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Posts Tagged ‘Mommy Wars’

I think it’s time to send the Mommy Wars off to bed once and for all.

Best-selling novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan would definitely agree.  Kogan was one of the featured break-out speakers at last week’s Sun Valley Writers Conference and her talk on the myth of the mommy wars provided food for both thought and the soul.

Kogan, a former photojournalist who spent her twenties covering international war zones, is the author of Shutterbabe, a memoir she wrote after the birth of her first child, and The Red Book, a New York Times bestseller that catches up with four Harvard roommates as they struggle, twenty years later, with the challenges of adult life.  She told a rapt audience that the media-created war that, again and again, pits women against each other is nothing but a diversion that keeps us from the real work of changing a broken system:

Once women were seen pitted thus–working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers–instead of us discussing why we have no infrastructure for working families — the simple us versus them becomes insidiously ingrained.

The us-versus-them business: Kogan was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned.  But what was encouraging to me was the way the women in the audience, ranging in age from twenty-something to sixty-plus, grabbed her message and got riled up, ready to join the right kind of fight.

Kogan traced the origins of the Mommy Wars back to that ridiculous cookie contest between Barbara Bush and Hilary Clinton. (Call it the cookie wars.  Check Family Circle and you’ll see they’re still going on.).  She provided slides of the recent media flashpoints, stuff we’ve written about, here and here:  “Are you Mom Enough”, the recent Time Magazine cover story on attachment parenting, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in “The Atlantic”, which set the bar so high for having it all, Kogan said, as to render the term meaningless.  The resulting brouhaha also led to a fake dust-up between Slaughter and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. What’s interesting, Kogan said, is that these images, these poster-moms, don’t look like any women she knows.

Most women are worried about how they can afford to buy that dinner; what if their husband gets sick; if the nanny makes $750/week, how can I afford to work?  What vacation?  AND being judged constantly.  By framing this as a war, the media sets up the idea that one side must win.  And that diverts the attention from the real issue through the juxtaposition of mommy plus war — without caveats.

Kogan provided charts and stats, comparing the support the U.S. offers working mothers versus the policies in other countries such as France or Sweden.  You can guess where the U.S. fell in most of those measures:  Off the charts, actually, and not in a good way (as we too found when we researched our book.)  Add in crappy vacation policies (versus France, she said, where five weeks’ vacation is the norm) and corporate work expectations that can top out at eighty hour work weeks.  And while the cost of child care have gone up, salaries have stagnated.

Read and weep.

What we need, Kogan said, is paid maternity leave (or parental leave, so pop can step in as well) to get the babies through that crucial first year of life without either making ourselves crazy by going back to work too soon — or staying home and going broke.  What we also need, she said, is “subsidized day care so one’s entire paycheck after year one is not going to the nanny.”

Amen to that.

And yet, we’ve all been conned by the subtext of the Mommy War meme:  it’s an either/or choice.  You stay home or you go gangbusters on your career.  Nothing in between.  All of which leads to a lot of judging.  But for most women, the choices are not quite so stark.

Kogan realized early on that motherhood was not compatible with war photography.  She moved to New York City, got a job at NBC, and with the birth of her first child took six months maternity leave and saw her family’s savings dwindle.  Twenty-one months later, she had her second child and, toward the end of her maternity leave, found herself called to Paris at the last minute – instantly weaning her daughter and without time to grab a breast pump – when Princess Di was killed.  Three years later, she asked her boss at NBC if she could cut back to a four-day work week.  Her boss said yes.  Her boss’s boss, a female VP, turned her down.  At which point, Kogan quit to stay home and write – and became a casualty of the Mommy Wars herself.

When “Shutterbabe” came out,  a memoir of her days as a photojournalist, she was called a sell-out, a “lactating nester,” a woman who had “left a brilliant career to be a soccer mom.”  Now, three books later, she is often asked, if she had to make a choice, which would it be:  Her children or her books?

I doubt that’s a question any male author has to answer.  I answer that I’d chose my children of course, but why on earth should I have to?

The real issue, Kogan says, is not the media-created catfight, but the fact that when (make that “if”) we end up judging each other for our choices, we’re fighting the wrong fight.

Toward the end of the session, a woman in the audience stood, asking if Kogan was doing anything herself to work on policy change.  Her answer? “No!  I’m too friggen busy. I always feel like one shoe is falling off.  And that’s at the heart of what happens – people who are affected by this, are just too busy.”

Later, I caught up with her for some additional thoughts:

It should really be us–all mothers–versus them–the men in Congress who keep trying to chip away, seemingly mercilessly, at the small gains women have made instead of pushing forward and rethinking the entire American paradigm, which is rotten to the core. So in that sense, it’s about controlling women: their access to birth control, family planning, and the normal benefits after the baby is born that all other developed countries take for granted. To me, the right wing Congressmen are just Taliban in suit and ties.

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Last week, I attended an alumni/student networking event at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. The event consisted of about 50 working professionals (I was in this camp), and 100 soon-to-be-grads, sniffing around for some intel on what the “real world” might have in store. The kids (umm – ouch — you know you’re getting older when you start referring to 20-ish-year-olds as “kids”) had been given bios on all us pros, and we were wearing nametags, so there was nowhere to hide. Many of them had seen the title of my book, and wanted my advice. On the small matter of what to do with their lives. Gulp.

(And, let it be said: these are not the lost souls – the organizers maxed the event out, early, at 100 students, so these were the sorts of students who’d actually jumped on the chance to attend a “networking event,” something which, to be perfectly honest, would never have occurred to me while I was in college. Of course, I majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology, so career prospects weren’t exactly my primary motivators.)

Anyway. They wanted to know what to do, how to reach their goals. (I want to be a political speech writer! An oncologist! A professor! Or the–judging by body language alone–shameful: I don’t know what to do with my life! But I’ve done this, this, and this already, so whatever I do has to be good.) Big dreams!  Huge ambitions! And they all seemed a bit like deer in the headlights. A feeling which, I told them, I remember exactly. (College graduation day: shudder. Nowhere as fun as its cracked up to be.) But, I said, what I’ve learned in my own life, and what the research we did for the book proves is this: don’t sweat it. You will have many (many!) jobs in your professional life. You will move. You will have different friends, different titles. You’ll play different roles. The parameters of your “family” will shift. Your priorities will shift.

They looked at me with expressions I can only describe as some mixture of relief and something akin to the face you’d make had I told you to become a mermaid.

But, I get it. Even now, with more job titles than I know what to do with (author, speaker, writer, coach, editor), I understand that ambition. Because I am ambitious. Extremely so. I often describe it as just a part of who I am – as fundamental to me as the fact that I do not like Chinese food, that I am a total grouch if I have no exercise in the morning, and that I’d rather spend a Sunday on the couch reading the paper than doing nearly anything else.  And I’m cool with that.

But this ambition thing. It’s tricky. Difficult to parse how much is fundamental to me, and how much is some sort of weird internalization of the cultural messaging that swirls around all of us, so thick as to be the very air we breathe. The water we swim in.

I got to thinking about it, more than usual, when I read Meghan Daum’s piece about the (most) recent Mommy War flare-up, over Hilary Rosen’s words about Ann Romney:

A lot of this, of course, is the usual bluster of an election season, the tempests that get brewed up in campaign teapots, only to subside as quickly as they erupted. But this latest storm points not only to Americans’ seemingly endless appetite for flimsy controversy but to the incredible sensitivity we have around the issue of work.

To put it bluntly, we’re obsessed with work — with who’s doing it and not doing it, with how many hours are being spent at it and how much money is being paid for it. And we’re not just obsessed in the sense that we rely on work to survive (and, these days, are suffering for lack of it). We’re obsessed with work because our identities are defined by it. We work, therefore we are.

Case in point: the way the formerly quotidian institution known as “parenthood” has lately seen its job description ratcheted up to include not just age-old duties like the feeding, clothing and chauffeuring of children but, in some circles, a downright competitive approach to co-sleeping, organic food shopping, baby sign-language teaching, protracted breast-feeding and sometimes even home schooling. With our self-worth so intrinsically connected to our professional status, we’ve extended the values of corporate ladder climbing on to family life. And some mothers, in the process of taking charge of the home front — or sometimes letting their children take charge — have imposed a greater tyranny on themselves than their office supervisors ever did.

Strikes a cord, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just a tic of human beings: we have to be able to define ourselves. A job is convenient for this purpose. So is a role. As we’ve often written, where once women defined themselves strictly in terms of their relationships to others (daughter, sister, wife, mother), now we define ourselves in terms of our work. And, hey – work’s (relatively) new to us, and it’s fun! And if what we do with our time–our work–is taking care of others, goddamnit, we’re gonna do it perfectly. If we can prove that we’re doing something well–or even if we just have the title to imply that we are–then we matter. We’re worthwhile.

And that’s all fine, to a certain extent: there’s value in doing good work, and there’s value in being a good fill-in-the-blank to someone else. But we are not our roles. And we are not our resumes. And if that leaves you wondering what’s left, well, you’re certainly not alone.

But really: wouldn’t it be more fun if we could somehow loosen the grip of the grand title, the grand role, the grand image, and just be? To try things out, and then if things don’t go as planned, to simply change course, and see what’s around the next bend? To decide that what matters is not what we achieve or how perfectly we achieve it, but that we’ve allowed ourselves to be who we are, and gotten to like her?

Seems to me, that’s a goal worthy of some of my own ambition. And hey, if it doesn’t work out, there’s always grad school.

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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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Monday morning, I awoke to a dastardly email: there lurked, it seemed, a nasty post about Undecided on the other side o’ the blogosphere. Now, I’ve been a writer for years–I’m not unfamiliar with hate mail or criticism. You do this long enough, and you develop a pretty thick skin. People can be mean. To each her own.

Except. The damn post began with this admission: I haven’t read the book that I’m about to rip apart, based on nothing but my assumptions of what it might possibly say. 

Okay, I added that last bit. But the writer did start off by announcing she hadn’t read the book.

This, dear reader, crosses the line. Hating on something one has not even bothered to read? Really? One question: Just… why??

Now, while I could pick apart every last sentence of her post (seriously, I could), that’s not what I want to write about. What I want to write about is why, time after time, and regarding issue after issue, for so many of us women, the de facto position is one of Us versus Them. You may remember the Mommy Wars, which pitted stay-at-home moms against working moms. Today, that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Attachment parenting? Co-sleeping? Breastfeeding? What if you don’t want kids? What if you don’t even want to get married? Where do you stand on Botox? Boob jobs? What about gluten? Recently, Slut Walks have offered yet another chance to pick sides. And if you don’t care about that, perhaps you’d like to claim Team Jennifer or Angelina?  Or weigh in on what today’s Scorned Political Wife should be doing about her marriage? Do you call yourself a feminist? Why? Or why the hell not?

Okay, while many of those examples are meant to be funny, I’m guessing you catch my drift. To return to an earlier post, here are some choice words on the subject of Either-Orism and Us-Vs-Themmery:

Why is it so difficult for women to allow their sisters a little nuance in their identities?

…I have a theory.

We like our people simple. Our women especially. Easily defined. Simply categorized. And, when it comes to women, the less threatening, the better. But also: this thing about women having all kinds of options, all sorts of ways to structure their lives, to cobble together their own reality made up of some parts work, some parts fun, some parts family–well, it’s new. And nothing’s perfect–and when we’re having One Of Those Days, maybe we start to question the way we’re doing it. And maybe one of the easiest ways to reassure ourselves we’re Doing It Right is to clobber anyone who dares to do it differently.

What sucks, of course, is that the more we buy into this sort of Us vs. Them thinking, the quicker we are to file everyone else away into one camp or the other–which is bad–and the less able we are to allow ourselves a little bit of nuance–which is worse. And it’s sad. Because each of us is loaded with nuance–that’s what makes us special, as individual as a snowflake.

An important point, if I do say so myself. We all have our moments (hell, months!) of insecurity over what we’re doing with our lives: lives that, for women, are defined by the choices we make. But when we hear (or read) one word (or quote), and allow our mind to spin a great tale of what else that might mean, and how She is clearly being judgmental about how I’m choosing to live my life, well… where does that get us? It certainly doesn’t help to advance the conversation.

But there’s more to it than that, even. Did you know that women are technically the majority of the population in this country? But when we’re busy tearing each other down, keeping ourselves divided, well, it’s a hell of a lot easier for the powers that be to continue to treat us as though we’re some fringe minority… and our common interests (equal pay, affordable child care and medical care, flexible work options, careers that would allow for time for a life outside of work for starters) as though they’re individual quirks, and therefore not worth addressing structurally. Divide and conquer, isn’t that how the saying goes?

So, I’m again inclined to make a plea that we all allow each other the same nuance we know to be true of ourselves. Rather than seeing our sisters as “other,” why don’t we seek out what unites us, rather than what divides us? And if we can calmly allow other people to just be who they are, no matter how it might not fit with our own ideas, maybe we can allow for that same kind of nuance within ourselves.

Oh: you may wonder why I’m not including a link to the aforementioned critique? Well, I suggested to its author that perhaps she might consider reading the book. She said she would. I’m hoping she’ll like it.


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So, earlier this week writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner (we’ve written about her before), had a piece on the Wall Street Journal’s blog that ignited what can only be described as a Category 5 shitstorm. The post is entitled “Time for a War on ‘Mommy’”–and, while I am neither a mommy nor a mother, I happen to believe that her point… and maybe, the real source of the vitriol–is relevant for all women. Not just mommies mothers.

But first. At issue: use of the word ‘mommy’ by anyone other than the fruit of your womb–and, importantly, in phrases like “Mommy Wars,” “Mommy Track,” and “Mommy Blog”. Here’s a taste:

Why is anyone other than my 3-year old (and his 8-month old brother eventually, but not yet) calling me Mommy? Why are we grown women calling each other Mommy? Is being a mother such a silly avocation that we have to baby it up, stringing it with the hormones and gushy feelings of what our children call us? Does it strike anyone that calling a woman who has had a child Mommy is demeaning and infantilizing?

This started long before the Mommy Wars, though. In the 1980s, the attempt to simplify our conflict over how to balance family and career results in a conclusion called the Mommy Track. It was a way to paint us as women who were so flighty that now that we’d gotten what we wanted–careers!–we realized that jobs weren’t all that and we wanted to go back home, where we could safely watch soap operas. Calling us Mommy then said, ‘You’ve done a good job pretending to be men, but the minute you get a baby in you, you become a hearth-sweeping woman who can only speak in goos and gahs.’

But when enough people say something, it kind of becomes true, doesn’t it? Women began to identify with the name Mommy and started not to mind when businesses would market to them as such: The Mommy Hook is a clip that hangs off my stroller and holds a shopping bag. The Mommy Necklace is a necklace that your child can’t choke on. Mommy Make-Up promises I can ‘look divine in half the time.’

Mommy Make-Up? Really? Ugh.

Moving on:

We are being marketed to as this squishy thing–the Mommy–which confirms our needs but calls us names while doing it. Because when a woman calls herself a Mommy, she is, in some ways, identifying with her captors.

Okay! Now, one might think that a woman–a mother herself–pointing out that she is first and foremost, you know, a person, might be allowed to make her point. Maybe even engender a little sympathy. Perhaps pointing out the fact that there’s a “linguistic discrepancy”–Daddy Track, anyone? Thought not–might ignite just a spark of consciousness around the fact that, yes, women are treated differently when they become parents (in more ways than one: let us not forget the charming fact that employers view an employee who’s a mother as risky–potentially flaky, distracted, likely to duck out early, while they tend to view employees who are fathers as more stable, more reliable, more worthy of promotion). One might wonder if there isn’t something worth exploring in the idea that men don’t get comparatively bent out of shape when they’re called daddies… upon consideration, one might conclude that this is perhaps because men aren’t insidiously infantilized, here and there, all over the culture. Or one might relate, but in a different way: perhaps one is not a mother or a mommy, but a woman writer who would take grand offense if one’s books were classified as a chick lit.

One might even think: mother, mommy; tomato, tomahto…who cares?–and promptly move on.

But, no. The Internet is a dark and scary place, after all, and the commenters came out of their caves in force, some of them resorting, literally, to schoolyard taunts. (One quoted an English nursery-school rhyme about killing a Welshman named Taffy. Just…. really? Who are these people?)

So anyway, my question is: why the vitriol? Why is it so taboo for a woman to suggest she derives her identity from within, rather than without? And why is it so difficult for women to allow their sisters a little nuance in their identities? Can’t someone be a great mother and HATE being called Mommy by someone trying to sell her something (something, in all likelihood, nearly exactly like something else she already owns, but which is not festooned with the grand identifier Mommy)? Can’t someone who enjoys being called Mommy be also intelligent, aware, not a tool who’s blindly “identifying with her captors”? From Erica Jong’s riff on attachment parenting to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to Hiroshima in the Morning to Taffy’s takedown on ‘Mommy,’ why does everyone feel so damn invested in what one mother says about the way she’s doing it??

I have a theory.

We like our people simple. Our women especially. Easily defined. Simply categorized. And, when it comes to women, the less threatening, the better. But also: this thing about women having all kinds of options, all sorts of ways to structure their lives, to cobble together their own reality made up of some parts work, some parts fun, some parts family–well, it’s new. And nothing’s perfect–and when we’re having One Of Those Days, maybe we start to question the way we’re doing it. And maybe one of the easiest ways to reassure ourselves we’re Doing It Right is to clobber anyone who dares to do it differently.

What sucks, of course, is that the more we buy into this sort of Us vs. Them thinking, the quicker we are to file everyone else away into one camp or the other–which is bad–and the less able we are to allow ourselves a little bit of nuance–which is worse. And it’s sad. Because each of us is loaded with nuance–that’s what makes us special, as individual as a snowflake.

I know — my mommy told me so.


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