Mommy Wars: In the Trenches

The Mommy Wars have been on the fringes of my radar – I barely perked up when I heard about the Ann Never-Worked-A-Day-In-Her-Life Romney fiasco. But I’d been reading more articles as they came up on my reader/wall/feed. And it made me wonder:

  1. Have I been on the receiving end of disparaging comments from either “camp”?
  2. Have I made or thought disparaging comments about those women in the other camp?
  3. What’s really going on here?

I never really cared. Or thought about it too much. I figured most women could choose either way, and that it wasn’t difficult for anyone, people just did what they wanted or needed for their family. Until we had the babies, I gave up my full-time work, moved out to the Mid-West to stay at home with them while Andy followed his call. And even then, I always assumed this situation would be temporary. Mostly out of necessity, economically speaking, but also because my heart and brain need more.

When I admitted this to myself – I found myself vacillating between: Guilt. And, Regret.

Guilt because I felt like I should be happy and thankful to be at home with the twins. Guilt because I felt like I should be focusing all my attention and energy 100% 24/7 on them. Guilt because I felt like I should stop pursuing anything else.

Regret because I felt like I could be contributing so much more – financially – to our family. Regret because I felt like I should have pursued some dreams while I had the chance. Regret because I felt like I’m wasting so many days wondering and worrying about time lost with either the babies or those dreams.

These so-called Mommy Wars didn’t help. I couldn’t figure out what camp I belonged to ever. Work at home? Work outside? What did I want? Need? And the likely reality was/is that these wars are fake. Just media spin and perpetuation by larger societal forces. Just to get people worked up and contentious towards each other. Like Barbara Risman writes in Phony Mommy Wars:

The truth is most women aren’t fighting about this. They know that work is involved to make everyday life happen: the feeding, and clothing and caring for oneself and one’s family, whether earning the money to buy the clothes and food, or being at home, washing those clothes or cooking dinner. All mothers work, nearly all of the time. And so do many fathers.

But there is a serious issue hidden in the silliness of the alleged mommy wars, and it is the contradictory, conflicting beliefs we have about the value of taking time to care for other people. Who should take care of young people and their grandparents, and how should they be rewarded? We claim to value families, but we don’t really value what it takes to care for them.

I’ve had conversations with others about this – that the deeper problem of the language of value is excluded (especially in financial terms) when it comes to talking about raising and caring for others.

But, there’s more, too. There’s stuff about identity, legitimacy, and ultimately, power and agency. And those wars are more individual and internal sometimes. Delia Lloyd writes in The Mommy Wars Inside My Head:

For me, at least, the main anxiety I’m confronting right now concerns my own identity. It has everything to do with the loss of control that attends to my no longer being, as my daughter once so colorfully put it (much to my own delight and terror), “the main person in my family.”

Not long ago, I visited an old friend who works in a very demanding government job, and we discussed the challenges facing mothers who work outside the home. As she watched me micro-manage my children, she asked me what I thought would be the hardest part of returning to work full time. I initially responded “relief,” by which I meant relief not to have to do so much around the home anymore.

“Only relief?” she pushed back. “Don’t you think you’ll also feel a certain loss of power?”

This is provocative. Because it makes me realize that we put value not only onthe work but on spaces, too. We’ve been conditioned to think that influence is only associated with work in the the public sphere. But, in the domestic sphere? There’s a tension. While some may view it as a space that isn’t worth our time and relegated to baby-sitters and full-time nannies, besides primary care-givers, it is a space where there is power and control, and it’s exercised regularly (although some mothers of pre-schoolers would probably disagree with me LOL).

Something I uncovered in a paper on mujerista theology and domesticity by Marguerite Renner who reviewed Glenna Matthews’ book “Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America:

She even terms the mid- nineteenth century the “golden age of domesticity” and describes women’s roles in antebellum years as an “epic role in which the home provided a touchstone of values for reforming the entire society.” Changing material conditions, including technological development, and the availability of servants, she argues, combined with the values and attitudes of republican motherhood to allow women the opportunity to expand their emotional, social, religious, and political roles in the home… Domesticity elevated women to a position of respect and prominence that earlier generations had not known…That stature in the home generated a new self- image and sense of importance for women, which they were able to use to move beyond their homes into the public arena…Males played a role first in “helping to create and perpetuate” domesticity, she argues. Beyond that they were instrumental in making it part of mainstream culture…”What has been insufficiently recognized . . . is the extent to which men, too, entered into the ideology of domesticity, helping to create and perpetuate it. In so doing they took the home beyond the boundaries of ‘women’s sphere’ and into the national arena.”

“Women’s work” and the domestic space – it isn’t so cut and dry in terms of wider participation in the public sphere. What I am drawn to here is the subversive nature of these spaces. There’s potential for creative change – in ways that we might not expect to happen in larger society. I think that’s what I appreciated about Annie’s engagement of the Motherhood vs Feminism debate, which I feel isn’t much different from the tone of the so-called Mommy Wars. She writes about it:

We need to be more creative. We need to look at models that work and share those ideas. We need to understand that each model may work for some family out there, even if it doesn’t work for our own for some reason. Most of all, we need to be recognize that this is not a battle between feminism and motherhood, nor is it a battle between feminists and mothers. As a feminist mother, I don’t want to be forced into a false dichotomy, I want to push for societal changes that will forever erase the pretend division.

I totally agree. And I agree with Mary Elizabeth Williams to a certain degree, except that I don’t want to end the Mom War.

So let me today issue a modest proposal. Let’s cut the crap. The war is real. The damage to our hearts and souls and self-esteem is incalculable. But we can change that. As one who has spent over a decade now with one foot in both worlds – an imperfect arrangement that many of us, by the way, somehow cobble together – I can tell you that most of us are just slogging away here, doing the best we can and making it up as we go along. Some of us aren’t in the workforce. Some of us are there out of financial necessity, some out of career ambition, and many, a combination of both. But damn near all of us are fiercely, ferociously devoted to our families. When we can get past being scared somebody’s going to call us out as whopping female failures, we can see that, though our days are structured differently, most of us are working our guts out. That we love our children. That we are not enemies.

We’re on the same team. But I don’t want to cease fighting. I want to keep fighting, keep resisting, keep challenging because these issues of identity will affect all the girls I hung out with in youth groups, those girls I taught in Sunday School, and of course, my little A. And for sure, by association, my little D. I want to keep engaging these perspectives, and keep dialoguing about how to change them, and keep working in hard and awkward ways with those who may disagree with me or who live completely different from me for the sake of all our daughters. I want our daughters and sons to see value in whatever work they pursue in their lives as long as they are happy and helping to make others happy in some way.

Because ultimately, it’ll be about choice. Whatever the choice – being given the chance, the same chance, to choose without fear of judgment or pressure, to choose without guilt or regret, to choose what value means to you, to choose what it means to be a woman and a human being, to choose what your heart tells you is best for you and your family. Whether it’s to work or to have

…the courage to choose staying home with their kids when that is what they really want to do, even though others are urging them to just go away for the weekend. Because it’s ok to choose to put your kids first, it really is.

[Image from here.]

4 thoughts on “Mommy Wars: In the Trenches

  • May 5, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Mihee- your words are beautiful and very true. However, I would add that I think it is possible for all moms to put their kids first – working moms, too. I don’t see it as an either/or.

    • May 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      Julie! You’re totally right! And that was the point of all this – that it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. I am trying to find a balance between realizing that I can’t have it all, but at the same time pursue putting my kids first no matter what situation I’m in work-wise. Thank you!

  • May 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    The excerpt you quoted about our fear of being called out as “female failures” may be the most telling – and condemning – truth at the heart of all this Mommy Wars hype: this question brings out our deepest insecurities about who we are and how we have worth. I think it’s the voice of our inner critic – not the media, not even other mothers – that we fear the most. Which makes it a lot harder to bring into the light and work on to change!

    • May 10, 2012 at 10:56 am

      Definitely agree – fear of failure – and not just limited gender-wise. But the experience is very different for each…and the question of worth and value is certainly a big issue.

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