The Extended Mommy Wars Q&A

Lauren Young

With the arrival of that first baby comes one of the most difficult and controversial decisions a woman ever makes: Stay at home or go back to work? Leslie Morgan Steiner, an advertising executive at the Washington Post and mother of three, has struggled with the question, too.

Steiner fled an abusive husband for business school. Armed with an MBA from Wharton, she took a job in marketing at Johnson & Johnson but eventually scaled back when her second husband’s job forced her to move her family to Minnesota. Her new book, Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career-Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families (Random House), features essays edited by Steiner from 26 women. Personal Business Editor Lauren Young spoke with Steiner about the clash (and how she managed to slip away from a house full of kids to conduct the interview).

A shorter version of this interview appears on page 92 in the March 13 edition of BusinessWeek.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to today.
The kids are off from school today, and they’ve got friends over, so I’ve tried to find a quiet place, but if you hear yelling in the background, you’ll know why.

Why a book about mommy wars?
Women are naturally competitive. That’s what drives women to form cliques at early age. Nobody in America is in the business of making moms feel good about themselves. When you can’t feel good about yourself, the next best thing is to feel better than other people—ask any seventh grade girl. Working moms elevate themselves above stay-at-home moms, and stay-at-home moms try to put down working moms. It’s a war in which both sides are trying to put the other one down.

Is either side winning?
It’s a dead tie. Part of it is that we don’t really want to win. There are millions of moms in America and in the world. There is no way that there is one answer that’s right for every mom. Ultimately, we are all trying to be the best possible mothers we can all be.

In this country, we deify motherhood. The best thing is to be a mom and a good mom. But we live in a capitalist country, too. Moms don’t often earn the majority of money, but they control it. Every brand manager out there knows it. Yet every message is moms are not good enough. Because of societal reasons and commercial reasons, I think moms are really vulnerable.

How do we fix it?
The first thing is to talk about it and write about it, but in a way that’s not necessarily offering solutions. We’ve been so solution-oriented like: “You can be a great mom if you can breast feed for a year.” Well, every mom out there knows that motherhood is much more complicated than that. While there are lots of societal fixes, nothing is going to happen until moms speak up for themselves and each other. You don’t have to feel guilty about everything.

You spent the past three years working on this book. What surprised you the most?
I thought the battle was between stay-at-home and working moms. But women don’t fall into these neat categories. Most women see it as a continuum. A mom who left a hard-driving job may be at home now, but she plans on being back at work two years from now.

“Mother Superior,” one of the essays by Catherine Clifford, is really interesting. Catherine, who had a high-powered New York-publishing job, fought infertility for 10 years. Then she had three kids quickly between ages 39 and 42, and accidentally became a stay-at-home mom when her child-care situation blew up. Catherine revels in the non-milestone moments: when her daughter puts 23 barrettes in mommy’s hair or when her son uses a Tupperware container as a hat.

There were times when I was editing her essay that I thought: “Is she really a superior mother because she is at home?” She argues that there’s no one like a mom for taking care of our kids. That is something people want to deny.

And from the pro-work moms?
Leslie Lehr’s essay, “I Hate Everybody.” She gave up a career in film production, which is really a mom-unfriendly field because you have to be able to work around the clock at a moment’s notice. As a result, she hates her husband, because he goes to work and doesn’t think about raising kids. She also hates stay-at-home moms, and she hates working women without kids. Something a lot of people don’t want to admit is that there’s a lot of anger involved in motherhood because of the choices you make, or the ones that are made for you.

One of the most poignant essays is “Guilty” by Dawn Drzal. Dawn suffers awful post-partum depression after she has a baby and exists on caffeine and cigarettes. She wears the same mint green shorts all day. It turns out her depression is hereditary. Her own mom was terribly depressed. Because of her mother’s depression, Dawn was determined to always work and be independent. Dawn decides not to have any more kids because of the experience. What’s amazing about the story is that Dawn gets a full and complete apology from her mom. In real life, that almost never happens.

Is it possible to find the perfect balance?
Not a single mom who contributed to the book is saying “My life is perfect.” I was so tired of going to cocktail parties, hanging out with moms on playground, and hearing mom after mom saying my life is so great. I pushed my writers to tell whole truth.

There was a survey in last couple months of moms. One thing every mom wanted was peace. Not world peace, but inner piece. Being a mom is definitely the hardest job any of us have taken on. We’d like to have more support from husbands, employers and, most especially, from other moms.

Have companies gotten better at offering flexibility?
They are more flexible, but the changes are coming much more slowly than many women would like. There’s a real gray area when you work part-time. It’s hard for companies to set hard and fast policies on it. If you work a full-time job and are paid a salary, the truth is that it rarely amounts to 40 hours a week. So when you start cutting a nebulous commitment in half, that’s nebulous, too. I still work after I leave the office at 2:30 p.m. via e-mail or conference calls. It’s worth every penny I gave up just because I don’t feel guilty about leaving early.

I spent 10 years at J&J. In my pre-mom phase, I consciously joined a company as being very family friendly. A smart thing to do before you have children is to make sure there’s a good fit with your career, but it’s hard to tell that before you have kids.

It’s the same thing with husbands. You don’t know until you have kids if your husband is going to be the kind of dad you expect him to be. You can do the due diligence, but part of becoming a mom is giving up control.

What are your favorite blogs?
The closest thing is not really a blog, but it’s the Urban Baby website. It’s interesting to get raw opinions. I haven’t found many work/family blogs with a voice that’s readable or compelling. BusinessWeek’s Working Parents blog is the one I’m most impressed by. My new blog, the Juggling Act, is set to launch in early March as part of new Washington Post section called Real Life. I don’t want it to be only about parenting, but also about how working moms pull it off.

Who are your role models?
Susan Lapinski, the editor-in-chief of Working Mother magazine, told me the most importing thing about being a mom is being happy. Another role model is Lucy Danzinger, editor-in-chief of Self. She is a boss who gives lots of flexibility to employees. She lets people leave early whenever they need to do as long as they can get their work done. Moms have a lot of time and energy to give to work, but that doesn’t always happen between the hours of 9 to 5. Anne McDaniel, who is head of corporate human resources at the Washington Post Cos., is another role model. She doesn’t have kids, but she gets it. She’s really fair to everybody whether they are a woman or a mom, and whether they have kids or not.

What kind of example did your own mother set for you?
The most important experience for learning to be a mother is your own mom’s experience. My mom is one of my role models in a complicated way. I learned from her how to be a good mom. She was one of those natural moms who really took to it. Her chosen profession was teaching. She loves kids. But she was extremely frustrated and unhappy because for much of my life she was a stay-at-home mom. I was acutely aware of just how unhappy she was. There’s nothing more formulative than my mom’s unhappiness. I knew she was unhappy. She went to Radcliffe. She did every volunteer thing she could do, including taking a home for unwed moms and turning it into a daycare center.

Did business school prepare you to be a working mom?
It was no coincidence that I left my abusive (first) husband during my time at Wharton. In many ways, I was able to leave him because of the confidence Wharton gave me, and the surprising support I received from my female classmates, surprising because B-school has such a mistaken reputation for being a shark tank. These female colleagues, some still working and some who are now stay-at-home moms, remain an invaluable network for me, as a businesswoman and as a mom.

Wharton also taught me how to compete as a woman--something no educational institution had done--and showed me how much better life is for women when we compete openly and fairly. The school taught me how to negotiate, which was critically important when it came time to ask Johnson & Johnson and, later, The Washington Post, for the flexibility I need to be able to combine work and raising kids.

And last, but definitely not least, Wharton gave me a way to achieve long-term economic independence (to provide for myself and my family) by giving me such a valuable, marketable, practical business education.

Do you expect to see a book on Daddy wars?
It would be a very short book. Men aren’t that introspective. When kids come, their lives haven’t changed as much dramatically. When husband goes on a business trip to New York, he just packs his little suitcase. When I go away, I have to write a three-page memo for the nanny. I have to talk to three moms to arrange for people to pick up my kids from school. I have to send a note to school to tell them to call my husband in case of an emergency. And then I have to tell my husband to keep his cell phone on.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE