Why the ‘Mommy Wars’ is a war against women

Anne Kingston calls for a truce in a divisive debate


Click here for Anne Kingston on the Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic Convention.

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  (herehere 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.


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Why the ‘Mommy Wars’ is a war against women

  1. There are always Luddites….people who can’t cope with change….no matter the topic.

    Why does anybody pay attention to them….let them bake cookies and hang curtains, while everyone else gets on with their life.

    • LOL boy, Cons sure hate the idea of choice or change or freedom.

    • Would you be as equally opposed to stay at home Dad’s or are they “moochers”. If people can make it work and they choose to do it, it’s their business. Most will never have that choice and need all hands on deck to pay the bills.

      • ?? It’s up to individuals to choose how they live their lives….there is no one ‘right way’. I don’t understand why this is a difficult concept.

        • That’s not what you said in your first post, which came across as condescending. Possibly I misunderstood it.

          For some of us, getting on with life means baking cookies and hanging curtains. OK, I’m retired, past the age of serious decisions about work and family, but if I could start over I would plan to take things easier at an earlier age. I’m not going to come back here to read a reply, so please don’t waste keystrokes on one of your oh-so-clever answers!

          • So you ‘misunderstood’ what I said in plain English, say you’d take it easier if you had it to do over again, and then dash off…..

            Well, there’s nothing like serious discussion.

  2. I have done both…stayed at home with a baby and worked with children. I can say that staying at home is much more difficult. In one way you are satisfying your need to raise the children you created but it isn’t easy. 24/7 you deal with demanding children, a house you clean that just gets dirty and a nagging feeling that you aren’t really appreciated as a fully contributing member of society. You don’t feel right about spending money on yourself because you aren’t “earning” any money. Nobody says, “thanks for taking such great care of the kids and the house”. Instead they say, “can you pickup this or that”, not realizing how difficult it is to drag a baby in and out of the car during the frigid winter.
    Then there is working. You get up early and after the tussle you leave it behind…the kids, the mess and enter the world of adults and adult conversation. People tell you what a great job you are doing and you get that ultimate show of appreciation, a pay cheque. The downside is at the end of the day, you are bagged and feel guilty about disciplining your children when you haven’t been with them all day…and of course that dirty house is still there. I think women need to appreciate that the choices are difficult and none are perfect. No wonder the people living in each reality is dreaming the other one is better.

    • That’s what hit me, too. Haven’t most Mommy’s seen it from both sides at least for the first few months, themselves? Basically, no matter which way we “choose” to go, we won’t be completely happy anyway, and all I want to see is an end to the guilt (and the guilt-makers!) whether you are a stay-at-home Mommy or a working Mommy.

      • I work and I’m a happy mom most days. Choose not to feel guilty and love yourself, your family, and your life. What’s up with the guilt? Get over it and love life as it comes.

        • Maybe it is a “generational thing” but guilt is the burden of all the mothers I know. We seem to wallow in it. If you have dodged that bullet, good for you.

  3. There will always be people who want to work and those who wish to stay home. All the power to whatever you decide to do. Isn’t it about the ability to have a choice? I am always bemused by the people who feel their choice is only validated if everyone else does the same thing.

  4. i was a stay at home mother, just like i wanted, and, these were the best years of my life.
    “You don’t raise children with money, but you do with values”, i always say.
    I now look at my grown-up children (30 & 31 years old), and i am so proud of them and myself, because i thougt them the values of life, they are successful, not in terms of $, (well yes because they are well-educated) but everything else, and i know, they know that money is not the most important thing in life. The most rewarding, is when people see my children’s accomplishment in life, they ask me “How did you do that?”, this the the best feeling ever!

  5. How overdone and ultimately boring is this topic? The fact that we have been talking about it since the 1970s, with no new or interesting insights, is proof enough. There is no such thing as a Mommy War among the women I know. Fiinding yourself and figuring out what you want to do with your life, the destabilizing and bewildering and all-consuming experience of having children, the elusive search for work/life balance — this is the stuff women talk about, agonize over, but don’t fight about. Real mommies aren’t pitted against each other. If anything it’s a war within, an internal struggle between competing and often incompatible identities. I hate this trope and wish the media (and the talented women who work within it – like you Anne) would stop perpetuating it.

  6. I fail to see how this is a “war”. Divergence in opinions hardly constitutes a “war”. In fact talking about differences of opinions is generally considered healthy discusssion.
    Might want to tone down the rhetoric, unless you fancy becoming what you denounce!

  7. It’s fine for moms to come and go from the workplace as they deal with their children, but it’s hell for employers, and, everyone afraid to talk about it. In order for women to enjoy that choice, others have to scramble to pick up the slack–for no extra compensation. Then a year or more down the road they turn up again expecting to slot back in, when so much has changed in the workplace that they are at the level of a new employee–not to mention their increased absenteeism from work due to their children’s ‘tummy aches’… Yes, women need some employment security but I often wish they would just stay home with the kids and quit compromising the workplace. p.s. I’m a woman.