Monday, May 14, 2007

Mommy Wars Imaginary? Not on Your Life!

Ms.JD has a post discussing whether the Mommy Wars is real or imaginary.

The catalyst for the post was this Washington Post article which claims the Mommy Wars is mainly a figment of the marketing department's imagination.

Here are the facts: Since 2000, the percentage of working mothers with infants has held steady at 53.5 percent, according to a February report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When they can afford it, married women with infants take maternity leaves of a year or so, but then head steadily back to work: 75 percent of mothers with school-age children are on the job. Most work because they have to. And most of their stay-at-home peers don't hold it against them.

But that doesn't stop the media machine. Whether or not William Randolph Hearst ever really said "You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war," everyone knows that a war, any war, is good for the news business. The Mommy Wars sell newspapers, magazines, TV shows and radio broadcasts, as mothers everywhere seize on the subject and agonize, in spite of themselves. "Every other week there's an article saying that if you don't work, you're in trouble financially, and if you do work, your child is at risk," a single mother of three who works part time told me. An especially inflammatory article or episode can increase Web site hits, achieve "most e-mailed" status, drag more outraged viewers or listeners to the phone lines and burn a media brand more deeply into consumers' minds.

I understand that big media loves a controversy and they love guilt, and any story that can bring the two together gets more play than any story about only one. But the fact is that the Mommy Wars is real and it is played out in any number of ways.

KHernan881, author of the Ms.JD post gives an example from her own life.
This is our family's first year at one of those elite private schools. I would estimate that the moms in the kids' two classes are about 60-65% SAHMs. The rest of the moms are doctors or real estate agents. The SAHMs are about 50% former professionals - doctors, lawyers, CEOs. This is the source of a lot of judgment. I have been overtly and covertly criticized for my decision to practice law. I have been interrogated incessantly about how I am going to find time for the kids. My husband has been criticized (mostly covertly) for our decision for him to stay at home. I've noticed the working moms go out of their way to work their position at the hospital into our conversations at playdates and birthday parties, presumably so I won't assume they are a SAHM and judge them. The SAHMs seem to always be on the defensive about their decisions. I probably seem to be the same way although I try to keep the conversation about the kids and not about me.

I've been on both sides of the Mommy Wars and everywhere in between. I went back to work when my oldest daughter was eight weeks old--eight weeks! I mooned over her picture and wondered what she was up to and wished I was there. This child was in daycare fulltime while I worked for the first five years or so of her life.

With my second child, I was a 1L in law school, and he was conveniently born about a week after spring finals, so I had all summer with him. I loved being home with him and his sister and really wasn't crazy about leaving him to go to school. So, I took night classes that second year, and my husband watched the kids in the evening and I was home all day.

With child number 3, I was still lumbering through law school. She was conveniently born after the fall finals and I took more night classes that spring. When I needed courses only offered during the day, my mother-in-law watched the kiddoes for me.

I went back to work for a while when the youngest kids were toddlers, and have worked off and on (mostly off) since then. And while there's a lot of media hype about the Mommy Wars, it is also quite real.

I would say most of the guilt about the Mommy Wars comes from working mothers who are very defensive about their decisions. That's because, from what I can see, much of their decisions to work revolve around "extra stuff" and not necessities. In other words, most of the working moms I've known and watch work because (a) they like their jobs and (b) they want extra money to have a nicer house, car, dance or soccer lessons for the kids, etc. Those aren't necessarily bad things to want extra money for. When I haven't worked, I've done all sorts of things just to have the extra cash to take the kids for sno cones (I've sold tons of books, raided the penny jar, and put clothes on consignment just for a blue cocoanut).

Stay at Home Moms have lots of guilt, too. It's tough when all your kids' friends have new video games or go to the movies a lot. Kids don't understand why you can't take them to Six Flags or McDonald's as often as their friends. And maybe that gnawing budget crunch makes SAHMs a bit resentful, and maybe a bit guilty that there could be more pizza nights if both parents worked.

But working mothers aren't really any better about the guilt thing. They have more money for stuff but less time to do the stuff. This is the sort of anxiety even marketing departments don't make up.

The truth is, moms always feel guilty about whichever choices they make. Everybody does the best they can and determine which values take priority. For me, I'm home almost all the time these days and I love being the first person to hear how school was that day. I like taking the kids to the park and finding new ways to stretch a buck. But I also know that other parents place greater emphasis on other values. In other words, we both feel guilt. That's not Big Media. That's life.