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

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.

Next: In our exclusive, nationwide survey, this is what each side said about the other

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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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