Mommy Wars?

I hope it’s not too late for me to weigh in on the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney flap, even though it’s long since been superseded in the media by the GSA conference scandal and the Secret Service prostitution brouhaha.

Of course it’s not too late, says my indulgent editor, who (given that this is my blog) happens to be me. (Ah, the pleasures of being one’s own boss!)

In my view, the Rosen/Romney flap has been blown way out of proportion. It’s pretty clear that Rosen didn’t mean to say that stay-at-home moms in general don’t do any work—her point was that Romney comes from an extremely privileged milieu and hasn’t had to worry about economic pressures, unlike most women out there. But the Romney campaign mined Rosen’s (admittedly poorly chosen) words for political advantage, and the Obama camp, fearful of losing its gender gap advantage, ran like hell to distance itself from them.

Leaving aside the questionable assumption in Rosen’s remark that people who are wealthy can’t empathize with people who are struggling economically, what’s interesting to me about the flap is the light it sheds (if any) on what have been called the Mommy Wars. That term refers to the supposed tensions between mothers who work outside the home and those who don’t.

As someone who worked part-time while her children were young, I feel I’ve straddled both worlds. Perhaps that position insulated me from those tensions, but frankly, I never really felt them, at least not from other mothers. What I did feel was a lot of internal tension—and guilt, self-doubt, and anxiety. It was my own personal Mommy War, fought against myself.

When my kids were very young and protested violently when I left the house for work (or pretty much any other reason), I questioned whether I was doing the right thing. What was so important about my job, I asked myself, that I should put my child through this misery? Wasn’t I being selfish? (Of course, my kids’ misery probably evaporated a mere 5 minutes after I was out of sight. Still, the fact remains that I sometimes felt guilty for working, even 20 hours a week.)

And while there were many precious moments that I will always treasure on the days I was home with my kids, there were also a number of moments when I was in serious fear for my mental health. I was often glad I was there to answer my kids’ questions and resolve their spats, but there were also days when I wondered whether folding laundry and cleaning up spilled juice was really the best use of my fancy-shmancy degrees. And although I treasured the part-time job I was lucky enough to find, it wasn’t the kind of job that was going to impress anyone at a DC dinner party. Those jobs generally require 80 hours a week rather than 20.

Some days I felt I had the best of both worlds. Other days I felt I’d failed all around: I wasn’t doing such a great job as a mom, and I’d screwed up whatever chance I had for a meaningful career.

So I think I can empathize to some extent with both mommy camps. And when I was writing my novel, The Mother Daughter Show, it occurred to me that I had two characters—one a stay-at-home mom, the other a fairly high-powered stay-at-work one—who were friends. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to externalize the feelings that had swirled within me during my kids’ childhood and adolescence, giving one set to one character and the rest to the other?

It was. And it also showed me that my Mommy War wasn’t quite as internal as I’d thought. Hadn’t I, like my character Amanda, envied the moms with high-powered careers because their work was so clearly valued by society, whereas mine was not? And hadn’t I sometimes wondered, like my character Susan, what the full-time stay-at-home moms did all day long, especially once their kids got older and less time-consuming?

As with so much in fiction, what I did was take something (in this case, my conflicted feelings about working outside the home versus staying there) and blow it way up. My characters Susan and Amanda find their close friendship falling apart, partly because of the eruption of these latent tensions about their different child-rearing choices. In real life, I’ve had friendships both with mothers who have worked full-time and with those who’ve stayed home—and I’ve seen other women maintain friendships across these lines—without any such tensions erupting.

Of course, that doesn’t mean those tensions aren’t there. If remarks like Rosen’s touch a nerve, it’s because many stay-at-home mothers probably suffer from the same self-doubt I did about the value of what they’re doing, whether they admit it or not. It’s hard not to, when you’re putting in long, hard days and not getting paid for them.

And if Ann Romney had shot back with a remark criticizing working mothers like Rosen for abandoning their kids to pursue their own ambitions, you can bet that would have touched a nerve too, for the same reason. No doubt many working mothers suffer from some degree of guilt about not spending more time with their kids. And because other people’s choices about how to raise their kids often feel like implicit criticisms of our own (for an interesting look at that, see today’s New York Times Styles Section), we tend to get defensive when questions of child-rearing are involved.

But, as my characters Susan and Amanda eventually realize, what we have in common as mothers, and women, are usually more important than things like whether we work outside the home or not. In the vast majority of cases there’s no right or wrong here, just different strokes for different folks. I suspect most women—indeed, most people—would say they agree with that point of view these days. But that sort of subtlety makes for much less entertaining media fodder—and, to be honest, novelistic fodder—than something we can label “Mommy Wars.”

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