Covering The Mommy Wars

Stay at home with the kids or go back to work? Moms grapple with it in this collection of essays

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. 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, 40, about the clash between the moms.

Why a book about mommy wars?

Working moms elevate themselves above stay-at-home moms, and stay-at-home moms try to put down working moms. It appears to be a war in which both sides are trying to put the other one down.

You spent 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.

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.

How did business school prepare you to be a working mom?

It was no coincidence that I left my abusive [first] husband while at Wharton. I was able to leave because of the support I received from my female classmates, surprising because B-school has a reputation as a shark tank. Wharton showed me how much better life is for women when we compete openly and fairly.

Do you expect a daddy wars book?

It would be a very short book. Men aren't that introspective. Besides, when kids come, their lives don't change as much. When my husband goes on a business trip, he just packs his suitcase. When I go away, I have to write a three-page memo for the nanny. I have to find three moms to pick up my kids from school. I have to tell the school to call my husband in case of an emergency. And I have to tell my husband to keep his cell phone on.

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