Mommy Wars Meme?

So, DK tagged me with this meme even though it's not a meme that SHE responded to since she's not a mother. She saw it on her cousin's website, though, and thought of me. I'm tickled pink to actually have been tagged by SOMEONE for once, even if it's not one of those traditional methods. I will say that I had sort of sworn off memes (I love them but I'm sure they are annoying as heck to my readers) but DK's cousin's answers made me realize that I have very strong opinions about the Mommy Wars.


VERY. (And I wrote THAT column in 2001 --I wasn't near as wise and mouthy then as I am now!) (Well, I wasn't as WISE anyway.)

Maybe it's because I am an older mom. Or maybe it's because I went back to work (in theory part-time) for a year and a half recently. Or maybe it's because I know so many women who are conflicted about their choices/life situations --it seems that no matter whether you work or stay home, somebody somewhere is telling you why you shouldn't do that and what a bad mother you are. Or maybe it's because I find the stridency of each side on the Mommy Wars really incredibly off-putting.

Or maybe it's just that I am a hopeful idealist who really does believe that we all can respect each others' choices without throwing the darts of judgement around. But, anyway, here are my answers:

1. Why did you decide to stay at home with the kids or go to work. Was it a choice?

I decided to stay home because I didn't feel that there was any way to continue in my field (non-profit communications, which entailed grant writing, public relations and special events) and be available at all to my child. I can count on one hand the number of 40 hour weeks I worked during my ten year career. Partly, this is a function of the non-profit world, where all workers must do the work of three people to stretch the budget. And partly, this is because I don't know how to work any other way than full-on, all out. After seven years out of the work force, I took what was ostensibly a part-time, work from home job as the Editor of a regional magazine. I loved the job very much but I began dropping the ball when it came to my family. I do NOT think every working woman is like this, but I just can't seem to multi-focus very easily. I felt fragmented and like I wasn't doing anything well. So I resigned, armed with a whole new respect for my working-mom friends.

2. Leslie Bennetts claims that there's a stay at home movement that is encouraging more women to return to the home, even women who are poor. The work vs. home argument used to be just about white upper class women. Is it spreading?

I hope so. I hope that women of all socio-economic strata are encouraged and enabled to do what they feel is best for their families.

In case you haven't followed this story, Leslie Bennetts wrote a book in which she takes stay-at-home-mothers to task for burying their heads in the sand regarding their financial independence. I have not read her book --because I refuse to buy it and put money in her pocket-- but I am going to borrow it from our library. I HAVE read reviews that sparked this good controversy. One I read that seems an unbiased review of the book is this one, Mojo Mom, by Amy Tiemann, whom I admire as a writer. I'll quote a little from her review but it's a really good read so you should click on her link and also, read the comments. (Because, oh lordy, it always gets interesting in the comments.)

She says this:

"Bennetts expounds at length on the financial vulnerabilities of mothers, shattering the fairy-tale fantasies we unconsciously carry with us. She and I agree on the basic point that "A man is not a financial plan." Others have said this [...] but Bennetts lays out the harsh realities of financial dependency through story after story of women who were caught up short by unforeseen twists of fate: divorce, unemployment, disability, or death. These obstacles are quite obvious on a macroscopic level but it is tempting to carry on with the wishful thinking that calamity will never befall us personally. Bennetts' book is strong medicine, but one that every woman should take. Better to read one harsh, challenging book than to sleepwalk through life without a backup plan for self-sufficiency."

I will tell you flat out that my family experienced just this kind of catastrophic event when I was growing up. My father was electrocuted and completely brain damaged in Viet Nam when I was five, leaving a wife and four children to try to figure out how to oversee his care and still, you know, eat and stuff. My oldest brother was 13 and I was five and my mother was an Army wife without a college education and in a strange country. (She's native German.) My father lived almost 19 years after the accident.

So, having experienced that and having still made the choice to stay home with my children, I feel that Bennetts' argument is an interesting one but I think it is flawed in several ways. There is no one way to earn a living. I have seen women start corporations while babies crawl around their desk chairs. I once conducted an interview with someone for a press release while planting pansies in the backyard with my older daughter (then 18 months.) (She dumped a shovel full of dirt down the back of my jeans. Which is by far the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me while conducting an interview with a big shot!) (We never did find the pansy.)

(Three digressions in a row! Four if you count this one! I got game!)

3. Which of Bennetts' arguments are most convincing? Which least convincing? Which did she miss?

I think Bennetts makes a good point--that we shouldn't rely solely on our partners for financial independence. But where I think she misses the boat is assuming that the only way for mothers to be financially independent is to work outside the home, (which, by the way, always sounds like an institution. Mine would probably be called the "Crazed Wives Home.") There are so many other ways to work a career into and around family --including both parents working part time or telecommuting or one doing freelance work of some sort. I think Bennetts' outlook is very stereotypical: a career must consist of people putting on work clothes and going to an office. What I've learned over the years is that there is no one way to make a living. That's not to say that I don't believe in lost earning potential because I do. But I also think those are some of the choices we make when we decide to become parents. Let's face it--we'll never have as much money or time as we did before we had kids anyway. I count lost earning potential as part of the price of having children.

And I think there is a larger point here, too. Instead of taking aim at each other for making different choices, women should be concentrating on how to make both working and staying at home viable options. Why aren't we talking about sub-standard daycare and wages? Why aren't we talking about lost earning potential and figuring out how to compensate women for making the choice to give up their careers for a number of years? Why are we not noticing, in our fervor to justify our positions and sling arrows at those who make other choices, that we are really all on the SAME SIDE--the side of parents who seek to raise their children in the best way possible? I honestly believe that if we could let go of all this judgment, we would be able to tap into our creative brains to find work-around solutions that suit the needs of mothers in ALL situations.

4. Did your mother and grandmothers work outside the home? How did that turn out for them and for you?

My mother did both. She went back to school and earned her PH.D. and then she began teaching at a local community college. My mother is a VERY savvy financial manager. She took my dad's Army pension and managed it so that she saved quite a bit and STILL stayed home while I was little.

I'm not actually sure about my maternal grandmother even though I was closest to her of both of my grandmothers. I'll ask my mom. Given that my grandmother lived in Germany and her husband was a POW for nine years, I'm pretty sure she did something but I don't know what. My paternal grandmother was farm wife in Wisconsin and she worked like a dog. Since she worked in the fields, I guess it's fair to say she worked outside the home.

You know, she's a good example of another point I wanted to make, which is that even though my husband makes the money for our family, he doesn't do that alone. I am partially responsible for his success, as an executive wife. He recognizes my contribution and carries a rather large life insurance policy in case anything happens to me because he'd have to put quite a large number of people on staff to do all the things I do.

5. Bennetts said in an interview that she wants this book to be a one-stop resource for women to gain all the information they need to decide whether or not to return to work after having children. Did she succeed?

All the reviews I've read make it pretty clear on which side of the fence Bennetts lands in the Mommy Wars. I think it's very sad because instead of offering possible solutions for the divisions between women, she seems to be another woman with an agenda to push.

6. One of the women Bennetts quotes says that she felt ostracized from the stay at home moms at school when she was working. Is there a divide between working women and those who stay at home? How can we bridge it?

I guess I've been very lucky. I've been aware for a long time that there is a divide but I have NEVER experienced it. I've been both a working mother and a stay-at-home mom and I've never seen anything but a lot of empathy for both paths. I feel as though there is a lot of support for both paths, at least in my circle of friends and acquaintances.

Having said that, I must also say how much I admire single moms who do what amounts to two full-time jobs without any help. I think I COULD do it if I had no choice but dang, it looks like a lot of work.

7. Did you prepare in your education for paid work? Why or why not? Do you wish you had done differently?

I did go to college and earn a degree with an eye toward having a career in Journalism. I HAD a career for ten years before I had children and I worked my hiney off. When I was 26, I had cancer and after going through treatment, thought I couldn't have children so I was a full-force, career woman when I found out that I was miraculously pregnant at age 32.

I don't wish I'd done anything different in my career. I was a successful career woman and I enjoyed all the ways I got to use my writing skills. I love being a writer and I think it's a career that can handle a graceful intermission while I raise my children. (An intermission from the promotional side, I mean. I am always writing, even if it's on the back of an envelope at a stoplight.) (Although my friend Tiffany keeps trying to get me to do more promotion for my work and keeps giving me hints on how to do that without losing the fine balance between family and work. I'm so not good with balance.)

I wish I'd done things differently in my LIFE, though, like I wished I saved more money before I had children and blah, blah, blah. And sometimes, I really wish I had a medical degree or at least a degree in child psychology.

8. How do you divide the domestic labor in your relationship? Did you always do it that way? Is it working?

We have a fairly traditional division of labor in our marriage but it somehow doesn't feel traditional to me. Maybe it's because my husband is SO involved and supportive. He comes to every single one of the kids' activities or shows or recitals --he's even taken off work when I had a migraine to go stuff Thursday folders in my place. He frequently (at least twice a week) stops at the grocery store on the way home from work. He is often the only dad at a birthday party and he schedules fun outings for the girls all the time, especially since my foot has left me so immobile. He makes a point to go have lunch with the girls. He walks them to school most of the time. I do the laundry but he takes his own dry cleaning in and picks it up. He pays the bills, I keep the checkbook. He pays for a maid to come in once a week. We both cook. We both drive carpool (although I do a bit more of this just because I'm not working.) We make decisions regarding our money together. I mow, he weed-eats. I take the kids to doctor appointments, dentists, etc. He does almost all of the work on the pool. We both do pet duty but he does all cat box duty. (Have I mentioned I love him?) The only job he has never done is clip the children's finger and toe nails.

Anyway, that's the so-called Mommy Wars Meme. Frankly, I think we need to find a way to stop spreading the divisiveness among women and to start spreading the support around. I think it's only through our unified voices that we will be heard: I want better day care that's more affordable for working low-income women. I want some sort of tax relief for those of us who take time off from our careers. I want employers who recognize that working 9-5 in an office is not the only way to get the job done. And most of all, I want a little more kindness and respect among mothers, regardless of our choices.


Ei said…
Are you aquainted with my friend Liz over at You ought to read this post. She has a lot to say on this subject and wrote a very compelling piece on Bennet's book which ended up getting me in a little bit of trouble with some-um-other people. But she's on your team, as am I.
Barb Matijevich said…
Ih, my, GOSH, EI! How much do I wish I'd written that post?? Wow.

You know, sometimes I read other writers and think I should just give away my pencils and go back to bed for a few years. Wow.

Barb Matijevich said…
Er. That should ahve said "OH, my, gosh."

Definitely time to give away the pencils...
Ei said…
Do I have to give you a mommy lecture on not comparing yourself to others? I gave it to Elyas last's fresh!

Besides, I suggested YOUR site as recommended reading to her when her blog was very new. So there.
Suna Kendall said…
Thanks for the reference to that post, EI. I am older than you all and have experienced another consequence of the SAHM choice: your husband leaves you and you suddenly need to work outside the home to survive. Your values and the need to eat conflict. Bear in mind that, at the time, I worked for an organization of people who are often militantly "at home" (three letters, all the same). And through them I DID manage to stay home AND work for money for a few years, so I am very lucky.

It is such a hard thing to decide what is right for you and your children. And what is right may change. More than once. For that reason, I find it pointless to judge another mother about her choices. You do the best you can, and hope you did well.

Given my druthers, I'd still be working at home--I enjoy writing,and I enjoy contributing to the outside world, but I'd love to get a gig where I could do it from home most of the time.

I'll stop--I also have a lot to say on this, from the perspective of someone who has been in the "SAHM Movement" and also learned that sometimes it's not an option. I guess I will try to write up the meme tomorrow--my mother and grandmothers' choices were also interesting. Soon my job outside the home ends (cruel world of big business that cuts contractors at year end), so I might have plenty of time to write after next week!
I tagged you with the Christmas meme, Barb! And you didn't even notice (sob).

There's another angle I don't like about Bennett's book, but I am having a hard time articulating it. It's all very well and good if somehow, someday, there is low-cost, affordable daycare for everyone; all well and good if every husband comes home from work positively agog to do the laundry and clean up the dishes. But, personally, I regard being the homekeeper a full-time job; and, while there is nothing wrong with wanting other work, the upshot of encouraging women to have careers and families is that the homekeeping job is not considered a "real" job - just sh*t work that needs to be fought over between husband and wife. People do not acknowledge that a dual-career couple are working 3 jobs. 3. That bugs me.

What also bugs me (why did you get me started?) is that people readily recognize the above arrangement (husband and wife working 3 jobs) as teamwork; yet they denigrate the teamwork inherent in the "traditional" set-up - one spouse manning the homefront, making sure everything runs smoothly, while the other spouse concentrates on bringing in the money that they need to run their home and support their family. The homekeeping spouse is essentially regarded as a fool for not having a real job and for depending financially on the other, wage-earning spouse. People, if you can't trust your spouse to share his money, what are you doing being married? And yes, he can die, he can become disabled - that's what life insurance and disability insurance are for. I point this out to let you know that people who follow the "traditional" model are not necessarily fools with their heads stuck in the sand. They are loving, trusting people with enough financial savvy to plan how to make sure the family survives with one breadwinner. Whenever my husband and I discuss the feasibility of my taking on even part-time work, what always strikes us is how much more stress we would be under, having to decide who would take the kids to the doctor, who would make sure dinner is on the table, who would stay home if someone were sick. Those are all in my job description right now, but I wouldn't be able to do it all if I took on more obligations.

Finally, for many of us who cling to the traditional model, we don't take on a third job because we are enjoying ourselves (gasp). We are careful with our money, prudent with our financial planning, and able to focus on our job of keeping our home a pleasant place to live (well, some of the time, anyway - Barb, stop laughing).

Homekeeping is a full-time job. Neither my husband nor I want to work 1 and a half jobs. We're tired already.
Anonymous said…
Man! Can you write!!!
Don't move to LI until I get to meet you and sing your praises in
person...and you can probably get by with no ac. Just a few hottish days a year.
HGardner's mom
DK said…
And again I say, well said, my friend.
ckh said…
I have not read Bennett's book either. I read a lot of reviews, which sort of count as Cliff's Notes for grown-ups. The positive thing that I have to say about it is that it gives you a lot to think about.

I love being at home with my kids and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity, but my brain is turning to mush.

I worry about being able to jump into the workforce either by chance or by choice and if I'll have what it takes in confidence, which wanes more with each year at home or with skills because what I used to do is obsolete now.

That book has just made me take my head out of the sand and look around at my options a bit more. I'm still at home, but for how long?
Tenna Draper said…
I have to say that I love your blog, and I'm subscribed to it. Loved all the thoughtful and informed comments you made on the meme--it's never been something I've even considered--but my own mother was a stay at home mom, married at 14, divorced after 43 years, and the man she was married to, while he did bring home the bacon, it never seemed to last very long--her biggest fear was that she would lose her house or her kids--the house is gone now (a victim of divorce), and the kids grown. She still stays home, but it's an apartment, and the money comes from social security and the divorce settlement. The man she was married to was a good provider insofar as he could be, but he was an alcoholic and beat my mother until I was 16 years old. She finally stood up to him one day, and he didn't beat her again, but the point was made. She had no skills, but encouraged me to be somewhat financially independent, while she fostered dependency in her son (and her grandson). Even so, I still got pregnant too early and married to the wrong man too early, and made all the bad decisions basically because I wanted a house with that white picket fence they're always talking about and thought it would require two incomes even then (nearly 30 years ago). I finally achieved it at a time when I was divorced and not even SEEING someone.

How Ironic is that?

But if people made all the good choices, and still have this angst over home/career--well all I can say for that is that it's nice you had a choice, but what's all the angst about? Do what you have to do, and get on with living. Either way you go, you're going to have something devolve into a mess--because now it DOES take 2 incomes to run a household--and welfare surely doesn't cut it, but I don't think that asking the government to make up for the lack in society is the answer. The government is over-run with highly paid people who do nothing but sit and committee about the advantages/disadvantages of this or that choice. They take so much money from the budget that there's nothing left to spend on the programs that are creating and maintaining dependency (rather than independency) in people who also want all the nice things in life that the people who "work for it" have.

In short, there are no easy answers--you can't live on a babysitter's salary--unless you're sitting for SEVERAL children, and how then can you guarantee that you're watching them all with the same degree of "watchfulness"? Sigh. This has become a lesson in "there are no easy answers" for me, all my life has been that way. So I figure the best to do is to decide--get off the darn fence, and do it, and worry about the consequences later. Survival is the most important thing.