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Choices Create Conflicts for American Mothers


The equal rights movement of the 1960s and 70s opened up a world of new career opportunities for American women. But in recent years, there has been a reverse trend, with growing numbers of professional women working part time -- or quitting work altogether -- to stay home with their children. A U.S. census report showed that 55 percent of all women with infants had full time jobs outside the home in 2000, down four percent from 1998. But do expanded options also lead to new conflicts? That is one of the questions Leslie Morgan Steiner explores in her new book of essays, Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families (Random House).

As a part-time working mother, Leslie Morgan Steiner knows what it is like to juggle home and office. Educated at Harvard and the Wharton School of Business, she is an executive at The Washington Post, and the mother of three young children. Moving between the worlds of work and home, she says she wrote her book because she had unanswered questions about mothers in both groups.

"I was really curious about and I would even admit jealous of, moms who dared to be 'happy' just staying home. I was also puzzled by working moms who seemed stuck in jobs that didn't give them enough time with their children. So I wanted to put together a book by the real experts on motherhood - moms -- and hear from a lot of them about their daily struggles and joys, trying to combine work and kids in whatever portions they chose."

Mommy Wars includes essays by 26 women, from new mothers to grandmothers. The table of contents includes illustrious names like Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley, as well as women unknown to the public. While most can afford to choose between staying home and going to work, the author believes they all struggle with the same nagging doubts that haunt women across the economic spectrum. She describes the dilemma as a kind of internal mommy war. "It's that dialogue that I think every mom has in her head," she explains, "about whether she's a good mom -- whether she should be doing more, better, faster, giving more to her kids and to her work. Because we live in a country that so much values personal success and achievement, there's tremendous pressure to work, even if you don't need to. Some moms feel like giving up work would be like cutting off their arm, and other moms feel like leaving their child would be like cutting off their leg. It's a very personal choice."

But her book explores another "mommy war" as well -- the perceived conflict between the two groups. The author recalls feeling defensive when she would arrive at her children's school dressed for work. "When stay-at-home moms would tease me about wearing panty hose or say to me that classic line, 'I don't know how you do it,' it hurt me. I was offended. I don't think they meant it to be offensive, but I took it that way because I was feeling so stressed out myself."

Women who stay home often complain people see them as boring or irrelevant because they do not have careers. Contributor Catherine Clifford suggests that contented full-time mothers like herself are under-represented in national debates over child care. "I think there is such a built-in bias about the idea that doing something that is a traditionally female occupation has to be boring. And even stay-at-home moms are often apologetic, (suggesting that) you get to be really stupid or don't have anything to say. And I think once you start talking to them, a lot of them feel like it's pretty interesting participating in human development."

A former magazine writer and editor, Catherine Clifford says it never occurred to her not to go back to work when she became pregnant for the first time, after years of struggling with infertility. But when she had two more children in quick succession, and could not find a babysitting arrangement she was satisfied with, she decided to stay home. For a while she felt critical of mothers who worked, but she says she has since come to see examples of good and bad parenting in both groups. Still, she loves being at home.

"You get close to your kids in a way I think you simply don't if you're spending some of your time at work," she says. "And you also have the luxury of time to just experience things together. You're not always rushing them out the door somewhere. You get to just have fun with them."

Monica Buckley Price writes in Mommy Wars that she too planned to go back to her job in TV production after her son Wills was born. But he suffered from terrible separation anxiety whenever she left him, and would eventually be diagnosed as autistic. She decided to stay home and devote herself to getting Wills the help he needed. "I felt I didn't have a choice once I realized something was wrong. I started to research everywhere. I didn't want to miss any time to get help, and it felt much better than anything I'd ever done in my career."

And Price says she has no regrets about giving up her job. "My son is now eight, and looking back, I can't picture myself the way that I was in my career. I am a different person because of all that he and I have been through together and what I have watched him accomplish."

Mommy Wars also includes essays by working women who are content with their choices. But many mothers in the book talk about the drawbacks of either option, whether it is low self-esteem for those who stay home, or not enough time for those who work. Author Leslie Morgan Steiner says the conflicts that trouble and divide mothers could be reduced if each group gave more support to the other.

"Stay at home moms often are often looking for ways to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways, and they are often very active volunteers, especially at their schools. I think working moms need to be as appreciative as possible of that. And I think stay at home moms should be grateful to working moms for everything they are doing in the work force, in making it more friendly for women of all ages and all economic levels. Motherhood should unite us, bring us together, not divide us."

The author says collecting the essays for Mommy Wars affected the choices she is making as a mother. She is still working, but not as much. Hearing from so many women who stay home convinced her that she wanted to have more unstructured time with her children.