Recto: what ALL moms do

Over the weekend, while the sleet was falling and falling and I was trapped in my house with my family, I did something that I try never to do: I read my local newspaper. As always, the paper aggravated me, specificaly because Saturday’s editorial page included a piece titled What Working Moms Do, by Jennifer James McCollum. I don’t know this woman and have no bones to pick with her personally; instead, I want to think about the way she talks about being a ‘working mom’ and why it irritates me so much.

We are all aware of the ‘Mommy Wars’ if only because the media has stoked the fire with, among other things, stories of career women who gave birth and left work and now wake up every morning wondering if they did the right thing. Recently, the talk has been about ‘opting out‘ and how this is related to my generation’s commitment to the feminist ideals of our foremothers.

In the Mommy Wars, ‘we’ are pitted against ‘them.’ Who are ‘we’? Well, what group do you identify with–working mom, stay home mom, working from home mom? Single mom, married mom, older mom, younger mom? Pick a group, please, because otherwise how will ‘we’ recognize you as one of ‘us’ and not one of ‘them’? And ‘we’ are better than ‘they’ are, in some essential way. My favorite parenting book ever is Jennifer Conlin’s The Perfect Parents Handbook. In in, with a mock seriousness similar to that in Spinal Tap, Conlin asserts that the most important part of being a good parent is identifying your perfect parent group in order that you and your children will associate with the right people. She offers each group tips on maternity fashions, what to name the baby, how to announce the birth, how to chose a preschool, what sports to play, and so on. While Conlin is being funny (and she is, truly, so very funny), her parody works because it strikes at the heart of the Mommy Wars: unless you are part of the ‘right’ group, you are a failure as a parent.

Which brings me back to the essay in the Oklahoman. McCollum, a working mother of two, lists the things working moms do: ‘buy in bulk and wear ugly shoes so they get there quickly and come back faster. . . . file their nails at stoplights and have messy cars full of things like straw wrappers, school papers, missing pacifiers covered in goo and hair, pen caps, empty packets of coffee creamer, bills that needed to [be] mailed two weeks ago and ATM receipts. . . sacrifice their locks for wash-and-wear hair . . . cry when their toddlers crush blush into the bathroom rug. . . melt when, after such episodes, their children say, “You know what, mommy? I shoooore do love you.”‘ And I found myself thinking, okay, but I do all of those things as well. And I am not a ‘working mother.’

Does McCollum really think that, as a stay-home mom, I wear pretty shoes every day? That I have time for weekly manicures or an elaborate hairstyle? That my car is always clean and free of kid junk? That I am not angry when my children destroy my things? That I don’t ‘melt’ when my sons break out the ‘I love you, Mommy’ apology? McCollum seems to be imagining the stay-home mom as some combination of Mary Poppins, Sister Theresa, and Princess Diana. And yes, I would love to be that woman, to have that life. But I don’t, nor do any of the stay-home moms I know.

For McCollum, however, the biggest distinction seems to be that ‘Working moms . . worry, cry and buy’ too much. And again I found myself wondering what precisely made the working mom different from the stay-home mom. Am I doing this wrong? Is not working supposed to free me from worry? From tears? From some sense that a stop at the dollar store just might make up for all the ways I am failing my children? If so, then I am doing a worse job than I feared I was, because not only do I not wear nice shoes most of the time, but I worry and cry more than I ever expected to. But I always assumed that this was because I was a mother, not because I worked or stayed home. ‘All these working moms know the hardest job in the world is being a stay-at-home mom,’ McCollum writes. ‘They wish, sometimes, they could be one.’ I think McCollum has completely missed the point here: the hardest job is not being a stay-at-home mom; the hardest job is being a parent. And what makes it so hard, particularly for women, is this sense that we are not all on the same side, that we are battling it out to see whose job is harder, who is making the most sacrifices, who does this best. To have our side declared the winner of the Mommy Wars.

I am so tired of this rhetoric–that working mothers desperately desire to be home with their children, that stay-home mothers are one step away from saints. I don’t believe either of these things. I think women who work have days where they are relieved to go to work rather than spending the day with a teething or sick or crabby child; I know that women who stay home full time are occasionally (dare I say often?) bored by the company of their beloved offspring. No one can live up to the ideals McCollum holds out in her essay; no one should have to. But we are clearly asked to identify with only one of these groups, and our response to the essay is clearly proscribed: if you are a working mommy, you are supposed to envy those stay-home mommies, and if you stay home you are supposed to pity the women who work. What disturbs me the most, though, is a clear sense that readers are supposed to identify with the working mother, who is knocking herself out and beating herself up in the service of her children, and not with the stay-home mothers, who have probably dropped their kids at Mothers Day Out so they can get their nails done and their hair cut. Because in the Mommy Wars it is always US against THEM, and only one side can win.

This does us all a disservice, not only as mothers but as women, and I wish we had some kind of cultural exit strategy from this conflict. And that is why I am so perpetually grateful to those of you who read and comment here. You are working mothers and stay home mothers and women without any children at all. Some of you are actually not women but men. You don’t all share my worldview or my experiences, but you are kind and sympathetic and able to disagree or offer a differing view with respect and humor. I think the Mommy Wars would be over if we all behaved this way; I think it is reprehensible of media outlets like the Daily Oklahoman to perpetuate this divisive rhetoric. I want to like Jennifer James McCollum, I want to respect her effort to articulate how hard it is to raise children and have a career and balance those things, but I am put off by the idealized picture she has in her mind of what my life as a stay home mother is like. And I think that is so unfortunate.

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