Moms at War: Attacking Each Other, and Themselves

By Leslie Morgan Steiner
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 6, 2006; C10

I stood chatting with a neighbor, a stay-at-home mom whose kids go to the local public school with my children. I was writing a book exploring the tension and confusion between working and stay-at-home moms and so I asked what my neighbor thought of moms who work outside the home.

Her immediate response: "Oh, I feel so sorry for them."

My cheeks flushed like a child with a fever. This woman felt sorry for me? For all the moms at our school who work to support their families, to show their kids that women can work, who work to change the world, who work to keep their sanity? I turned away.

All moms -- paid and unpaid -- work. We all know that, but still, there's a lot I haven't understood about other moms since I became one myself. I can't fathom why some working moms stay stuck in too-demanding jobs or careers that they openly resent because of the quality (and quantity) of time they miss with their kids. What I know for certain, because I see it almost every day, is that working and at-home moms misunderstand and envy each other in the corrosive, fake-smiling way we women have perfected over the eons.

* * *

Nothing was going to stop me, an optimistic college student in the 1980s, from cherry-picking the best of my mom's and dad's worlds -- hands-on motherhood and a fulfilling career. I worked hard. I put myself through business school. I married at 30 and had my first child two years later. By then, I was a marketing executive at Johnson & Johnson and I'd launched a new product, Splenda sweetener, throughout South America, the Mideast and Australia. The chairman knew my first name.

As much as I loved my work, rocking our newborn son felt like mainlining Valium. I thought I might stay home. My OB-GYN, a mom with three kids, tried to stop me. "You don't want to make such an important decision during maternity leave," she said as I lay on the examining table for my six-week postpartum checkup. "You've got hormones and exhaustion clouding your judgment. Life is long. You can always quit after six months, a year."

I went back to my job the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Max's 3-month birthday. I was amazed to be paying another woman to do what I craved most in the world, to stay home with my little bird. While I drove out of the driveway, dressed in a black coatdress and full makeup for the first time in weeks, my heart lay beating on the changing table.

I got through the day with a single vow: Don't cry.

Soon enough, Max came to work with me, spending his days at the company day-care center. I could see his nursery window from the boardroom window, and I breast-fed him during lunch. My boss said yes when I asked to work at home two days a week, granting me a gift more priceless than a briefcase of stock options: time with my child.

I've worked a variety of part-time and full-time jobs since then and am on a year-long sabbatical from my job as an advertising executive with The Washington Post. My career has progressed and I have had two more children. I've combined the best of my mother's and father's worlds, largely through years of education and careful career choices that have afforded a handsome prize: rewarding, lucrative part-time work that leaves time for my family. I have no doubt that my life, as well as my family's, is immeasurably richer due to my decision to combine work and motherhood.

Of course, it's rarely easy. I don't often have ironed clothes and blow-dried hair on the same day. I could store my three kids' winter clothes in the bags under my eyes. Despite my ambitions and MBA, it's not likely that I'm going to be president of any company anytime in my life.

I am always pulled in two equally compelling, mutually exclusive directions. I once left my daughter crying in her highchair during a conference call, shutting the kitchen door to block out her wails. More times than I can count, colleagues have wrapped up jobs for me so I could get to the day-care center before my kids were turned over to foster care. I rush along deliriously busy, in love with some project. Until-- bam! -- I miss my children so much it's as though a large block of ice has suddenly replaced my stomach.

Finding one's balance between work and family can be a torturous task for any mom. Complicating every mom's personal dilemma is the societal tension between working mothers and stay-at-home ones. Motherhood in America is fraught with defensiveness, infighting, ignorance and judgment about what's best for kids, families and women. Wouldn't we be far better off if we accepted and supported all good, if disparate, mothering choices? Aren't moms ultimately united in our quest to stay sane, raise good kids, provide each other with succor and support, and protect humankind from the overly aggressive, overly logical male half of the species?

The evidence, unfortunately, does not support a united sisterhood. I remember a morning when, dressed for the office at 8 a.m., I (somewhat) frantically dropped my kids off at school while my husband sat on a plane to somewhere. In the space of 20 minutes on the playground, three stay-at-home moms lobbed greetings that felt like sly, wholly unwarranted commentary on my life. Jabs about wearing pantyhose, the rush I was always in, and the ultimate: "I don't know how you do it." (Accompanied by patronizing smile.) But at least the stay-at-home moms talked to me.

Later that day I was dressed in sweats, sitting on the floor at the kids' weekly computer class. A working mom rushed in, clad in child-unfriendly leather skirt and high-heel boots (quite similar to the ones I had recently peeled off), impatient for her child to finish. She glanced at me on the floor as if I were an oversize rodent. In lieu of a greeting, she rapped on the glass door to get her child's attention. Maybe she didn't remember her kid's name. In one day, I rocketed from damning the holier-than-thou stay-at-home moms to damning those snotty working ones.

There is no good reason for working moms to treat stay-at-home mothers like dirt (invisible dirt but dirt nonetheless). Working moms might conceivably be grateful to moms who stay home and run our schools, our communities, a good chunk of our kids' worlds. At-home moms might arguably appreciate the working moms staying late to get the big promotions, fighting to increase women's presence on company boards and the front page of the Wall Street Journal and campaigning to win elections. Without the money, the power and the loudspeaker that successful careers bring, women will never have the collective bargaining power to make the world better for ourselves, our children and all the women who can't leave abusive husbands, the ones who wear veils, the moms who earn less than minimum wage cleaning houses and don't have choices about birth control or prenatal care or any other kind of care.

That same morning on the playground, right after the stay-at-home moms had had their verbal way with me and I was scurrying out of the schoolyard, my daughter's pre-K teacher beckoned me with one finger.

I don't have time to talk to her, I thought.

She had on one of her 33-year-old son's Redskins T-shirts, pulled down over a faded purple Indian batik skirt. Her long white hair hung to her elbows. Her red lipstick was on crooked. If you put a crown and shimmery dress on her, she'd look just like an aged Glinda the Good Witch, headed for the Oz nursing home. The other parents and I call her the Goddess of Pre-K.

She gently but firmly grabbed my elbow, exactly as I'd seen her do to my daughter on Morgan's bossiest days. She'd overheard those stay-at-home-mom comments. Wisdom radiated from her green eyes.

"Did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?" Mrs. Rahim whispered so that the swirling crowd of stay-at-home moms, lingering by the school door, couldn't hear. "You are a happy mom. Your face glows with it. That's what matters most to your kids. I think you should have 10 more children. Now go to work." I could tell she wanted to pat my Liz Claiborne-clad tush as I walked away, smiling as if she'd tied a pink balloon to my wrist.

* * *

Right before lunch today (aka a quick hop to the cafeteria to get ice for my SlimFast), I ran into another working mom in the hallway and spent 10 precious minutes commiserating by the water fountain. The conversation went like this:

"How are you?"

"Well, I was up at 3 a.m., nursing the baby and writing a PowerPoint presentation for the VP group that I have to give in 15 minutes. How are you?"

"Oh yeah, no sleep here either. Last night Morgan kicked me all night, Tallie peed on me, and when I woke up at 5 a.m., Perry wanted to have sex."

Conversations like this sustain me for days. Working moms understand me in ways at-home moms -- even my own mom and close friends -- never will.

I have to work. I wouldn't be myself if I didn't. My job (most days) makes me feel energized, important, successful -- a happy mom to my kids.

What puzzles me is that despite the fact that I've crafted a pretty ideal work/family situation, at times I'm still envious of the trust stay-at-home moms seem to have in their husbands and in life, a breezy Carol Brady confidence that they will always be taken care of. Some days I'd kill for a dose of their faith that neither my husband nor life will leave me stranded, destitute, unable to protect myself and my children without the independence conferred by a job and paycheck of my own.

* * *

So I'm back where I started. How can some moms stay home? Why is it that others, like me, so clearly cannot? Do we all fight our private battles about which to choose? Does that explain why we're so catty and envious of women who've made different choices?

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

We all need other moms regardless of our personal decisions about working or staying home. There are no easy answers, but sharing our struggles helps. On good days I no longer feel alone in my quest to balance work and family. There are millions of women in America keeping me company as I fight my internal mommy war, and very good company they are.

Adapted from "Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families," an anthology edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Copyright 2006. Printed by permission of Random House.

© 2006 The Washington Post


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