Thursday, April 10, 2008 fans the flames of the Mommy Wars

Argh. The "Mommy Wars" framework lives on. I usually look forward to reading Rebecca Traister on, but last night she put up a talking head video that referred back to her interview with Meg Wolitzer about Meg's novel The Ten-Year Nap.

In the video, Traister adds no new insight, but claims that "The Mommy Wars Rage On":

"a book like this clearly puts Meg Wolitzer smack in the middle of what are commonly referred to as the 'Mommy Wars,' the disagreements between those who have chosen to stay home and raise their children, and those who have decided to stay in the workforce...."

The Ten-Year Nap is a literary novel about women who have been out of the workforce for a decade. It does came across to me as a Rorschach test capturing reflections of readers' personal projections, but it is far from a polemic. It will elicit judgments from readers but for the most part avoids judging the characters.

I hate even writing the term "Mommy Wars" any more, because even saying "the Mommy Wars are bogus" subtly reinforces the concept. (Remember when Nixon said "I am not a crook"? "Crook" came through much more loudly than "not.")

But, now that we're discussing it, here are my distilled thoughts on this issue:

Motherhood is not about choice. Women don't often get to choose whether they work or choose whether they stay home. What if two women seek jobs, and one finds affordable childcare and the other one doesn't? Why on Earth do we try to pit those two women, or any two women for that matter, against each other? When it comes right down to it we are all facing similar challenges. Economic privilege and good luck may give some of us more options, but it's not really about choice.

I have a paper coming out this spring arguing that "choice" as a faulty framework for a wide variety of women's issues, from breastfeeding to employment to reproductive rights. We are being co-opted by a consumer mentality that conflates our major life challenges with mere "choices," as though many of our basic needs and rights are as trivial as choosing a chocolate versus vanilla ice cream cone.

We need to stop judging women for leaving the paid workforce to care for their children. Feminists most of all should understand that without providing an infrastructure that supports working parents, there will be a wide range of circumstances that lead women to leave paid employment: being pushed out by employers, pulled home by kids and family, and sometimes just plain deciding it's what they want to do for now.

I think that the biggest mistake we've all made over the past 40 years of discussing women's changing roles is to underestimate the VAST amount of work that it takes to raise a family and run a household. When kids get sick, grandparents get sick or frail, someone needs to be there to care for them. If the workplace and society can't provide the support to help us do all of this and still remain profitably employed, then please don't tell any mother that she is making a poor decision by leaving a career track or staying home.

If men took half the caregiving load, if work was based on performance rather than hours, if men were culturally "allowed" to take paternity leave or work fewer hours, if we had good, affordable childcare, paid maternity leave and sick days, and welcoming institutional "on-ramps" back into the workforce, then we'd be having a very different conversation.

Two practical antidotes to this situation:

Read Pamela Stone's book, Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. Stone's book is the only one that has done in-depth sociological research on this issue. It is truly The Feminine Mystique of the twenty-first century. Stone writes with respect and compassion for her subjects--compassionate academic writing, what a breath of fresh air.

If you haven't joined me over at yet, what are you waiting for....?

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Blogger A. Lin said...

Amen! Preach it, sister!

I visit MomsRising all the time. I'm ready to start a revolution.

11:38 AM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

The discouraging news is that we keep having this conversation over, and over again...but the good news for me at least is that I am distilling my own writing on the topic!

2:28 PM  
Blogger Cali said...

Scream it from the rooftops!!!! Amy - you've done a wonderful job getting your thoughts 'on paper'. The time has come - we feel it in the air and in the passion we have to have make change and revolt against the current system. MomsRising is awesome - let's create our future, and the future for our children!

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson
Creators of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)
Authors of the forthcoming book "WHY WORK SUCKS AND HOW TO FIX IT"

7:48 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Hey Cali and Jody--thanks for stopping by and I want to let everyone know that your book Why Work Sucks and How To Fix It is coming out next month. It's on my reading list!

9:13 PM  
Blogger Amy@UWM said...

Completely with you. I'm a proud Momsrising member, I've got the "Motherhood Manifesto" by my bedside and I've pre-ordered the "Why Work Sucks" book (sounds like the Gen-X solution for finally achieving work/life balance. Can't wait to read it.) I'm ready for the revolution too.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Cali said...

This is exciting! The revolution is about to boil over with all of us that are FED UP.

Let's stick together, ladies - we're ready to make CHANGE!

Cali and Jody

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comment assumes that it is the mother's responsibility to care for the child, and that in the absence of affordable child care, it is the woman who should stay home. Why do you assume this?

I agree to some extent about the "mommy wars" but attribute much of the "conflict" to the Disneyfication of mass media and TV shows. Please note that most of the programs show women dissing other women, competing with other women, and only the male characters working together.

2:13 PM  

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