Several readers responded to my previous blog on the “Mommy Wars,” a collection of essays by 26 writers including Jane Smiley and Susan Cheever about the supposed conflict between moms who work and moms who stay at home. Many believe the media has either exaggerated or fabricated the whole thing. I can see their point. After all, even Susan Cheever--whose essay begins, “There is a war going on in the streets of New York City”--would surely acknowledge that no one is detonating bombs at PTA meetings. Moreover, many moms--myself included--consider themselves neither a stay-at-home nor a working parent, but something in between. Needless to say, we all have plenty of friends from both “camps.”
But I still think there’s something to this “Mommy Wars” thing. Maybe the “war” metaphor is too heavy-handed. A better description? How about “inner catfight,” to borrow from “Mommy Wars” editor Leslie Morgan Steiner. Of course, some women do criticize one another's lifestyles ("What does she do all day? I can't imagine how bored she must be!" versus "Her children run to the nanny first. They never see her."). But more often, the conflict plays out within ourselves, as we endlessly debate the decisions we’ve made (or have been forced to make)--pitting our inner “stay at home mom” against our inner “high powered executive.” It's our own conflicts that prompt us to sometimes make stereotypical judgments about one another or to feel as if we've been judged and found sorely lacking.
Here’s an example of an "inner catfight," from Steiner's introduction to "Mommy Wars." One morning, as Steiner rushes off to work, feeling tired, stressed, and slightly neglectful of her child, she runs into a stay-at-home mom:
Other Mom: I don’t know how you do it.
Steiner’s translation: I don’t know why you do it. You must be in really desperate need of money or self-esteem if you are willing to neglect your children in order to work. Not me--I love my children more and am clearly the superior mother.
Later, Steiner--home from her part-time job and “sitting on the floor of the kids’ weekly computer" class in sweats--watched a “slew of working moms who rushed in to pick up their kids, clad in child-unfriendly leather skirts and high-heeled boots… impatient for their children to finish up.” As the moms glanced at her on the floor, Steiner thought she detected a dismissive attitude: “What makes them think their contributions to the world are more valuable than mine?” she writes.
Sometimes, I hear the same translator. A few years ago, I made the mistake of broaching the “Should I quit? or should I stick it out until my youngest is in kindergarten?” conversation with a mom I had just met. Turns out, she had recently quit a job similar to mine. As our boys played superheroes, she told me she decided to stay home because she felt her kids needed her. What I heard, though, was an accusation—-that kids suffer when moms work. Is that the message she meant to convey? Was she feeling defensive? Or was what I read into her remark a product of my own guilt? I’ll never know--largely because I won’t go there again with her (or anyone else I barely know). The potential friendship fizzled--perhaps a casualty of the mommy wars.
Is there some hype in Steiner’s anecdotes? I’m sure. Steiner and her fellow essayists are good story tellers. They’re also out to sell books. But let’s be honest. When you feel tired, overwhelmed, or underappreciated, don’t you ever lash out--if only for a moment and if only in the privacy of your own thoughts? Not at people you know well and respect, of course, but at an anonymous target that epitomizes the "other" side, such as the “playground” or “blackberry” crowd.