Yesterday I discussed a pair of essays that presented competing perspectives about whether a woman’s husband or children should be her first priority. Now I’m diving into a question that seems to be at the heart of the “mommy wars:”
Working Moms Vs. Stay-At-Home Moms
This is where the real culture battles are fought, isn’t it? Here’s a sweet letter from a working mom to her daughter, in response to her questioning if her mom loves her work more than her kids: “Dear Daughter, Here’s Why I Work” by Sasha Emmons.
Emmons speaks kindly and lovingly as she puts things in context for her young daughter, who doesn’t understand how careers work, much less the larger history of women in the workplace. She compares the job she loves to her daughter’s beloved art. She explains that working makes her happier and a better mother. She reminds her child of the fun things her mother’s income allows her to enjoy. She puts her choice to work in the context of a decades-long feminist struggle for respect and equality in the workplace, as well as her hopes for her daughter’s future. She concludes that yes, she does love her children more than her job, and if she had to choose she would choose her kids, but thankfully, she doesn’t have to choose. She gets to have both. And isn’t that a wonderful thing.
You will notice that nothing here is derogatory or pointed toward stay-at-home moms. Emmons is only talking about her own choice and nothing here implies anything about other women.
That is not the case in this response essay: “Dear Daughter, Here’s Why I Don’t Work” by Lydia Lovric
If you can read that without gritting your teeth and clenching your fists, you’re a better person than I am. I find the passive-aggressive self-martyring smugness here absolutely infuriating.
Lovric calls out Emmons by name and calls her selfish and materialistic. She goes on quite a while about her own thriftiness, ignoring the vital financial contribution working women make to their families, and the fact that for many families forgoing a second income would mean giving up medical care and electricity, not just vacations, new toys, and dinners out.
Every self-aggrandizing sentence in this essay is a back-handed insult to working moms. The essay is also incredibly unfair as a response to Emmons, because it misrepresents Emmons’s words (and how many people do you think clicked through to see what she really said?). Some examples, along with my translations of Lovric’s implied messages:
Other people may dismiss babies as simply blobs. But we both know better.
Translation: Working moms don’t care about their babies. They think they’re blobs that don’t matter.
I stay home because although I did love my job very much, I love you more.
Translation: Working mothers don’t love their kids enough. If they did, they wouldn’t work.
I stay home because although writing and radio did make me extremely happy, I knew that you seemed happier when I was around. And your happiness was more important to me than my own. And making you happy also made me happy.
Translation: A working mom chooses own happiness over that of her child, which is selfish and wrong. If staying home with kids doesn’t make a mom completely happy, it’s because she doesn’t love them.
I stay home because I want you to learn that family and love are more important than material possessions. A large home or fancy sneakers will not make up for an absent mother.
Translation: Working parents value material possessions more than family and love. They are not there when their kids need them, and stupidly expect that new toys will make up for their failings as parents.
It should be noted that Lovric does not include any discussion or comparison of how this issue affects men, besides a dismissal of “feminist objections.” She seems to think that her choice to stay home takes place in a vacuum, for example in a world without a gender pay gap. One woman’s choice is a drop in the bucket where larger social changes are concerned, but Lovric’s choice contributes incrementally to a society in which it’s a tiny bit harder for her daughter to find a good job and keep it after she has her own children someday. I don’t want to condemn her too hard for that, though, because I know that these “choices” often don’t really feel like choices at all, thanks mostly to issues like the pay gap and the way men and women are viewed differently in the workplace. We’re all just doing our best with the circumstances we’re in, and balancing the needs of children, adults, and bank accounts.
What bothers me the most is that when a message like Lovric’s goes out into the world, it makes working moms assume that, until they hear explicitly otherwise, most stay-at-home moms feel the way she does. And that undermines any solidarity that could have existed between the two groups. Catty judgment like this makes it that much harder for women to trust each other, talk to each other, and support each other. It’s such a shame because working moms and stay-at-home moms seem like they could be such perfect partners and allies, sharing child care, resources, advice, and commiseration. Their interests are really not opposed. After all, membership in these groups is fluid, since most stay-at-home moms eventually go back to work, and some working moms may take an extended leave to care for family members later in their lives. Most members of both groups would like more opportunities for well-paid part-time work, better family leave policies, and quality child care and schools. In some ways, the mommy wars are imaginary, stirred up artificially by provocative articles like this one.
It should be clear by now, I tend to favor the arguments of the moms who value work and their husbands, even at the potential expense of time with their children. I feel like our culture has swung to one extreme in terms of the way women are expected to sacrifice everything for their children, and women who de-prioritize their children are working toward a more sustainable balance. My own choices reflect this. I work full time. My husband and I took a five-day vacation without our fourteen-month-old last year and hope to do so again this year if we can swing it. Most weekday afternoons, I take an hour or two for myself while my son is still in child care, rather than racing to pick him up as early as I can. So I’m sure that the way that I view these feminist arguments as well-considered and egalitarian is at least partly a rationalization of my own choices.
But at the same time, I recognize in myself and all of these women, the ones I agree with AND the ones I disagree with, the defensiveness of someone who fears judgment from others and thus is constantly composing justifications for her choices. This defensive posture comes from insecurity that has been inflicted upon all of us by a culture that expects sainthood of mothers without giving them any support. Here’s a smart description of how that works by Amber Rogers:
And that’s what the Mommy Wars are. They are women losing themselves. They are women assuming a new identity (one of ‘Natural Mom’ in my case), and in order to remain a Natural Mom you have to Buy all the (expensive) Things, and make everything homemade (out of really expensive and hard to find ingredients), and never ever ever let on that motherhood is anything other than absolute bliss. And in return, you get a sense of identity. And a sense of belonging. And a sense of superiority.
It makes sense why this identity clarity can be so seductive. It’s something solid to cling to when it feels like your world has been shaken to its core. But in that clutching, something inside hardens. In grabbing that certainty you have to reject its opposite, both in others and in yourself. To be that positive that you’re making the right choice, you have to decide that everyone else who’s doing something different is doing the wrong thing. That judgment alienates you from others and from yourself, and as this mother discovered, it’s hard to sustain.
My experience of motherhood so far has taught me to search for peace not in certainty but in humility and the acceptance of ambiguity. I feel I am best able to cope when I can be humble enough to let go of that comforting feeling of superiority and admit that I don’t know what I’m doing, that all of my decisions are provisional. And that’s not as easy as I make it sound here. I still want to be certain about these decisions that feel so crucial. Of course I want to feel sure I’m doing the right thing when the stakes are so high. It would be such a blessed relief to be certain, even about a single thing. If I could trust one expert to just tell me what to do, I could stop exhausting myself by doubting and second-guessing every decision I make. I could stop thinking.
But I’ve come to realize that beyond the extremes of abuse, neglect, and deliberately disregarding medical advice, there isn’t much that we’re sure about in parenting. There’s no one parenting technique that always works for every child and parent in every circumstance and every stage of development no matter what. And since that’s true, and certainty is just not possible, the healthiest thing to do is try to accept that and do your best. Which means that there’s no room for the judgment women heap on each other in their vain search for certainty.
I’ve found that the moments when I have actually connected with another mom have been when we were both vulnerable enough to admit that even though we were doing our best, it often wasn’t good enough (in our own possibly perfectionist opinions). Humility and vulnerability are scary, perhaps the most scary things we can exhibit in relationships. It’s understandable why lots of women want to avoid them, especially when motherhood itself already makes them feel unbearably vulnerable. But embracing ambiguity, humility, and vulnerability makes you a better person and makes your relationships and community stronger, so even though it’s hard, it’s the right thing to do.
I think that’s the reason why the worst things I can say about a mom is that she’s smug. False certainty makes people judgmental toward others and smug about their own oh-so-perfect choices. Knowing that a woman’s smugness comes directly from her insecurity makes me pity her rather than hate her, but that knowledge doesn’t make her any easier to be around. That’s why I have come to judge most writing on parenting by whether or not it condemns people who don’t parent the same way as the writer. And I choose my mom friends based on how vulnerable and humble they seem as we discuss our children.
If we could all drop the armor of certainty and smugness, we could learn from each other and support each other. Disconnecting our mom identities from defensive judgment is the internal first step to putting down our weapons and really ending the mommy wars.