon and Shuster: 2005.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Norton. New York: 1983.
Steiner, Leslie Morgan. The Mommy Wars. Random House. New York: 2006.