Why the Mommy Wars Rage On

Yes, it’s a problem of privilege. But it is also very real: In many American communities, working mothers and stay-at-home mothers are still squaring off over who has made the better life choice. More teamed up with Citi’s Women & Co. to survey women and men nationwide to investigate the causes of the tensions. You won’t believe what we found

by Jennifer Braunschweiger
mommy wars image
Photograph: Phillip Toledano

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.

First published in the April 2013 issue

What’s your reaction?

Comments

03.24.2014

Jennifer Braunschweiger, Deputy Editor
More Magazine
Dear Ms. Braunschweiger,
My name is Kristen and I am a new subscriber to More. I enjoy the magazine it’s features and the honest discussions it generates. I recently came across a 2013 magazine and the article below.
I read your article on ‘Why Mommy Wars Rage On’. You did a nice job offering statistics and opinions that offer balance on both sides. While clairvoyant, (and you certainly championed the ‘stay at home Mom’ and her value), I think that it echoed the redundancies of the argument and did not ask the ‘tough enough’ questions of both sides. I really believe that both sides need to have an honest conversation addressing their own needs and situations.
I have been a ‘stay at home Mom’ for the past nine years. This position was one I initially embraced and resented. Several factors have played a part in my being home for so long. At times I think it is too long…or not long enough. I have had some very difficult conversations with myself over the years. What it comes down to, I believe, is balance. However, it seems as though no one wants to publically address what I will. This is a hard honest discussion not an attack.
I have been asked/told by friends that while admirable to be home with my children, had I considered what would happen if our financial circumstances change or I ever felt as though I was staying in a situation or marriage because of financial dependence.
Is that fair to you or your children? Is this a responsible decision? As you had stated it is not that easy to get back into the working world once you have left. Let’s face it, no one wants you, even though you have managed to do the hardest job in the world.
Fortunately this has not happened to me, but I know plenty of people it has happened to.
It is still a concern and one that keeps me up at night. Not only do I have myself to worry about financially but I also have two other innocent people to think about.
Being at home can be drudgery. It is messy, exhausting, boring and at times I have never felt so lonely, but I was never alone. Why would one choose to do this for nothing? When you could dress up everyday and pay someone else to do it and earn your own money. Because at some point this is what felt right, as wrong as it felt day in day out, it was the only thing that has ever been truly natural to me and I knew I could do it.
I am educated and my friends who are also SAHM are educated. Some graduated from Ivy League and had big careers, but gave it all up for the same reasons I did. We all agree it just didn’t feel like it was a choice.
When I had my son we lived in a two family house with one car. Today we are financially comfortable, but it was a struggle early on. I could have said I ‘needed’ to work.
The other side of the ‘choice’ that I look at is what choices we made before we had children that have put us or some of us in financial situations that depend on dual incomes. We have all been guilty of transparency. It begs the question, do I, you, we really ‘have’ to work? Most make it sound as though they would starve if one didn’t. Why can’t one parent be home if you have made a joint decision to have children. Do you ‘have to work’ because you have maintain a certain lifestyle that you were accustomed to?
What I tend to notice from the WM that I know, they are not working to put food on the table, they are working to support a lifestyle. Big houses, cars, trips, a nanny & expensive clothes. I would love to make extra money. Is it about us having the lives that we want or about giving our children the lives that they deserve?
A friend of mine retired a few years back to be home with her then 11 & 9 year old boys. The one thing they said at her retirement party was ‘good now you will be home more and we can have friends over’, that stuck with me.
I can understand that women have worked hard to break the ‘glass ceiling’, but have the lines been blurred because of it. When we accept the honor of being a mother do we have to give up what we have worked for in earning an education or a career? I say no. You can have it all, just not all at once. I had earlier commented on balance. I wish I had maintained some part time work in my field. I now have a flexible job. My kids are older and I work from home. Although I am starting over, I feel lucky… for the job and for the time I had with my kids.
What has happened to us as a society that we now ask ourselves these questions?
Is it or has it become acceptable to allow other people to care for our kids 40-50 hours a week. Do we really need to do that? Or are we running away from the hardest job in the world because we can.
Work and have kids … sure but have some balance. If you make the commitment to have kids then own up to the responsibility because at the end of the day all they want is you.
Regards, Kristen A

Leslie Lehr03.24.2013

As an essayist in the iconic Mommy Wars anthology, it saddens me that not only is this fight still raging, but also that we work-at-home moms are still not recognized as an ill-fitting part of the puzzle. Ms. Baunschweiger writes "part-timers, freelancers, and entrepeneurs, I salute you" as if it's the ideal situation. Yet, striving to have the best of both worlds, we have the worst: a lack of both outside help and income with benefits that working moms enjoy, plus a resentment from SAHM's who expect those of us without a time clock us to spend those precious school hours volunteering. Both sides seem to hate each other because they rationalize the rightness of their choices as being superior mothers. I'm no better - the title of my essay was "I Hate Everybody." Now that my kids are older, I understand that while I chose to work at home for the sake of my children, I'm not sure it made a huge difference to them. Perhaps when we can admit we are choosing for our own comfort, we truly can respect each other's choices as being right.
Leslie Lehr
author of: What A Mother Knows

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