TBR: Mommy Wars

I’ve written so much about Leslie Morgan Steiner’s Mommy Wars book and the press it’s gotten that it almost seemed beside the point to read the book.  But when I picked up the book in a store and realized how many of the authors I’ve written about here — Lonnae O’Neil Parker, Jane Juska, Anna Fels — I decided to give it a second chance, in spite of the dreadful title and the worse subtitle (Stay-At-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families).

The good news is that the book is far better than media coverage or Steiner’s blog would suggest.  Many of the essays are thoughtful, some are funny, others tender.  Almost all of them come to some soothing conclusion about how we’re all doing our best:

  • Parker: "I can have it all, just not on the same day."
  • Leslie Lehr: "I also hope they’ll respect all women, no matter what choices are made in terms of work and motherhood."
  • Ann Misiaszek Sarnoff: "There is no formula for success, but there are many individual solutions, and I’ve found mine."
  • Page Evans: "Happy children.  That’s the bottom line for mothers."
  • Juska: "I am in favor of choosing, consciously, to have a good time with kids."

Only a few of the essays conclude with what I would call true "mommy wars" moments.  Interestingly, both authors attribute the stinger lines to their 10 year olds —  Catherine Clifford’s son’s asking "Yeah, you love him so much, how come you leave him with some nanny person all the time?" Sara Nelson’s son saying "There once was a time when women didn’t work, wasn’t there?  Is that what they call the Dark Ages?"

The downside of the book is that, as Sandra Tsing Loh nastily points out in the Atlantic, the writers lack a certain diversity.  (Thanks Sandy.)  It’s not just that they’re almost all white and affluent.  It’s that they almost all seem to work (or used to) as writers, editors, or television producers and use brand names to prove their credentials.  That said, I think Loh takes her criticism to an extreme (and is somewhat hypocritical, as she’s the one who turned a book review last year into a tale of her own troubles getting her kid into preschool).  And, as we discussed last week, I think the work-family issues of the affluent are worth discussing.  The problem is what Steiner writes in her introduction:

"Most of the debate in the United States about the benefits of working versus stay-at-home motherhood has been taken over by experts: researchers, academics, politicians, journalists.  Many of them aren’t women.  Some aren’t even parents.  The most authoritative (and fascinating) answers come from moms themselves."

I just don’t think that’s true, especially when the only moms you’re talking to are the ones like you.  I enjoyed many of these essays, but I learned a lot more from reading journalists like Jason DeParle and academics like Annette Lareau and Kathryn Edin

A more fundamental problem is that — as usual for these work-family discussions — fathers and husbands are all but invisible (with Sarnoff’s "I Do Know How She Does It," where she explicitly says that she couldn’t have succeeded in her high pressure career without her husband’s sharing of parenting duties, as a notable exception).  One passage in particular stood out for me, from Beth Brophy’s "Good Enough":

"It’s been eight years since I quit my job.  I’ve never looked back.  My husband has glanced back, usually with a calculator in one hand and a stack of mortgage and orthodontia bills in the other.  He misses my paycheck and I do too.  When I had a steady one and I wanted something, I usually bought it.  Now I can’t.  Or if I do buy it, I feel guilty…. While I’m feeling a lot more relaxed with the new world order, my husband is developing an ulcer.  As I’ve made abundantly clear to him and anyone else who asks, I hope never again to work full-time in an office."

I wonder what he thinks about this.   

19 Responses to “TBR: Mommy Wars”

  1. pdo Says:

    ahem… well I guess given the economic vulnerabilty that attends the choice to be a SAHM, we don’t exactly want to say that Brophy has a *privileged* position. But how exactly to describe what’s missing here? Entitlement doesn’t quite fit either…

  2. jen Says:

    My feeling is that Brophy shows an amazing lack of empathy for her husband. He’s getting ulcers? Why is that not worthy of response from Brophy?

  3. stephen Says:

    The work-family issues of the affluent are not worth discussing. What you commented on last week was that it’s wrong to dismiss the troubles of the middle class by comparing them to the extreme poor.
    Certainly rich people may struggle psychologically with how to define themselves as parents. But there is no point in taking the financial aspects of their problems seriously. Because they are not real problems.

  4. pdo Says:

    …I guess in fairness (without having read the entire piece) it’s an *office* she says she’s never going to work full-time again in. But it’s tempting to read this as founded a deeper traditional mindset that it’s natural or proper for him to be the full-time breadwinner and just as natural or proper for her not to.

  5. Jody Says:

    Well, I have an older friend (same age as my mom) whose husband worked very hard at a job he hated for 20 years, until their kids reached almost-college age. And then he quit, to try to start his own business. And all through their married life, my friend has said things like “I’ll never take a job that doesn’t fulfill me, interest me, make it worth leaving my family.” So she does volunteer work and takes writing classes and does lots of yoga, and yeah, there was always someone home after school, which I do believe is important for teenagers in particular. But at the expense of one spouse’s happiness? And at least her house fairly shone, she was such a good housekeeper (so in that sense, I guess she kept her end of the implicit contract re: division of labor). Although she also gatekeeped her husband’s relationship to their kids to the nth degree. And for a while, after he quit, she worked a bad retail job to pay their bills, when the business started to fail. But there’s her husband, who hates his job to the point of clinical depression, and she’s somehow more important than he is? I mean, isn’t it her turn to take the crap job so he can do the fulfilling stuff? He could have stuck out the business longer, and been home after school for the kids, if she’d gone to work full-time. (And yes, for all her time out of the workforce, she could have gone back to work at a salary that would have let them get by.)
    So there was a huge crisis, where the husband was asking the kids if they wanted to go live with him after a divorce, and then somehow it passed. He went back to the hated field and she got laid off from her retail job and they re-established the old equilibrium. So he’s as complicit as she is, at this point, but I genuinely don’t get it. Isn’t she, at some level, excusing herself from a certain type of adult responsibility? I mean, at this point — their kids are in their twenties — she’s asking to be taken care of via labor he hates. The traditional-marriage/gender-role dynamic that sustains that behavior just baffles me.

  6. chip Says:

    thanks for the overview Elizabeth.
    This line really struck home from Brophy: While I’m feeling a lot more relaxed with the new world order, my husband is developing an ulcer.
    What the heck kind of relationship is that? I have to say I had similar feelings when I took over as the “breadwinner” and I hated it, not only because of the stress and unfairness of putting the whole burden on my shoulders, but also because I wanted a different relationship with my kids. So I pressured my wife to go back to work (new career though), and while both of us working part time would have been ideal, both of us working full time in jobs with flexibility has really been better for everyone. I do have to say though, that to me, the ideal situation is an at home dad and a mom who works full time…

  7. jen Says:

    Seems to me the ultimate situation is when totally opposite personality types marry each other. One person has to be happy as a permanent working stiff who gets minimal time with the kids, the other person has to be willing to forego all financial independence and endure a society that trivializes their contributions. This is a perfectly happy American couple! Too bad they have nothing to say to each other!
    (What? Me, bitter?)

  8. Paul Nyhan Says:

    Hey there. I am the family and poverty reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and I was hoping to talk to you about your data on stay-at-home dads for a story I am writing. I also run a parenting blog, Family Man, at blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/family, for the newspaper. Would you mind giving me a call at (206) 448-8145 or (206) 718-0374 when you have a moment? Or, I would be happy to call you.
    I didn’t see a contact on your blog so I posted my request here.

  9. Christine Says:

    Since when did staying home with children become a luxury? It is work – unpaid work. I have seen many men regardless of income level shirk off parental responsibilities. It seems that the men that post here are quite different. Why is it that when upper-middle class white women complain their income status is thrown in their face? What about all the low-income deadbeat dads? This is not a class issue, but rather a gender issue. Or is the debate really that money makes it okay to shirk responsibility? A man makes alot of money so it is expected for the wife to stay at home. This arguement is ignorant and outdated. This dialogue of parental responsibility could help women who have to work full-time jobs – so all the responsibility at home doesn’t fall on their backs. Why does anyone think there has been a small surge in women having children on their own? There have been some recent articles in magazines and newspapers. Women of high salaries are simply eliminating the stress of dealing with men who won’t share family responsibilities. Unfortunately, most women need their husbands salaries.

  10. jessica j Says:

    i have to agree that, at this point, i think i’ve learned all i can learn from affluent, media-savvy moms having their say — i said as much in a recent post about caitlin flanagan, whom i have grown to distrust not because of the various choices she’s made, but because she feels qualified and compelled to turn her unique, highly rarefied circumstances into social policy, and because she refuses to acknowledge that she works.
    indeed, i think i’ve learned about all i can learn from any mom — affluent, media-savvy, or otherwise — who believe that their experience is necessarily relevant to my experience, or that their parenting is somehow a standard against which i should measure my own.
    enough with the anecdotes. give me some statistics.

  11. Libby Says:

    Oh, that quotation from Brophy is chilling. We’re in the opposite situation here; I’m working, he’s not, both of us want it to change. Not because I want to stay home, but because I want more choices, and so does he. So we’re working towards that. In the meantime thanks for pointing out the huge gap in really, almost all of these sorts of books: the dad/husband. Obviously these women aren’t making their decisions in a vacuum, but to read the books it sometimes seems as if they are. Sigh.

  12. amy Says:

    1. The silver-lining bouquet-card lines you quoted…I can’t stand them. They reek of dishonesty, the kind of thing that leads to husbands and wives feeling homicidal while talking chirpily to each other and retreating to garden and potter. There seems to be some sentiment that it’s rude, or tiring, or too-too depressing, to stand pointing at some shitty situation and saying, “This is a shitty situation and here’s how, now what are we going to do about it? Nope, still shitty, try again. What? Too tired? Then OK, it’s shitty, but for now we live with it. Just don’t mistake it for a box of candy.”
    2. The woman with the ulcer husband…it seems to me this goes back to the false-advertising thread. When my husband and I got together, I told him that if he wanted to buy a house and live like Americans, he’d always be paying more than half. Because I wasn’t going to be working for money more than part-time. If you start out with the expectation that you’re both going to work, and then you change your mind, draping yourself financially over your spouse and saying “mush”, it seems to me you’d better make good or accept without complaint what your spouse does to fix his/her own life.

  13. stephen Says:

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate on the woman ulcer thing. Since to me it’s not a simple question of fairness. Because fairness depends upon an agreed upon set of goals. Just like in who does the cleaning arguments, a lot depends on the mess tolerance factor. I also think it’s too easy to trace these things back to laziness or irresponsibility.
    It may boil down to more of a lifestyle choice thing. If someone is a “free spirit” type, it’s no good to harp on them to step up to the plate. It doesn’t work. The best thing is to recognize this about them, and if necessary help them find a way to earn income that they can live with. If the breadwinner feels like it’s their turn to play footloose and fancy free, well the best option is for them to make their own life changes, and not expect a complete role reversal, or a partner clone.
    It’s easy to say that being a parent requires people to square up. But really that carries major assumptions about the life we want for ourselves and our children. For example, if a couple decide to buy a used school-bus and spend a couple of years driving down to south America with the kids. Well for many people that would be crazy irresponsible. But it might just be their way of raising their own kids, who may turn into smart interesting people.
    All of these things are complicated by a particular couple’s dynamic. Ideally husband and wife set up win win scenarios. And when they struggle to strike an understanding that seems fair, the only points of reference are agreed upon expectations, and the precedence of their status quo arrangement, which may be challenged when kids start fulltime schooling. It’s curious how much under-recognized power there is in the hands of the primary caregiver. They may not get the glamour or status, but they sure do hold the reigns in some key relationship areas. (After a violent inner struggle I will restrain myself from using ellipsis.)

  14. chip Says:

    but Stephen, if the guy’s got an ulcer, it doesn’t seem he’s doing something he really wants to be doing, and he’s over-stressed. The point is not only that he’s the only breadwinner, it’s that the position is significantly affecting his health, and yet the writer seems to totally dismiss it. My take is that it’s a lack of respect for her husband and his personal priorities.

  15. stephen Says:

    I don’t dismiss the notion that in some cases one spouse may be getting a free ride. Especially if it’s an “I expect to be kept in the style to which I’m accustomed” kind of thing. (Or even worse, using divorce/kids as leverage.)
    My point was merely that it may be possible for a breadwinner to cut back on work or switch jobs without needing the spouse’s help. If they were willing to embrace a simpler lifestyle. An option many people would consider an unacceptable drop down in social class. Since this particular example is taken from Steiner’s book, I’m going to assume that they are probably wealthy to begin with. I’m going to have to read the book too ;) Not having read the book I was speaking more generally about whether in similar situations the wife may not be inconsiderate and malicious.

  16. amy Says:

    Stephen, it seems to me that if someone doesn’t know herself well enough to articulate her basic wants and needs in life — including avoiding office work — she’s probably nowhere near ready to get married.
    If you’re a free spirit, in other words, figure it out before you get married. Then refrain from giving your fiance the idea that you want to work steadily. That way he can avoid chaining his life to a financial anvil, if it’s not something he’s interested in doing. Let him understand from the beginning that if he marries you, he carries you. In no way should it be his job later to jolly you into acceptable work.
    If you undergo some violent personality change during your marriage, and need something different? Fine. Just make it good, esp. if the spouse is held captive by responsibility to children. You made a deal that involves another person.
    The class thing…dropping down is fine if it only involves you. If you’re taking your kids with you, though, that’s another story. There are reasons why rich kids do better, and it’s not just the fact that they tend to have decent health insurance.

  17. Catherine Clifford Says:

    I feel a little funny jumping in here, but a friend forwarded your comments, so I thought I might as well clarify: The quote from my daughter at the end of my essay was in reference to a very wealthy, non-working mother (a movie character), not a regular working mom. Since I ended up concluding that whether a mother works or not has nothing to do with how good a mother she is, I’m reluctant to leave anyone with the impression that I’m a foot soldier in the Mommy Wars, to the extent that they exist at all. Her comment was more about mothers, working or not, who don’t seem all that interested in actually mothering. Just for the record….

  18. stephen Says:

    This discussion is plunging amusingly down the rabbit hole. I get the feeling that I’m not going to win an argument questioning the need for parents to be responsible and practical, even if I’m just pointing out our cultural assumptions.
    But I still think that marital conflicts can usually be traced back more to personality clashes than to clear blame. Sure a wife has a marital responsibility to care about her husband’s health. And in my book the husband has a responsibility to be supportive when dealing with a spouse’s anxieties about re-joining the work force.
    Ultimately money is never the real issue. So arguing about it always a waste of time.
    Btw, I think it’s a mistake to make big life decisions based on statistics. Rich kids do better as a general rule. There are always exceptions. Take Bill Clinton’s life story for example. Or the cliché of the spoiled rich kid on drugs. Again, personality is a more critical factor for success than any financial advantage.
    It’s also important not to confuse causation with correlation. Wealth may correlate with educational success, but it’s not clear that it causes it. Personally I lean towards the old fashioned belief that much of our personal destiny has been decided the day we were born.

  19. amy Says:

    =) And I’m a believer in stacking the odds.
    Academic education is probably the least of the concerns, because a well-educated parent can take care of that at home simply by existing and doing what he or she normally does. Real safety, an atmosphere of safety, and the behavior of those around you are the main reasons not to drop down. The stresses of physical danger and sleep-disrupting noise are damaging to health, even if you’re not directly a victim; and what you see around you is a potent teacher.
    My life would be much simpler and cheaper if we sold our house and moved to a rental unit I own about a mile away. It would also be noisier and more cramped, and instead of seeing adults taking care of their property (and learning to do the same herself) and going to work, my daughter would grow up seeing adults living with heaps of garbage outside their doors, hollering obscenities at their kids, and hanging around outside the building staring into space. We’d have partyers waking us late at night. Now it’s possible she’d be so turned off by this that she’d turn away from it hard when she grew up — my father did, after all, growing up in a tough neighborhood and getting the hell out asap — but why stack odds against her? Better, I think, to drive on two wheels for a while and let her grow up with a more salutary norm, where the basic expectations are higher.
    If we could move to, say, a cheaper, cramped place in the midst of impoverished foreign grad students, I’d say terrific. She’d grow up in the midst of smart, aspiring poor people working their asses off. Unfortunately, that’s not what “cheap property” means around here, and the grad students pay more than we do now for housing.

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