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Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families

Written by Leslie Morgan SteinerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Leslie Morgan Steiner


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: February 27, 2007
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-598-9
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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With motherhood comes one of the toughest decisions of a woman’s life: Stay at home or pursue a career? The dilemma not only divides mothers into hostile, defensive camps but pits individual mothers against themselves. Leslie Morgan Steiner has been there. As an executive at The Washington Post, a writer, and mother of three, she has lived and breathed every side of the “mommy wars.” Rather than just watch the battles rage, Steiner decided to do something about it. She commissioned twenty-six outspoken mothers to write about their lives, their families, and the choices that have worked for them. The result is a frank, surprising, and utterly refreshing look at American motherhood.

Ranging in age from twenty-five to seventy-two and scattered across the country from New Hampshire to California, these mothers reflect the full spectrum of lifestyle choices. Women who have been home with the kids from day one, moms who shuttle from full-time office jobs to part-time at-home work, hard-driving executives who put in seventy-hour-plus weeks: they all get a turn. The one thing these women have in common, aside from having kids, is that they’re all terrific writers.

Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley vividly recounts how her generation stormed the American workplace–only to take refuge at home when the workplace drove them out. Lizzie McGuire creator Terri Minsky describes what it felt like to hear her kids scream “I hope you never come back!” when she flew to L.A. to launch the show that made her career. Susan Cheever, novelist, biographer, and New York Newsday columnist, reports on the furious battles between the stroller pushers and the briefcase bearers on the streets of Manhattan. Lois R. Shea traded the journalistic fast track for a house in the country where she could raise her daughter in peace. Ann Misiaszek Sarnoff, chief operating officer of the Women’s National Basketball Association, argues fiercely that you can combine ambition and motherhood–and have a blast in the process.

Candid, engaging, by turns unflinchingly honest and painfully funny, the essays collected here offer an astonishingly intimate portrait of the state of motherhood today. Mommy Wars is a book by and for and about the real experts on motherhood and hard work: the women at home, in the office, on the job every day of their lives.

From the Hardcover edition.


Neither Here nor There

Sandy Hingston

People often ask how I found this book’s contributors. In truth I could have stood outside my house and flagged down the first twenty-six minivans driving by; every mom has a unique story about why and how she combines work and family. But I found our first contributor via one of womankind’s most tried-and-true methods of connecting with other women—an old boyfriend. I asked one about his favorite female writers, and he recommended Sandy Hingston.

Sandy lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two teenage children. She is a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine and the author of nineteen historical romance novels, including The Suitor and The Affair. In 2004 and 2005, her parenting column, “Loco Parentis,” was recognized with the Gold Award from the City and Regional Magazine Association; it has also won the Clarion Award from the Association of Women in Communications.

Some of us working moms find ourselves caught in a gray zone between work and home. We are working but have scaled back our ambitions. Our employers, our colleagues, even our husbands, may not comprehend what we’ve given up in order to have more time and energy to devote to our children. But we know. Sandy’s essay brings to life the pros, the cons, and the frustrations of having it all and ending up in the middle of nowhere.

Eight years ago, when my son had just turned three, I went for the first job interview I’d had since quitting work the week before he was born. The woman who conducted the interview was funny and charming. I felt an instant bond. I aced the copyediting test she gave me. We spoke about the magazine I’d be working for if I got the job, and she pumped me up. We went to lunch in the company cafeteria and discovered that we both loved egg salad and were Lithuanian American (which doesn’t happen often). Things were moving right along.

Then, over cups of herbal tea, the woman said, “You say your son is three. What makes you sure you’re ready to go back to work now?”

I was prepared for the question. I’d practiced my answer. I held my hand up and ticked off my fingers: “Jake’s in prenursery school two mornings a week now, and doing fine there. The same school has full-time day care, so that transition should be smooth. His sister just started kindergarten, and he’s jealous of her ‘big-kid school’ anyway. He’s very verbal, so he’ll be able to express himself if something at day care is making him unhappy. And—well, this job just seems perfect for me. It’s time to go back.”

That was all five fingers.

But the woman wasn’t looking at my hand. She was staring at my face. Because right from the word prenursery, I’d been crying, silently crying, great fat slobbery tears rolling down my cheeks and throat and onto my neatly pressed blouse.

She handed me a tissue. I dried my eyes.

We both knew it was the end of the interview.

Two years later, different interview, different magazine, different job offer—one I could say yes to without sobbing. For one thing, my male predecessor had structured the position to accommodate his novel-writing aspirations: He was in the office the first two weeks of every month, when the magazine was in the throes of production; the last two weeks, when things were slower, he worked from home, via computer—a setup that sounded heavenly compared with conventional full-time. And no one could say I’d asked for special consideration because I was a mother; I was simply inheriting the status quo.

For another thing, Jake had finally begun kindergarten. My husband’s work as a musician could be arranged so he’d be there for the kids after school. I would have it all: a real job, a great job, decent money, terrific people to work with, plus those two weeks a month when I would be a full-time mom. I sat Jake and his sister, Marcy, down and explained how wonderful life was going to be from now on.

And it was a wonderful life. While I was at the office, I never thought much about what the kids were doing. When I was home, the office seemed very far away. I had more patience for playing Legos or leading the Brownie troop when I knew that in only two weeks I’d be dealing with adults who respected my talents again. True, the commute was a bear—an hour and a half each way. In the weeks I was working, I dropped Marcy and Jake at school in the morning and didn’t get back until it was time to tuck them in. But—though it took me a long while to admit this to anyone, even myself—I loved my time alone in the car, alone in the silence, or in noise, if there was noise, of my own choice and making, in contrast to the unending tumult that was Marcy and Jake.

And oh, how I loved the homecomings, turning the key in the front door in the violet glow of evening and being greeted like the Allies liberating Paris, by the kids, yes, who threw themselves at me in delirious adulation, but also by my husband, Doug, passing the child-care baton with weary gratitude. Then it was upstairs—“Up the blue waterfall!”—to the pleasures of the tub, and into jammies that I had washed and folded on the weekends, and bouncing into Mom and Dad’s big bed for half an hour of The Boxcar Children or Little House on the Prairie or Winnie-the-Pooh.

Part-time parenting was pleasurable, and I was good at it, as good as I was at fixing dangling participles and sorting out faulty parallelism and conjugating lie and lay. I was the Selkie Girl, sleek as a seal in my dual roles, better than anyone else because there were two of me.

It took some time for the fragility of the construct Doug and I had created to manifest itself. There were foreshadowings, ghostly intimations that all was not well in Toyland. That first year in kindergarten, Jake pushed a fellow student hard enough that we got to meet the principal. In the autumn of first grade, he hurled his lunch across the room and then hit a girl named Enjoli with a chair. The spring after Columbine, he took a nail clipper to school and damn near got expelled. (“It’s not a weapon,” he said scornfully when we attempted to explain how the world had changed. “It’s a nail clipper.”) The following year, when a teacher suggested that Jake hadn’t done his best at a task, he locked himself into a bathroom stall and refused to come out, announcing his intention to “just kill myself.” This tripped a school-district alert process that landed him in anger-management therapy. All this time, Doug and I presented the perfect concerned-parent front, siding with the school in every instance, promising disciplinary action on our end, doing our best to impress everyone involved with how dedicated we were to putting things right.

What was needed, the therapist and Jake’s teachers and the principal and Doug and I agreed, was consistency and follow-through: consequences laid out in advance, punishments doled out as threatened. It sounded great in theory. But what it ran up against was my deep conviction that Jake’s problems were at heart my problems—that if I was a real mom, there for him every day at pickup and not just half the time, he wouldn’t be hostile and impatient and sarcastic and rude. I felt this way even though I loved my job—maybe because I loved my job. Instead of coming down harder on Jake, I came down harder on myself, and doubled up the perfection: perfect Christmases, birthdays, summer vacations. The Halloween costumes I sewed were museum-worthy. Cupcakes for class parties were Martha Stewart fantasies of fondant and flowers.

And I justified the hours I was away with the money I was making. New Nikes? You got ’em. Another Barbie? You betcha. A $120 collectible Star Wars helmet? Little man, nothing’s too good for you.

Somehow, it wasn’t helping. Jake just got angrier. I felt so lucky to have Marcy, solid and sensitive Marcy, with her straight A’s and goody-two-shoes ways. She was her brother’s perfect foil. I’d fallen into writing a parenting column for the magazine, producing gritty, drawn-from-life portrayals of child rearing as it really is. Only—they weren’t, really. I skated on the side streets of Jake’s problems, riffed drolly on Marcy’s entrée into the teen years, each column neatly tying up the issue of the month—racism, Britney wannabes, attention deficit disorder. I heard from lots of parents who said they loved my stuff. My mistake was taking praise for the columns as praise for me: What a good, wise mother! And all the time we as a family were devolving, heading into a tailspin, catalog-shopping for the emperor’s new clothes.

My daughter, in the summer before she began high school, took all the willpower she had hitherto directed at earning good grades, excelling at trombone, and making varsity in three sports and turned it to one purpose: getting very thin. It is proof of just how far my head was stuck in sand that Marcy dropped nearly forty pounds before I noticed how odd her eating habits had become.

I knew she was dieting, but I’d dieted when I was her age. I had just never done it so obsessively—or successfully. Holding herself to less than a thousand calories a day, sobbing when circumstances forced her to consume foods with uncertain nutritional values, working out feverishly at the gym, my daughter reduced herself to a wisp, convinced that in radically altering herself, she would change her world.

Shylock never paid more dearly. For her meticulous troubles, for her painstaking efforts, Marcy began her freshman year at high school and discovered . . . that nothing had changed. That the boys she idolized still preferred girls she considered idiots. That though she was rail-thin, she was still agonizingly self-conscious and shy. Instead of coming to what seemed to Doug and me the logical conclusion—might as well start eating again!—she curled up on our sofa and fell into what Jake’s therapist (we were all seeing her now) diagnosed as depression.

My perfect family had become a perfect mess.

Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I was plunged into a new world, one with its own vocabulary and rules of order. Therapy was as foreign to me, the child of parents who’d never admitted there were problems, let alone discussed them, as the Cyrillic alphabet. It took all my concentration, in the face of our therapist’s gentle questioning, to keep my good-mother persona intact. Now and then I flubbed it big-time; on one memorable visit, in my daughter’s presence, I referred to her as a “whack job.” The therapist stared in shock, then asked me to repeat what I’d said: “I’m sure I must have misheard you.”

“No, she called me a whack job,” Marcy confirmed. “But it really didn’t bother me. She says things like that all the time.”

In the therapist’s narrowed eyes, I read something no one had ever, ever, accused me of before: I was a bad mom.

We didn’t dive into quarry-deep psychological waters in our family therapy; we only dabbled our toes. But it was a strange and different way of thinking about our relationships to one another, brought into focus by a woman who knew only what we showed her about ourselves. What I learned from it was that the more I showed her, the more I felt we were getting somewhere.

As a mom, I came to see, I was pretty bad. Failure was new to me, and I found it liberating. The key to what had gone awry at home—what fed my daughter’s unfeeding, and my son’s fits of temper—was precisely what made me so good at my job. Each month, it was my responsibility to see that the magazine was perfect: no typos, no grammatical mistakes, no errors of logic or omission. When you spend your days aggressively seeking out imperfection, you begin to see it everywhere: in the bedspread that’s askew, in the lawn that’s mowed haphazardly, in the A-minus that could have been an A.

Before we could heal, I would have to learn to turn off my relentless drive for finding flaws. I would have to understand the truth in those weary platitudes: “It’s not the end of the world.” “Everyone makes mistakes.” I strove to loosen up. Occasionally, we did something on the spur of the moment—and it turned out okay. I became braver in dealing with situations that had once made me panic: asking directions, making reservations, packing for vacations, all those control-freak moments that filled our daily lives with high anxiety. I had a responsibility to my children to try to become, in my late forties, a grown-up at last. And part of growing up was figuring out how I felt about the decisions I’d made when it came to my job.

Conventional mother wisdom tells me I’m right to work because my family won’t be happy unless I’m happy. What does it mean, then, if my work makes me unhappy—but maybe less unhappy than staying home would? Conventional mother wisdom says that the best, the finest, gift I can give my children is to be interesting and involved, and that I can’t have that without a career. Maybe not. I’ll never know what our lives would be like if I’d stayed home full-time, been there for all the concerts and parent-teacher conferences and hockey games. Maybe Jake wouldn’t be so angry. Maybe Marcy wouldn’t be so thin. Or maybe they would.

What I do know is this. We women, we’re supposed to be the ones making the choices these days, calling the shots, controlling our destinies. And despite my desperate efforts to keep it all together, I’m really not in control of anything—not my family, not my career, not my relationship with my husband, not who becomes president of the United States. I’m not even in control of me. When I’m at work, I wish I were home. Tending to my children. When I’m home, I think longingly of work—where I have space, can breathe. The only time I feel as if I know who I am anymore is in the car, when I ride bareheaded between my two hats, neither here nor there.

This realization, the recognition that having it all is the same as having nothing, has had the effect of making me softer, more tolerant. Childless women, the ones who’ve made or been forced into that choice—I’ve stopped seeing them as doppelgängers, my thinner, richer, infinitely more leisured lost self, what I would be if my womb had never come through. And where once I pursed my mouth when prospective mothers announced their intention to return to work full-time in six weeks, now I tell them how much I admire them, how sure I am they’ll cope, thrive, be fine. When I wheel my grocery cart into the checkout line behind a woman whose toddler is screaming for candy, I smile at her, thinking, “Bad day” instead of “Bad mother.”

We are all good mothers, the best we know how to be.
Leslie Morgan Steiner|Author Q&A

About Leslie Morgan Steiner

Leslie Morgan Steiner - Mommy Wars

Photo © Mary Noble Ours

Leslie Morgan Steiner, is an executive with The Washington Post, and has three children under the age of ten. In addition to writing for the Post, she has contributed regularly to national publications including Money, Seventeen, Mademoiselle, and New England Monthly.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

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.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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?

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