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.