The Mommy Wars, Part 1

Mommy wars. No matter how many times we try to settle them once and for all, someone’s always stirring them back up. I recently read two pairs of essays that seemed to encapsulate some of the conflicts that go by that name. As I began writing my responses to these debates, I found I had a lot to say and the post got way too long, so I split one post into two. Part II is tomorrow.

Children Vs. Marriage

These first two essays attempt to answer an eternal question: who should be a woman’s first priority, her children or her husband? (Not listed as options: herself, her friends, her parents, her siblings, her career, changing the world, etc.) If you want to read something manic and anxiety-ridden, check this out: “I’m 99% Mother and 1% Wife–And It Has To Be That Way” by Christina Vercelletto. Here’s a representative excerpt:

John’s a great dad, but I play a singular role in each of my kid’s lives. And as they’ve grown, the urgency to get it right screams at me, day and night.

The ship is going down, and I’ve only got three life jackets. Who am I going to give them to? John, you learned to swim a long time ago, right?

You’ve said you feel like a second-class citizen in our family, and for that, I am sorry.

I disagree with the essay’s title, it doesn’t have to be this way. Surely there are other ways to arrange one’s life so that things do not feel this urgent and dire all the time. Overwhelmed and All Joy and No Fun both point out that the current overscheduled way of parenting is not inevitable, but it’s a choice.

Secondly, I don’t understand the difference between John’s being a “great dad” and Vercelletto’s “singular role” in her family. What is it that she does that John is incapable of doing? Ever since I stopped breastfeeding, the goal in my marriage has been to split child care as equally as possible, and this seemed like only the most basic common sense. Vercelletto is pointlessly making a martyr of herself by taking on a responsibility no one ever asked her to have: #1 parent. No one who’s co-parenting can be #1 parent without someone else being #2, and that’s not really fair to the other parent. If she’s that anxious, she should get help, because there’s nothing about this situation that “has to be that way.”

This woman’s youngest kid is middle-school-aged. From where I sit as the mother of a toddler, with the first year still fresh in my memory, I have a hard time understanding how a middle school and high school aged kids could need the intense attention Vercelletto is determined to give them, even at the potential expense of her marriage. I mean, my toddler needs constant supervision so that he doesn’t hurt himself. Middle-schoolers, though, can be trusted around sharp objects and should be able to entertain themselves. And high-schoolers are unlikely to even want parents to be around that much. It’s admirable that Vercelletto wants to save her children from having student loans, but I think the fact that she sees this as within the realm of possibility kind of shows her privilege. She must be 10-20 years my senior, meaning that she went to college when graduating without loans was actually possible. Almost everyone I know my own age and class had some student loans; the idea of saving my child from them seems as unreachable as winning the lottery.

Vercelletto says twice that if she had to choose between her husband and her kids, she’d pick her kids, and to be fair, under duress I might say the same thing. Like if I were Sophie, and Nazis made me pick whether to send my husband or son to the gas chambers, I guess I’d let them take my husband. (Or I don’t know, maybe I’d figure a toddler wouldn’t survive the concentration camp anyway but my big strong husband had a shot. Or maybe I’d send off my husband knowing he’d prefer to die in place of our boy. Wow, isn’t it a great thing these choices never actually happen because there are no more Nazis?)  But I think the real issue is that if it feels like you’re literally choosing between members of your family on a daily basis, something is dreadfully out of balance. Vercelletto’s husband has told her he feels like a second-class citizen in their family. If she doesn’t see that as a wake-up call, I don’t know what she would. I think when you find yourself making extreme statements like these, when you feel that painfully conflicted between competing demands, you have to take a close look at your life and at least consider making some big changes. The very last thing to do at that moment is to dig your heels in and write a diatribe about how you’re a martyr sacrificing your marriage on the altar of motherhood.

I feel great pity for Vercelletto, and hope she gets help. Obviously, she’s overwhelmed, and probably struggling with perfectionism and time management. I feel kind of bad putting any extra focus on this embarrassing essay because she’s clearly trying her best, and while I hope my words might change her perspective, I’ve had enough experience with these debates to doubt they can. The reason I’m writing about her and linking to her is that when she said that her problem is an eternal truth of motherhood, she made the issue bigger than her own imbalanced family life. The statement that “it has to be that way” needed to be rebutted publicly, because it’s false. Allowing the damaging idea that devoted motherhood necessitates the sacrifice of a healthy marriage to spread without trying to quash it would be wrong of me.

Now, as a counterpoint, enjoy “Why My Husband Will Always Come Before My Kids” by Amber Doty. Ask yourself which of these two essays sounds more sane and balanced. Which family would you like to live in? Which mother sounds more content? Which of these women would you prefer to be married to? I’d pick this one every time.

Not only is the emotional tone of this essay more calm and rational, its conclusion is more farsighted and wise. Doty’s intuitions about the desires of children seem spot on to me. I honestly think that kids don’t really WANT their parents to prioritize them ahead of each other. Kids know deep down that it’s in their best interests for their parents to stay married and get along. If a parent channels the energy that belongs in a romantic relationship toward her children, she’s likely to overwhelm them with an excess of unwanted attention and focus. The child will feel burdened by the responsibility to make her parent happy, when the parent should be taking responsibility for her own happiness. It’s generally unhealthy for anyone to make their happiness too dependent on any one other person, and this principle is violated when parents’ excessive focus on their children damages their relationship with each other.

However, many will disagree with me and call Doty selfish and a horrible mother for saying that her husband takes priority over her children. This essay is remarkably similar to one by Ayelet Waldman that earned her tons of online vitriol. People hate it when a woman admits in public that anything is more important to her than her children, even if it’s her husband.

It’s telling that there’s one question that neither of these essays asks: Who should be a man’s first priority, his children or his wife? The question sounds odd, because I think most people assume a man’s first priority is his career, his personal growth, his ambitions. No one expects a man to immerse himself in the joyful drudge of child care; it is assumed that their natural habitat is the adult world of work and marriage. Things are shifting, though, so that men are becoming increasingly likely to say their family is their first priority. Men are allowed to put it this way, to lump their family together as a unit. No one expects men to make Sophie’s choice between spouse and children. Maybe that’s because their identities are assumed to be more multifaceted than a single relationship. They are assumed to have the capacity to care for and provide for more than one other person, while women are told that their focus on a loved one should be so intense and all-consuming that one relationship is all they can sustain. Waldman points out that her husband feels zero guilt for prioritizing his marriage over his children. To him such an arrangement is a matter of course, and he didn’t get hate mail over it.

Maybe that’s why there are no ‘daddy wars:’ because men aren’t expected to define themselves by their family relationships and the way they parent. The emotional and cultural baggage attached to fatherhood is minimal. I think everyone should get to parent that way, with their children as only one aspect of a full life. It seems so much more healthy and sustainable. That’s what I mean when I say that I want to be a parent the way a man gets to be a parent.

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing another pair of essays, a battle between a working mother and a stay-at-home mother. While today’s essays were a voice of reason and a self-destructing ball of stress, tomorrow’s includes a sanctimonious personal attack. So prepare yourself for drama..


2 thoughts on “The Mommy Wars, Part 1

  1. This post reminds me of a great David Brooks quote, from p.35 of his nonfiction book, The Social Animal. In the book, Brooks creates a fictional couple in order to share scientific insights and data about the human mind from the last 30 years. It’s a great book.

    The mother of one of the main characters, right after her son his born, finds herself “sucked into the vapid attitudes of the bourgeois mommy wars. She’d already come into contact with the pious breast-feeding crusaders (the uber-boobers), the self-righteous playdate queens who would correct her parenting techniques (the sanctimommies), and the mopey martyr mommies who would bitch on endlessly about how rotten their lives were and how inconsiderate their husbands and parents had become.”

    For a really great example of a psycho mom, you should read David Brooks’s chapter about Augustine in his new book, The Road to Character. There is one mom who clearly had some overattachment issues. (!!!)

    I love Ayelet Waldman, and I’m glad you cite her essay in this post. I honestly think all this mommy psychosis comes from women who want to “make a career” out of a transient job — being a mother. Unless your child has special needs, and will require your care throughout the rest of his/her life, or you constantly adopt or have young children continuously thrust upon you to care for, motherhood is not a 24/7 commitment for the rest of your life. It’s a lot of work for a while, but it passes, and kids grow up and leave the nest. I think some women just retreat into motherhood the same way other women retreat into chasing the fountain of youth — lifestyle tropes take away the scary need for creativity, growth, and soul-searching.

    Much easier to say, “Biology made me this way” than to plumb the depths of your unconscious mind. In the end, like you say, these women are making a choice to be stressed, frazzled, and living in unsatisfying marriages. Like addicts who hit rock bottom, they just haven’t found a breaking point yet to inspire a change. But here’s hoping they will!

  2. Pingback: MeReader: Year Four in Review | MeReader

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