We were all dressed up for a party on a Saturday night, my husband and I, waiting for our son’s longtime babysitter to arrive, when the phone rang. The woman on the line announced that our sitter was in the hospital, told us where and the barest bones of why, then hung up. Geoff and I looked at each other, suddenly sick with worry. First, of course, for our sitter, who has cared for our seven-year-old son since he was born—would she be OK? And next, for the fragile scaffolding of our lives. What about Monday and Tuesday, when we both had packed schedules, and Wednesday, when I was due to leave for a five-day business trip? Would she be better? And if not, what on earth were we going to do?
Back up 44 years. In 1969, the year before I was born, my parents moved from New York to Los Angeles. After struggling to find a job, despite two master’s degrees, my mother started as a Christmas clerk at Bullock’s before getting hired in her field, as a librarian at the University of Southern California. I was looked after by babysitters until I was nine, when I became a latchkey kid, like many of my fellow Gen Xers. As I was growing up, my mother would tell me, “Jennifer, when you were born, I couldn’t wait to get back to work!”
She was proud of her career and her financial independence, and because of her, working has never felt like a choice to me. It’s a given. Automatic, like paying taxes. I’ve had one job or another since I was 14, and I’ve supported myself since I graduated from college at 22. I love being a magazine editor. But when I got pregnant at 34, people in my office kept asking if I would return after maternity leave. They seemed to think I was being coy when I said “Of course!” and they looked surprised when I walked in 12 weeks after my son was born and powered up my computer, as if I’d ever been anything but clear about my intentions. Except why wouldn’t they wonder? Two other women were pregnant the same year I was, and neither came back to her job.
At the time, I didn’t think about it much. I was too busy trying to figure out how to breast-feed and get my work done and manage it all on five hours of sleep. I never questioned my decision to work, and I also didn’t question theirs not to. One woman returns to the office after maternity leave; another doesn’t. Why does it matter? Isn’t one path as valuable as another? I was naive to think it was so simple. For women, the decision whether to work outside the home or raise kids full time is the ultimate manifestation of assumptions about femininity, motherhood, marriage and finance. And like it or not, it’s our first salvo in the mommy wars.
Let’s be clear: It is a privileged group of women and men who ever confront this decision. Many don’t have anything approaching a financial choice when it comes to working. Others have children whose health problems dictate that someone be there to manage their care. The issue is further distorted by socioeconomic class: One mother stays home because child care for her kids would cost more than she could possibly earn or because she can’t find appropriate employment; another stays home but has full-time help and plenty of money left over. There is a danger in lumping people together too categorically.
Except that schools do tend to lump people together. And so when my son toddled off to a nursery program at the age of three, I began to experience the gulf between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers (though we know that all these women work), between the ones who treated maternity leave as temporary and those who caromed off it into a new life. My son’s school is lovely and sweet, and I feel grateful to have him there. Still, these days schools require a lot of volunteering and chaperoning and class-mommying. There are presentations on bullying to attend and potlucks to host and end-of-the-year gifts to arrange. For any parent, it’s a never-ending expression of personal values. In which of your commitments will you invest the most time?
These choices set us up for conflict. For better or worse, I have always elected to spend most of my time at the office (I’m currently More’s deputy editor), and that has kept me largely out of the fray. None of the full-time mothers at my son’s school have ever been anything but nice to me. But I hear a different story from working mothers at other schools who tried harder to be part of some inner circle. One of my colleagues told me with real pain how the mothers at her daughter’s school would make plans almost every day for kid activities after 1 o’clock pickup. My colleague could never go, and her babysitter wasn’t welcome. That meant her daughter was also excluded. “They were very cliquey, and I felt marginalized,” my colleague said bitterly. She echoed a refrain I’ve heard often: Committee meetings get scheduled for 11 am; babysitters aren’t acceptable substitutes; the bar for participation seems to be set in such a way that working mothers are automatically excluded.
Of course, judgment cuts both ways. Stay-at-home mothers say they get frustrated with working mothers who must be asked five times to submit their child’s contribution to the class quilt, who have to be nagged about every little thing, all while the stay-at-home moms are shouldering most of the unpaid labor around school. And working mothers can be condescending, even scornful, to women who don’t work for money. One full-time mom confessed to me that she drops a reference to her 15 years as a flight attendant whenever she’s talking to working moms or else she feels as if they dismiss her. I’ve also heard working moms get unattractively nasty about how much time their stay-at-home counterparts devote to Pilates, peels and kids’ parties; they forget how exhausting it can be to spend most of your life in the company of children.
One day at lunch with an executive at Citi’s Women & Co., having a version of this conversation, I felt it come together: Women of all types experience this tension, and we should dig into what it’s about. And so this nationwide survey was born.
Ask 500 people a bunch of questions and you will learn something. Our biggest surprise: the men. We threw them into the mix in the hope that they’d have something to add on this subject. Wow, do they ever. In one series of provocative questions, many declined to take sides. But when the men did choose an answer, they clearly shared the point of view of stay-at-home moms. If working mothers feel ambivalent about heading out to the office every day—and our survey says they do—could they partly be reacting to their husbands’ attitudes? The men who spoke up said stay-at-home moms are better mothers (by a ratio of 7 to 1), make better role models (2 to 1) and have better-behaved children (6 to 1). Try packing that in your briefcase and lugging it to the office every day.
Also: Thank you, Dr. Freud. It turns out that whether a respondent’s mother worked while she was growing up has a strong influence on her own perceptions. Your answer to who is a better mother, who is happier, who is a better role model depends not so much on your own employment status as on whether your mom held a job during your childhood. Respondents tended to think that what their mom did was best, even if it wasn’t the choice they were making for themselves.
Taken together, the results hint at a festering defensiveness, as if all of us were insecure about our decisions and justifying them a little too vigorously. But really, why wouldn’t we? Either we’re good mothers because we spend our time with the kids, or we are independent women because we have a life outside our families. We have to pick one—and that choice then becomes a cornerstone of our identity. I work. I stay home. Except that neither option is without drawbacks. The reality is that it is enormously difficult to get back into the workplace after leaving to raise children. Even those who do successfully on-ramp sacrifice a chunk of their earning power. But it’s also true that kids need to spend time with their parents, and not only in hour-long slots before bed. Many women on both sides feel bad about what they’ve had to give up, and it’s all too easy to let insecurity turn outward into judgment and accusation. No wonder we’re fighting.
My utopian vision: a world less either-or. A world in which women—and men—didn’t have to either stay home or go to work, where we could move more fluidly between the two. Even now there are many ways to be a working mother; part-timers, freelancers and entrepreneurs, I salute you. But most of us aren’t able to join those ranks. Instead, ending this fight will require family-friendly public policies (paid sick days, paid family leave, subsidized child care, early childhood education), flexibility for all employees, fair pay and a more forgiving workplace culture. All of us should get out there and agitate for whatever political and corporate solutions we believe in; families shouldn’t have to figure this out alone. But until then, let’s find in ourselves some sympathy for other people’s circumstances, accepting that none of us have the answers.
Now for that scary Saturday night. The next morning, we visited our babysitter in the hospital and asked how we could help. And then I threw myself on the mercy of the mothers in my son’s class. They came through, generously and without question. Every day for a week, I needed someone to pick him up from school and look after him until my husband could leave the office. Three mothers took my son in shifts, helped him finish his homework, cooked him dinner. I wore out my keyboard sending thankyouthankyou notes. As I write this, I realize I should have done more to show my gratitude; I hope to find a way to repay them. Was I the too-busy working mom taking advantage of the stay-at-home moms? That’s one version of the truth. I prefer to see it this way: As women, we will sometimes complain and criticize. But when someone needs help, we will shut up and pitch in. We are in this together.
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