The 100-Year Mommy Wars

Twenty-five years ago, when I was just starting out as a new mother, I wrote an article for our local newspaper.  The article had a quick turnaround, so I was in a hurry.  What I churned out wasn’t nearly as provocative or as thoughtful as what I usually aimed for, but sometimes (too often) that happens when you’re working on a deadline.

Anyway, it was about young mothers and the career choices they had made.  I found three mothers who were staying at home with their kids and placing their careers on hold.  They were doing fine, happy with the choices they’d made.  I also found three other mothers who continued full-time work while their children were young.  They, too, were doing fine.

Do you see a pattern here?  Everybody was doing just swell.

So, yeah, it was one of those lackluster, feel-good pieces that drew no conclusions and made no criticisms.  It just presented two different options and brief profiles of the women who had made them.  Case closed.  The article was published.  I went on to something else.

Then came the deluge.  First, the stay-at-home moms thundered from their kitchens and playrooms.  What kind of selfish, greedy, self-involved women could leave their children and return to work?  Didn’t they care about their children?  Didn’t they realize that these precious, early childhood years were being guided by someone else, hired help who clearly couldn’t love children the way a real mother could?  The letters oozed with bitterness and self-righteousness and pure venom.

Then came round two.

The working mothers hurled lightning bolts of their own outrage and fury and mordant sarcasm that lit up the letters-to-the-editor section like a neon and fireworks display.  How wonderful that these non-working mothers could afford to stay at home and mold play-doh with their little ones!  How dare they pass judgment on women who were simply trying to pay the mortgages and bills at their small houses, driving their secondhand cars to unfulfilling, trifling jobs that exhausted and bored them?  The nerve!

I watched this all from an editorial distance, astonished — but not entirely — by the vehemence and fury.  In my quieter moments, I also wondered something else:  Where, in the midst of all this anger and these rampant accusations, were the men, the husbands, the fathers?  What kind of role were they playing?  How much help were they?  What did they think?

I saw myself as having another view entirely, one that wasn’t mentioned in the onslaught.  I worked.  I loved to work.  I did it for the money, sure; after all, we weren’t rich.  But my work, writing, was a vital part of me.  I couldn’t imagine leaving it behind — any more than I would ever have demanded that my husband ignore work he loved to stay at home.

Somehow, I wanted to keep our work alive for both of us, I wanted to keep that vital part of both of us intact, even though our lives were changing with the addition of one, then two, children.

Fighting this mommy wars battle, we all bring our individual backgrounds with us.  Mine included a depressed mother who, she often reminded my sister and me, had given up everything to sacrifice for the two of us.  Our happiness was her only goal; her happiness — or, more accurately, her lack of happiness — was our burden.  One of the few things I knew and understood about myself was that I could never, ever do that.  I wouldn’t, couldn’t give up that part of myself that was fulfilled by meaningful work.  It made me whole.

More than two decades later, this mommy battleground hasn’t changed much.  Which is sad, because it shouldn’t be a battleground in the first place.  Can’t we accept the fact there is no single, perfect way to bring up children?  Can’t we admit that we are all — in our imperfect way — trying our best to be good mothers?  What does my decision have to do with yours, yours with mine?

After all these years, I keep returning to the same thought I had in those earlier days.  Where are the men in these raging arguments?  Don’t our kids all have fathers?  Why are all the accusations and rage aimed only at our own kind?

And, last, how does all this fury and controversy benefit the people we love the most — our children?

Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker

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