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

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?

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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