This review was originally published at mamazine.com.
Recently, my stay-home mom life has gotten almost unimaginably chaotic. My five-year-old son was diagnosed last spring with ADHD; subsequently, he was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability,which is very much like Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning autism. In the past month, he has gone off his ADHD medication (for medical reasons), started speech therapy every Wednesday (with a therapist who isn’t sure how to help him), and virtually stopped going to preschool (because his unmedicated behavior is so distracting to the other kids). My three-year-old has had strep throat three times since Christmas (twice in the past four weeks); if he gets it again, we will have to talk about taking his tonsils out. My husband is swamped at work; he comes home late and brings his laptop with him, and after we put the boys to bed, he works. I have virtually no daycare, because in the normal course of things, I don’t need it–after all, I am home, full time. But recently my life has been one emergency after another and I am often stuck without anyone to watch whichever child is not in need of a visit to the doctor. As a short-term solution, I am borrowing a working mom friend’s baby sitter during the hour on Wednesdays when Henry has speech therapy and Charlie needs somewhere else to go. The rest of the week, I just juggle, trying to schedule one child’s appointments when the other is in school. And somewhere in there, I am supposed to balance the checkbook and stop at the grocery and maybe pick up the house once in a while. Because this is my job.
This kind of chaos is precisely what motivated me to leave my underpaid but intellectually fulfilling teaching job to stay home with my children in the first place; after all, someone needed to be available for doctors appointments and sick days. I was an adjunct, paid by the class; my husband had a full-time job with health care and other benefits. The choice seemed simple and logical. Didn’t it make sense to have someone’s full-time job be the kids? Didn’t it make sense for that person to be me? For the most part, it has, particularly when things have started to fall apart. The other day, I was telling a friend that I had four Henry-related doctors appointments in one week, and she said, “Imagine if you were working and trying to get to all these appointments.” Yes, I said, it would be nearly impossible. Good thing I’m NOT working.
But the funny thing is this: as my day-to-day life has become almost unimaginably complicated, I have begun to daydream about returning to work. The more impossible it seems for my family to function without me at home, the more I want–well, NOT to be home.
In the midst of this domestic and personal chaos, I picked up Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families, a collection of essays edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Quite honestly, I didn’t expect to like the book; I was put off by the title, by the claim that mothers are choosing sides and “facing off,” by Steiner’s assertions that women are angry about their choices, regardless of what those choices might be. I don’t believe that the “Mommy wars” exist in the real world; I believe that they are nothing but rhetoric and media hype. In my experience, working mothers and stay-home mothers are, essentially, mothers, and we are able to find common ground and sympathize with each other. The friend I am borrowing the baby sitter from is an attorney with two children the same ages as mine. On Wednesdays, she goes to work and her sitter is with the kids all day. She has been happy to have Charlie come and play while I am at the speech pathologist’s with Henry. My friend has never once made me feel like I am inconveniencing her or failing my children. She has been a lifesaver in the past few weeks, practically and emotionally. I am not at “war” with this woman–which is a good thing, because she has the baby sitter.
I expected not to like Steiner’s book; instead, I was pleasantly surprised by it–in fact, I have found myself nodding and underlining and, more than once, weeping as I read. The essays themselves are powerful, moving explorations of individual choices. The authors are black and white and hispanic and middle eastern; they write about staying home and working and that crazy something in between that we call “working from home.” They range in age from their mid-20s to their mid-60s. Most write from a position of financial security and social privilege. Nearly all are writers by trade.
For the most part, the writers in this collection refuse to engage with the more inflammatory “Mommy wars” rhetoric; they are thoughtful about their own choices, and take full responsibility for their perceptions of other women. In “I Hate Everybody,” Leslie Lehr writes honestly and compellingly about how she is “infuriated by the world’s double standard when it comes to motherhood and work.” She has hated, at various times, working mothers, stay-home mothers, her husband, herself, and a car salesman. Throughout her essay, though, Lehr–like most of the other writers in this anthology–owns her point of view; she does not blame other women for her angst, but instead illustrates how we use other women as a mirror to measure our own choices.
What surprised me the most, though, was how this book made me reconsider my own position in this conversation. While I don’t believe that women fall easily into categories of “working” and “stay-at-home,”I assumed that the essays by women like myself–educated women who explicitly chose family over career–would make the most sense to me. Instead, the most disappointing essays in the collection were actually those written by stay-home mothers, who employ the aggressive Mommy wars rhetoric to defend their choices, or assert their superiority as mothers. Catherine Clifford claims that “when a child isn’t mothered by her mother, something precious and irreplaceable is lost to both of them;” Iris Krasnow blithely confirms that women who chose to have children “have a fundamental commitment to spend a lot of time with them.” These stay-home moms romanticize life with children in a way that is completely unfamiliar to me just now, in the chaos that is my home. Unlike the working women in this collection, the stay-home moms fall back on the “moral high ground” rhetoric: children need their mothers, childhood is short, the best moments are the ones that can’t be scheduled. I don’t believe that mothers are, universally, the best caregivers, nor do I believe that complete devotion to my children and their needs will make me a successful mother. In fact, I have learned recently that complete immersion in my children’s lives makes me a cranky mother, one who is not really enjoying her children’s childhood.
As I was reading this book and putting out fires at home, I had the chance to speak with Leslie Morgan Steiner. And I will be honest again: just as I did not expect to like this book, I did not expect to find much common ground with Steiner, who defines herself as a working mother: “I have to work,” Steiner writes in her introduction. “I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t.” Her experience, her subject position, was so completely different from mine. What could we possibly have in common? Quite a lot, as it turned out. Steiner is eloquent about her vision for this book; she talks about how “no one is in the business of trying to make moms feel good about ourselves.” We rarely tell each other that we are good mothers, Steiner says. She told me an interesting story, about a friend who suffered from postpartum depression. Her friend, Steiner says, couldn’t get any help, but years later, when the same woman had a heart attack, help was everywhere, despite the fact that the heart attack was a fairly straightforward, manageable medical condition, unlike PPD. Motherhood, Steiner says, is a “social demotion,” but it is one that comes with high expectations: we live in a culture that tells mothers that unless we are doing our very best all the time, we are failing our children. The real Mommy wars, according to Steiner, are not between individual groups of women but between mothers and the culture at large, which teaches us that the only way to be a good mother is to always strive to be the best mother. Unfortunately, there are no good measures of what makes a good mother, and so we internalize this struggle and measure ourselves–and our choices–against other women.
Unfortunately, we live in a media-based culture; we look to the media for advice about what to wear and who to vote for and how to discipline our children. And right now, the media is obsessed with the pretend “Mommy wars.” We are force-fed images of Diane Sawyer asking stay-home moms to tell working moms what they are “missing” by not being home with their children. We are confronted, over and over, with the worst case scenarios, carefully staged for TV audiences. The most insightful moment in Mommy Wars comes in an essay by Veronica Chambers. Chambers, who did not have children at the time she wrote the essay, describes herself as a “mole,” spying on working mothers and stay-home mothers in order to learn what she can about being a mother herself. She finds herself, at different moments, agreeing with both sides; she also finds herself, at other moments, startled by what she hears from both sides. “I understand that knowledge is power and women share these stories to feel connected,” she writes. “But I am beginning to think that there’s a part of this journey to motherhood that I want to make alone, without the weight and worry of so many other women’s experiences. How will spying on other mothers help me when I don’t know where my own journey will take me? . . . I watch the mommy wars and I can only imagine the worst because it’s the worst that leaps out at me in the stories I hear and the books I read.”
I think Chambers is dead on: when the media tells, over and over, the story of how one mother is better than another because she works or because she doesn’t, it gets us nowhere; it is the worst kind of story we can hear about what it means to be a mother. Mommy Wars is, fortunately, not full of the worst, at least not in a stay-home-moms versus working moms kind of way. Instead, it is a thoughtful, if often unsettling, look at the choices women make and the repercussions of those choices.