Making sense of the ‘mommy wars’

Why has greater choice over whether, when and how to have children also led to greater anxiety for women?

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families, by Leslie Morgan Steiner, Random House

Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth about Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives, Lori Liebovich, HarperCollins

To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, by Caitlin Flanagan, Little Brown and Company

To Hell With All That, Mommy Wars and Maybe Baby are part of a growing body of literature about the problems of domestic life. They join other titles including: The Bitch in the House, The Bastard on the Couch, The Three Martini Playdate and Perfect Madness. Clearly, all is not well at home.

For women especially, balancing household maintenance, raising the children, carrying on an intimate relationship with a spouse while coping with the demands of work and fulfilling aspirations in the wider world is harder than anyone expected, and compels individuals to make choices they never wanted to make. It is less the ‘strange stirring’ or ‘sense of dissatisfaction’ that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique, and more a smouldering rage likely to flair into full-blown anger and contempt for other people: women who stay at home versus women who work; wives versus husbands; childless people versus families; couples versus singles. It’s not so much a ‘mommy war’ as a sort of impossible jihad in which individuals struggle for a perfect faith in the one area where we are all agnostics by necessity: our private lives.

Leslie Morgan Steiner’s Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families is a collection of essays I am tempted to call ‘childcare-dilemmas-of-the-awfully-successful’. Most of her 26 contributors, whether working or staying home with the kids, have been journalists or authors. Some, like Jane Smiley and Susan Cheever, are practically members of the literati. But this isn’t meant as a criticism, for whatever niche these mothers fill in the great scheme of things, it works. The essays are engaging, moving and often achingly funny. Far from ‘facing off’, the majority of women in the book write honestly about their conflicting impulses and the paths they finally followed, while expressing an ambivalence about these choices.

Page Evans, a stay-at-home-mother in Washington DC describes the all-too-familiar party encounter, when upon learning that she stays at home to care for her children, a man she has just met fobs her off with a patronising: ‘Oh well, that’s such an important job. Kids grow up so fast, don’t they?’ He turns hastily, pivots and moves on, leaving her thinking ‘But wait. Wait! Don’t you want to know what I think about what’s going on in the world…? Driving car pool and discussing food groups is not what I’m all about.’

Another contributor, Terry Minsky, the creator of television shows like Lizzie McGuire, Less Than Perfect and The Geena Davis Show, describes how a major breakthrough in her career required her to spend months on end on the West Coast, leaving her family in New York. ‘The kids’ goodbyes went from tearful to furious at warp speed: “You lied! You said you wouldn’t go back! I hate you! I HOPE YOU NEVER COME BACK!”’ And then a more recent conversation with her son, now older, when she asked ‘… if it had been up to him, would he have wanted me to work or be at home?’, to which he answered ‘I would have wanted you to do what made you happy’ – a reply which reportedly caused an entire room of Network Executives, who were also working mothers, to burst into tears. Such is the power of mommies’ existential angst.

Those wondering ‘Work? Stay home? What’s the big deal?’ would do well to pay attention to Mommy Wars. It manages to convey how complex and emotionally-charged questions of personal choice have become. It doesn’t so much matter what individuals choose but that they make private choices – especially those involving children – in a climate in which very personal aspects of our lives are charged with political and moral significance. And it’s not just how we arrange our family lives that provokes strong feelings.

Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth about Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives, looks at how people grapple with the question of whether to start a family at all. The book grew out of the series, ‘To Breed or Not to Breed?’, which was itself the result of a letter from a woman asking for more stories about people who had chosen not to have children. The series provoked an unprecedented onslaught of email – passionate, opinionated email – from the childless, parents and every permutation in between. Maybe Baby grew out of the desire to understand why having children or not has become such a defining issue for so many people.

If Mommy Wars is about the intense pressures women experience in arranging their family lives, Maybe Baby reveals a lot about the basis on which individuals make personal choices and why the question of whether to start a family is so problematic for so many. Of course, on a practical level, it is common sense that children make a huge impact on the lives of their parents, especially their mothers. But as editor Lori Leibovich points out, parenthood is no longer a given. Childless couples are common, as are parents who never had a domestic partner to begin with. We have unprecedented options about if, when and how to have a child accompanied, paradoxically, by unprecedented anxiety.

What emerges from the essays – the Yes’s, the No’s and the Maybe’s – is that, in the popular imagination, parenthood has become the most enduring commitment adults are likely to make. Marriages and jobs come and go, but a child is forever. The essays, like the decisions we make, are part intellect, part emotion. For some writers, like Cary Tennis, it is straightforwardly about where his inclinations lie: ‘My father’s ancient line is coming to halt. But do I hear a cosmic voice saying “accept the compliment and pay it forward?” No, all I hear is a little voice saying “Finish the novel.”’

For others, like Laurie Abraham, who admits – rather bravely in these moralistic times – that drinking helps her cope with the demands of motherhood, having children has meant struggling to her maintain her identity. ‘I’m not so careful to smoothly make the transition from mommy-happy-to-see-her-girls to drinking-mommy-happy-to-see-her-girls. I grab the bottle from the refrigerator and glunk, glunk, glunk, my medicine sloshes out…. This delightful nightly ritual, this fetishising of tiny glasses, it’s a comfort, an escape, or, more precisely, a comforting escape. I’m the woman and the girl I once was, the one who had infinite possibilities before her and could decide at the last minute to while away her evening in a bar.’

Maybe Baby is deliberately edgy, with essays from contributors in extreme situations: the woman with bipolar disorder who cannot become pregnant and stay on her medication; a man who overcame a wretched childhood, a stint in prison and a mental disorder to become a father; a woman whose highly intelligent child was misdiagnosed with autism because he was speaking in full sentences at a year. But conventional or not, all share a common denominator: it’s not so much the ‘why’ of our choices but the fact that the decisions we make about our private lives have become so central to the way we understand ourselves in relation to the world. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone spends all their time thinking about the pros and cons of having a family or that the ambition to achieve things more broadly, at work etc, has gone away. But Maybe Baby picks up on a subtle shift in our attitudes. Our private domestic arrangements have gone from being something irrelevant to anyone but us, incidental to our lives in full, to being the very fountainhead of our identity. It’s not unusual to find women, who straddle the divide between public and private, intensely concerned with these matters, but it is new and telling that men are preoccupied, too.

It is a truism that when we want to shape our own destinies today, we look to our private lives, using them as both the vehicle for change and the yardstick with which we measure ourselves against the rest of the world. We look to people’s private lives to explain their actions more generally. And while there’s always some interplay, and it is often interesting – just read any best-selling biography of anyone these days – it has never, until now, been the starting point for understanding our place in the world. Who we are at home has never mattered so much to so many.

Which brings me to Caitlin Flanagan and To Hell With All That, Loving and Loathing Our Inner House Wife. Flanagan is a columnist for the Atlantic Monthly and a staff writer for the New Yorker. She famously got her big break as a mommy-pundit through her connection to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly’s wife. She is critical of feminism, stays home with her sons and has lots of domestic help, financed by her husband’s salary as a producer of – I’m not joking – Barbie films. She has bragged (though I don’t believe it for a minute) that she has never changed a sheet. She has big hair and the photo on the jacket of her book makes her look like a perky sorority sister, circa 1964. She’s also brilliant.

The best thing about Flanagan is her ability to focus on the seemingly trivial details of domestic life and popular culture that reveal so much about women’s gut-twisting relationship to the domestic sphere. The second best thing is that she’s a good writer, funny and insightful. To Hell With All That is a collection of essays adapted from her columns and refined into a neat little book that asks the question: why is it that ‘as women have achieved ever more power in the world… they have become increasingly attracted to the privileges and niceties of traditional womanhood?’

There’s always a flurry of collective soul-searching when studies emerge, as they sometimes do, showing that many women – even quite successful ones – would gladly toss in their commuter cards and hang out with the kids at home. Flanagan makes the simple point that the nostalgia for feminine domesticity and the reality of being at home are two different things. ‘Traditional womanhood’ has a sort of ‘drag queen’ ethos about it, exaggerated and even cartoonish.

‘The elaborate white wedding made an astonishing comeback when hardened career girls in their mid-thirties suddenly wanted to don virginal white gowns and have their fathers transfer them to their grooms in front of flowered alters. Celebrity homemakers – including Martha Stewart as high priestess – proved that a successful, liberated woman could care deeply, meaningfully, spiritually about the precise state of her linen closet.’

She argues that as women have become more removed from the home, they have developed a romanticised view of their role within it. At the same time, many of the basic skills required to keep the household ticking, things once taught at home, or perhaps more significantly in programmes like ‘home economics’ classes for girls and ‘shop’ for boys, have gone out the window.

‘Many Americans of substantial means live in houses in which the prospect of a hot home-cooked meal at the end of the day is dim, in which beds are left in a tangle of sheets and blankets rather than being properly aired and made each morning, in which a button popped off a shirt renders the shirt unwearable for weeks on end, or quite possibly forever – because who has time to sew on a button? And who knows how to anymore?’

With the critical mass of women working outside the home, there is no longer a popular commonsense approach to keeping house. Martha Stewart and her ilk offer up an attractive but high-maintenance alternative (think drag queen, again) that probably isn’t practical for the average mortal to accomplish, at least not without help.

Though Flanagan stops short of applying the same logic to childrearing, there is evidently something similar at work in the proliferation of books and magazines devoted to all the fun, safe, educational, healthy and self-esteem-building activities we can do with our kids. And while it’s easy to laugh at Martha Stewart’s seven-step process for folding a fitted sheet, we are far more vulnerable to romanticism when it comes to our children. Flanagan herself waxes lyrical about being at home for the kids, almost to the point of mysticism.

‘In the end, what did my boys gain from those thousand days they spent with me before school took them out into the larger world? Nothing, it seems to me, of any quantifiable value. No head start in life that will ensure them of some prize that will forever elude the children of working mothers. All they gained, really, was the sweetness of being with the person who loved them the most in the world. All they gained was an immersion in the most powerful force on Earth: motherlove. And perhaps there is something of worth in that alone.’

Flanagan describes the knots we tie ourselves in over domestic life, like the American obsession with finding and somehow hiring Mary Poppins or the ironies of clutter control. She has a knack for dissecting the most troubling contradictions and writing about them in a funny and personal way. That doesn’t mean she completely understands them or has a clue about how to resolve them. In a sort of ironic twist of the mommy wars, her critics have focused on the fact that she employs domestic help.

Ann Hulbert, writing in Slate, accuses her of hypocrisy. ‘From her perch, privileged by the standards even of her professional-class readers, she scrutinises the selfish pretensions and self-defeating contradictions that sprout like marigolds in affluent American mothers’ hearts and hearths.’ Joan Walsh of Salon writes: ‘I don’t mean to minimise the abandonment the young Flanagan may have felt at being a latchkey child. And she’s entitled to grow up and decide nothing will take her away from her sons. But she’s not really entitled to put on a show for the rest of us, insisting on her saintly at-home mother status when she’s in fact got the resources to combine motherhood with an “at-home” career.’

But these criticisms miss the mark. What both Flanagan and her critics don’t understand is that the current crisis of domestic life has nothing to do with whether women work or the legacy of feminism, nor are any of the practicalities of organising family life particularly new. In fact, it has nothing to do with domestic life really. It represents a diminishing sense of what it means to be a person in full. ‘Happiness’ has become the standard by which we evaluate our lives. We want it for ourselves and we want it for our children. And it’s a measure of how disenchanted we have become with broader aspects of social life, politics, work and so on that we look for such fulfillment – almost exclusively – at home. In fact, the problems of domestic life can’t be resolved in their own terms, and the focus on personal choices and private domestic arrangements only makes things worse.

The domestic sphere does not lend itself to reform. One of the ironies of the discussion of life at home today is that we unconsciously bring our experience of employment to bear. We’re used to the discipline of the market, consistency, efficiency. But oh, how wild and woolly is the home! Without the collective discipline of a workplace, simple tasks that should take a few minutes mysteriously stretch into hours. There are no quality controls. There are as many degrees of cleanliness as there are households. There are no laundry police, no international standards for toilet cleaning. No one will sack us if we’re useless or incompetent. What happens is largely a matter of chance tempered by the qualities of the people involved.

For this reason, experiences of individuals, such as those in the essays in Mommy Wars and Maybe Baby, while interesting and entertaining, are of limited value. Indeed, none of the editors or authors even attempts to give answers. To Hell With All That, for all its well-observed description, also falters because it looks for solutions to women’s problems in the one place they can’t be found – at home.

If there is one thing to take from all these books however, it’s that the problems described in them aren’t just in people’s – in women’s – heads. Women’s relationships to the practical problems of domestic work and child rearing remain unresolved, and the current focus on private life as our collective raison d’être is unlikely to shed much light on how to make these relationships more workable and fruitful. We urgently need to address these problems as a society, but in the meantime the way women choose to resolve these dilemmas in their private lives should remain just that: private.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother-of-two based in New York.

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Topics Politics


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