Excerpted from Mommy Wars by Edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Copyright © 2006 by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Leslie Morgan Steiner
Question: Why did you create Mommy Wars?
Leslie Morgan Steiner: As a working mom with three kids, I was very curious about (and probably jealous of) moms who seemed happy “just” staying home. I was also saddened by working moms stuck in jobs that didn’t give them enough time with their children. And I was totally exasperated by the endless studies analyzing the long-term effects of our choices about day care, breastfeeding, even potty-training, because the net effect seems to make us moms feel as if we are all falling down on the job. I wanted to hear from the real experts on motherhood–other moms–about what life is really like for working and for stay-at-home mothers today. My goal is for every mom who reads this book to feel better about being a mother. Because we all struggle with how much of our lives to give to our families, our work and ourselves. My hope is that Mommy Wars will make you laugh, cry and at some point throw the book across the room–because moms are opinionated about work and kids, as we should be.
Q: How did you ﬁnd writers?
LMS: I could have ﬂagged down the ﬁrst twenty-six minivans driving by my house because every mom has a great story about work and family. I found moms everywhere: at work, on the playground, through friends. Some were famous, like Jane Smiley, Susan Cheever and Iris Krasnow. Others had never published anything before, but they had a lot to say.
Q: What surprised you the most?
LMS: How eager moms were to talk about their lives. How honest they were willing to be. And that some moms did not experience the same kind of working versus staying-at-home conﬂicts I did.
Q: Is the tension between working and stay-at-home moms real or imagined?
LMS: The “mommy wars” between working and stay-at-home moms are not typical wars where one side wins and the other one loses. Women are not looking to defeat other women. We are looking to feel good about ourselves as mothers–which is a pathetically difﬁcult task in the United States today. Our society overall is conﬂicted between the “selﬂessness” of motherhood and the very real need women have to provide for themselves and their families. It is impossible to be a mother in America and live up to these ideals. Yet we have a lot of moms out there today trying to live up to both at once–trying to be loving, hands-on moms as well as successes at work. No wonder moms feel overwhelmed!
Q: Why so much conﬂict?
LMS: The tension between working and at-home moms is real, because our choices lead to profoundly different daily lifestyles. But the worst mommy war is the one that rages inside each mom’s head as she struggles to feel good about being a mom–no matter what her choices are about work. This inner battle plays out on an external stage– through the results of judgments made about other moms. Some women, when coming to peace with their choice either to stay at home or to keep on working, make a leap of logic and decide that the choice they make for themselves is best for every mother. This is simply not true. There are over eighty million moms in America, and no one work/family solution works for every mom. What is best for all mothers and for all children is for our society to support many different approaches to balancing work and family. Many women today, especially women in their thirties and forties, are very conﬂicted about how to be good moms. We are the ﬁrst generation of American women to have watched our moms struggle with the question of working motherhood. Some of us feel caught between our mothers’ generation–one that didn’t have so many choices–and our daughters’ generation–one less na•ve about how hard it is to combine work and family. To make things even more complicated, our society is also uncomfortable with powerful, ﬁnancially successful women, which makes working moms especially vulnerable to criticism.
Q: Do moms inﬂict these problems on themselves?
LMS: I don’t believe in blaming women–we suffer from too much ﬁnger pointing as it is. Nearly all of us have high–even impossible– standards for the kind of mothers we want to be. This striving for perfection makes us vulnerable to feeling like we are always falling short. When we feel insecure, our natural response is to put down others in order to make ourselves feel better. Human beings are naturally competitive; women are not exempt, especially when it comes to motherhood. It’s natural for us to want to be the ﬁnest moms we can be. So some degree of judgment about other moms, and competition with other moms, is normal, even healthy. But for many women, their natural competitiveness gets out of control. Terri Minsky writes about how, during one year as a stay-at-home mom, she sewed her child’s birthday party invitations. There is something out of whack, not just in moms but in our society overall, when we push our moms until they feel such a pervasive, irrational sense of failure.
Q: What do you feel about the role of fathers today?
LMS: Fathers today feel they are doing a lot in terms of parenting, because they are more involved in their children’s lives than their dads were. Bravo–but fathers are still doing a fraction of what mothers do in terms of household chores and daily child care. Women have earned a measure of equality at work. But there’s a long way to go before moms have true equality at home.
Q: What about the next generation of moms? Are they experiencing the same conﬂicts?
LMS: Many younger women and girls seem to take today’s freedoms for granted. And I think that’s wonderful. A teenage girl today with her life in front of her can think, “I can go to college and then work for a few years, then stay home with my kids, and then go back to work.” That kind of freedom is a luxury that I and many other feminists worked extremely hard to achieve. It will be interesting to see what today’s young women will have to say about work and family twenty years from now.
Q: After editing this book, did you ﬁnd any solutions to the mommy wars?
LMS: I learned that the happiest moms tend to be the ones who have time with their kids and meaningful work, be it paid or volunteer– they work for companies or organizations that give them the ﬂexibility they need to be good employees and good moms. We moms need each other, whether we work or not, and we’d be far better off if we supported all good mothering choices. Think about it: When was the last time you told someone you thought she was a good mom? We need to stand up for other moms, and stick up for ourselves. One of the essays in Mommy Wars is called “I Hate Everybody” and it gets to the heart of the fact that it is critical to feel good about yourself as a mom, no matter whether you choose to work or choose to stay home. And that self-esteem has to come from within, because no one in this country is in the business of telling moms to feel good about themselves. Our society needs to accept that it is normal and healthy for most moms to combine work and family. Statistics show that over 70 percent of women with children under the age of eighteen work. Moms in the book wrote candidly about how motherhood is the hardest “job” they’ve ever tackled, and how rewarding it is. What makes motherhood unnecessarily hard is that moms get little encouragement from men, from the government, from employers–or from other moms. What I’ve heard from the thousands of parents I talked to while researching and writing Mommy Wars and writing my online column for The Washington Post is that women today need what all parents need: support and ﬂexibility from our employers, our government, our friends and our families–our society–so that we can ﬁnd individual ways to combine work and family that reﬂect our individual approaches to parenting.
1. What does the title Mommy Wars mean to you? Are there other “mommy wars” that come to mind, such as the guilt and indecision inside a woman’s head regarding her choices about work and family, hostility between women and men over parenting and household responsibilities, and women advocating for equal rights within our society?
2. When new acquaintances ask if you work, how do you answer? How does the question make you feel? Do you ask other women some version of this question when you meet them? Why or why not?
3. Did you always assume you would work or stay home once you had children? Have you made choices that differed from your assumptions? How have they differed?
4. Have you had a conversation with a working or at-home mother that made you feel that she was judging your choice about whether to work or stay home? How do women communicate our judgments to other moms? Why do women judge themselves and each other so harshly when it comes to motherhood?
5. Do you feel the women in the book had a true choice about working or staying home to raise children? Do you have a real choice? Why or why not?
6. How do the choices by other women in your family about balancing work and family impact your decisions? Does your mother understand your choices? Your mother-in-law? Other family members?
7. Men seem to play only minor roles in the Mommy Wars essays. Why might this be? How large a role do men play in your experiences as a mother? Does your husband or partner understand and support your choices? How do issues facing fathers differ from mothers’ today?
8. In her essay “Mother Superior,” Catherine Clifford argues that she is a better mother because she stays at home with her children. Do you think stay-at-home mothers feel they’ve made the “superior” choice? What about working mothers?
9. Have you ever told another mother “I think you’re a good mom”?
10. Which essayist did you identify with the most? Who did you like the least? Why? What do your feelings say about your own choices?
11. How would you answer the question Carolyn Hax asks in her essay: “Would you want to be your kid?”
12. Molly Jong-Fast, the youngest mother in the collection, writes: “I can’t be at the Central Park Zoo with my son and here at my desk writing this piece. Even the most ambitious mom can still be in only one place at a time.” Do moms in their twenties seem to have a more or a less pragmatic approach to work and motherhood than prior generations whose mantra was “you can have it all” (work full-time while raising children at the same time)?
13. Jane Juska writes: “Children are not born to provide balance. Children are made to stir us up, to teach us how angry we can get, how scared we can be, how utterly happy, happier than we’d ever imagined was possible, how deeply we can love. Children turn us upside down and inside out . . . but they do not balance us.” If this is true, is it possible for mothers to ever ﬁnd true “balance” in our lives?
14. What surprised you most about your reactions as you read the book? Did reading the book make you feel differently about yourself as a mother? If so, in what ways?