Good grief, here we go again. The dust hasn’t settled from blow-back to Michelle Obama’s “Mom-in-Chief” claim at the Democratic National Convention and now Forbes is stoking the zero-sum-game “Mommy Wars” with its “Is ‘Opting Out’ The New American Dream For Working Women?,” an article that claims “a growing number of women see staying home to raise children (while a partner provides financial support) to be the ideal circumstances of motherhood.” And the basis of this bold assertion? A survey of 1,000 mothers by ForbesWoman, the femme ghetto on the Forbes site, where they air gal issues like “work-family balance,” (there’s no “ForbesMan”—that would be the magazine) and thebump.com, which is about parenting but totally targeted to moms. Of the women polled, 67 per cent had outside jobs and 33 per cent stayed at home with their children, a mix that deviates slightly from 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labour statistics that show 70.8 per cent of women with children under age 18 work outside the home: 63.9 per cent of working women had a child under six; more than three-quarters (76.1 per cent) of women in the workforce have a child older than six but under 18—a percentage that jumps to 85 per cent for single mothers.
Exactly what questions women were asked in the survey is unclear—as are their educational levels, wealth and satisfaction with their workplaces. It found 84 per cent of working women said “staying home to raise children is a financial luxury they aspire to” and that one in three of them “resent their partner for not earning enough to make that dream a reality.” Based on this, author Meghan Casserly makes sweeping conclusions: “Forget the corporate climb; these young mothers have another definition of success: setting work aside to stay home with the kids.” She then identifies a “remarkable” new societal divide: a “chasm between what we’d like to see (more women in the corporate ranks) and what we’d like for ourselves (getting out of Dodge).”
But wait! The stay-at-home moms didn’t all feel they were living “the American dream” either. Only 66 pervcent say the ability to stop working to raise children is a financial luxury for their families. Forty-four per cent said their partners make them feel as if they are not pulling their financial weight; roughly 20 per cent said they’d be happier if they worked outside the home. And 38 per cent of stay-at-home moms feel guilty about not going back to work; 13 per cent regret giving up their career for their baby.
Welcome to the “Mommy Wars” standoff. The subject has been a hot-button since Hillary Clinton’s politically catastrophic 1992 remark about her life if she hadn’t used her education to work as a lawyer: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” (her atonement was a cookie bake-off with Barbara Bush (recipe here!)). In 2003, the New York Times magazine ran “The Opt-Out Revolution,” a headline-grabbing story that claimed women with advanced degrees were dropping out of professions for the much greater satisfactions of domesticity. But it turned out anecdotes from a select group of Ivy League-educated women chatting over Chardonnay do not a social movement make: the “Opt-Out Revolution” claim has been repeatedly debunked (here, here and here). Yet it refuses to die. The grotesque “Real Housewives of….” franchise hasn’t helped. Nor have “mom” blogs which post which articles like this one. In Forbes, Casserly quotes Leslie Morgan-Steiner, author of Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives,Their Families, trying to recycle the “Opt-Out Revolution conceit: “Over the past three to five years we’ve seen highly educated women—who we’d imagine would be the most ambitious—who are going through med school, getting PhDs with the end-goal in mind of being at home with their kids by age 30,” she said. No data supporting the claim were provided.
None of this is new. Tales of the exhausted “Superwoman” wanting to hang up her cape have circulated since the 1990s. And who can blame her? Living up to a myth is impossible. The woman who “has it all” is an advertising construct, a character from the 1980 Enjoli perfume commercial prancing around singing: “I can bring home the bacon, I can fry it up in the pan…” We now can see that the flood of women into the workplace in the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t met with corresponding systemic and domestic change: wives and mothers entered a corporate landscape constructed for the male breadwinner; there was no back-and-fill of the domestic gap they left behind, leaving women again to clean up the mess. (It’s a point hidden in another Forbes’ “Mommy Wars”-stoking piece: “Are Housewives to Blame for the Plight of Working Women?“) And 50 years later this still remains a female problem, reflected recently in the much-buzzed-over Why Women Can’t Have it All in The Atlantic.
Pitting women who work against women who stay at home isn’t the solution—unless the goal is to avoid talking about complex issues and to force women to identify themselves exclusively through a domestic and maternal lens. It’s also a surefire way to keep the conversation on a plane that includes only the privileged few who can choose whether or not to have a job. (No doubt if you asked a bunch of fathers if they’d they’d “opt-out” of work if they could live in comfort, many of them would say “yes!” as well.) Focusing on mom-on-mom action that lays blame and focuses fatuously on who’s “happier” is a distraction tactic, one that diverts energy from more important discussions around rethinking the economic value of domestic labour and making the workplace more elastic to meet familial needs, to name just a few. The Mommy Wars may ostensibly be a war waged by women but in truth it’s a war against them. Time to call a truce before even more is lost.