“...end this catfight and emerge united...”
Leslie Morgan Steiner wrote Mommy Wars: Stay at Home Moms and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families six years ago. Citing her own struggles about career, kids, marriage, and identity, she chronicles women’s stories about their decisions. Morgan Steiner is honest about the deep conflict that women feel when making these decisions. She’s also honest about the pettiness that can ensue from women judging other women about their own choices.
Which brings us to Ann Romney and Hilary Rosen.
‘The Mommy Wars’ as a cultural phenomena has stuck as tensions between Career Moms (CM’s) and Stay-at-Home Moms (SAHM’s) remain unresolved since Morgan Steiner wrote her book. These tensions have surfaced again in presidential politics when Hilary Rosen, Democratic Strategist, said that Ann Romney, a full time SAHM with five boys, “...never worked a day in her life.” The press and social media have reacted to this comment by, again, dissecting which type of mom is happier, wealthier, better, more stressed, more attractive, and weighs less.
Which aren’t really the issues.
A recent Christian Science Monitor article by Stephanie Hanes maintains that the reason the issue remains unresolved is because “[a]s a society, and as individuals, we’re quite conflicted about the best role for mom.” This is the real issue, and many women remain conflicted about what role to take, when, for how long, and for how much.
Then it’s worth asking, what do women want?
"I never saw so deformed a being. Her speech is well enough, but her face is terrible, with crooked nose and chin, and she has only one eye."
“What does a woman want?” Freud is credited with asking this question after years of practicing psychoanalysis. He never quite grasped the feminine psyche and sometimes seems even frustrated by women. He would have done well by reading some medieval literature for direction, specifically Arthurian legends.
King Arthur is on a quest (what else?) to find the answer to the question, “What is it all women most desire?” He sees a “loathly lady” in a forest who fits the above description but who is wise and who doesn’t take any cheek from King Arthur. She tells him that “[a]ll women will have their own way, and this is their chief desire,” but not before negotiating her own marriage with one of Arthur’s knights and securing her place in court. It might sound like The Loathly Lady is assuming a traditional feminine role here, but options were few for medieval women. This is one of the first empowering stories for women, and I happen to agree with The Loathly Lady.
My experience as a therapist tells me that most women want to define themselves without constraints from society. My experience also tells me that establishing this identity is a rough go and to further complicate things, the established identity is fluid and will change as the woman grows.
“How to look 10 pounds thinner instantly”
Jen Doll writes a great piece in The Atlantic Wire about “articles for women” that journalists should stop writing. In addition to articles about looking 10 pounds thinner, she insists that the “‘I’m better than you,‘ other woman” should be nixed. This is especially applicable to the who is better - CM’s or SAHM’s argument- given that these roles are changing.
The dividing line between what are CM’s and SAHM’s isn’t clear. There are now Work-at-Home Moms, moms working part-time, moms caring for aging parents, using flex-time, moms volunteering in professional capacities, and moms returning to school. There’s more opportunities and more to do in both arenas. Further, women are discovering that working or staying at home may be suitable for one point in their life but not another. Add in having special needs kids, infertility, divorce, or disability and the equation changes again. It’s no wonder “making their own way” seems to cause a fair bit of inter-psychic conflict for women.
“...a hot stove I can’t stop touching.”
Author, Mary Carr, on her first day back to work after giving birth to her son describes her son sobbing and holding out his small arms to her while her husband straps him in his car seat in her memoir, lit. This memory returns to her again and again and illustrates the conflict women experience as a CM or a SAHM. CM’s have to reconcile leaving their children in someone else’s care who they are likely paying the same salary as someone who washes cars. SAHM’s have to reconcile being independent, intelligent women who aren’t embodying the 1950’s version of Betty Crocker. Morgan Steiner calls finding your way “...a tortuous task.”
The anxiety immersed in this conflict is compounded with societal expectations that women “can have it all” (Doll cites the “having it all” article as another she wishes would go away). This expectation leaves women feeling like they should always be doing more for their careers and for their kids, contributing to guilt about their decisions. They should be networking at more stuffy, corporate golf outings, and they should be crafting homemade, allergen-free treats for their kids’ classrooms. The pressure to “do more” is felt by both CM’s and SAHM’s. Finding a balance between pressures becomes more like triage.
To relieve the anxiety and to justify their own decisions, some women lash out at other women’s choices. It’s a defense mechanism - projecting our perceived faults or conflicts onto others, and incidentally, an idea brought to you by good old Freud himself. Anxiety and others’ expectations are permitted to define us when no one can really define our choices for us. “You being you,” writes Doll, “is what female empowerment is all about.” I would add that respecting other women’s choices is also what women’s empowerment is all about instead of competing in the “better than you” debate.
My hunch is that Hilary Rosen, Ann Romney and most CM’s and SAHM’s are not so far apart.
Most moms want to raise healthy kids, exercise their intelligence, and define their lives as they see fit. None of these goals are mutually exclusive to having a career or to staying at home or to any choice in between. Whether you’re PTO president or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, we’re all wondering what to make for dinner.
On this Mothers’ Day, let’s honor all moms by ending ‘The Mommy Wars’ and by looking for ways to support one another as we make our own ways. I’m up for a carpool anytime.