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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