Monday, July 10, 2006

Mommy Wars: Battle in My Own Backyard

[Warning: This is a long one!]

Wow, these so-called “mommy wars,” they’re pretty real, aren’t they? Until just recently, as a reader of the motherhood literature, I took significant interest in these notorious battle-lines, but mainly in a rather distant and removed sort of way. I naively thought the term didn’t really apply to my own experience. I truly hadn’t had (that I can recall) any conflictual experiences with other parents regarding the whole stay-at-home vs. working mom issue.

My husband and I currently maintain a one-income, one-stay-at-home-parent household, a choice that is working very well for us (if you ignore the fact, as we prefer to do, that we are barely squeaking by financially). As parents of a two-year-old and with a newborn on the way, we are deeply contented with our household arrangement at this point in our lives. I have chosen to stay home with my babies when they are very young, despite having earned a Ph.D. in my field and having enjoyed a successful career before becoming a mother---but also, with the assumption that I will be resuming my working-woman status when it feels right (or financially necessary) to us.

Christopher and I have friends of all stripes: childless career-driven couples, childless but baby-desiring couples, single working moms, single childless friends, dual-career families, single-career families, families in which the parents have cobbled together any number of work/childcare arrangements that combine full-time, part-time, and freelance or home-based work. Some of our working friends use nannies, some use family-based daycares, some use commercial daycare centers. We’ve never experienced negative interactions with any of our friends about any of our respective child vs. work choices. We have been blessed with unflagging support for our personal decision to have me stay home full-time with Julia; in kind, we truly respect each of our friends’ own choices as the right thing for their own situations, and believe they know that we do.

I also believe my friends know that, although I have chosen to be a stay-at-home mom right now and am emphatic in the knowledge that this is the right thing for our family, I am still a liberal feminist who firmly believes all women should have the right to make work and childcare choices that feel most right to them, without judgment or criticism from others. So, previously, whenever I read a new article or book about the “mommy wars,” it was with more of an air of curious interest than of recognition.

And then, things took a turn for the crazy—and the ugly.

Just recently, Christopher and I felt compelled to actually sever a friendship over, I guess, these mommy wars. It was such an unexpected and bizarre experience that it got me thinking hard about what it truly means when fellow parents cannot tolerate each others’ life choices---and about why in the world any of us should really care about each others’ individual choices that may differ from our own.

Someone Christopher had considered a long-time good friend—albeit one with whom a few red-flag rough patches had cropped up occasionally over the years, in hindsight a telling detail--and his spouse unexpectedly began sending us bizarre and hostile e-mails. (Note: this is someone I feel safe in assuming is not reading this blog.)

Bottom line: this former friend accused us of being aggressively judgmental about their choice to work full-time and put their child in daycare, citing as evidence the fact that in the Christmas cards we’ve sent out since Julia was born, we have expressed personal relief and happiness that I have been able to be home with her, as we desire. (Note that we have never said, nor felt privately, that there is anything wrong with their choice to utilize daycare if that is what works best for their family.) He fumed over the fact that in some writing we have done lately, we have described being very happy with our lives, which he interpreted as a boast that the at-home-motherhood lifestyle is more glorious than any other, even in pieces of writing that had nothing to do with parenting choices.

There was more—a LOT more. It was all very mean-spirited, and we ultimately decided we needed to eliminate this relationship from our lives.

This whole experience was so foreign to me that I really didn’t know what to make of it. And yet, I was also able to maintain an objective, almost clinically removed perspective on the whole thing (maybe that’s the psychologist in me). It was obvious to me that true friends don’t begrudge loved ones any happiness---that the only explanation for being furious with someone for saying, “I’m so happy with the choices I’ve made in my life” is if you have made different choices and are, in contrast, NOT happy. If you are, actually, insecure or ambivalent about those differing choices, deep down.

I spent a lot of time musing about this. At first, of course, I felt angry, victimized, and disbelieving. And then I recalled a passage in Andrea Buchanan’s wonderful book, Mother Shock, where she writes about overcoming the hurtful impact of others’ criticisms of her parenting choices. She describes obtaining comfort in such hurtful situations by reminding herself of the unstated subtext beneath the insulting verbal daggers---that when others criticized her parenting, what they were really saying was this: that the thought that a different way of doing things may also be okay was too threatening to consider, because it would mean that perhaps they had done something wrong, or that they had at least had choices they could have utilized differently, for greater happiness for themselves or their children, but had not.

And when I re-read the passage, it was exactly right. She writes that she realized that a fellow mother’s snide parenting criticism carried a subtext that said, “…’if you do things differently…and everything still turns out fine, then that means I have made a mistake, I have made the wrong choices year after year after year, and I can never go back and love my babies differently.’”

And that’s when I was able to truly let the whole ugly episode go, because I was able to see it, even more than I already had, as a reflection of great sadness underneath the venom.

It’s awful to think of anyone feeling that conflicted about his or her parenting; it made me feel overcome with relief that I DON’T feel that way about my own personal childcare/parenting choice---that I, at least, really am unconflicted and at peace with my decision to temporarily quit work to be home with my babies.


What has happened in our culture such that, today, when a stay-at-home mother says, “I’m so happy with my childcare choice,” we hear instead, “YOUR [different] choice is wrong and indefensible”? What does it mean when parents cannot abide by other parents’ happiness, UNLESS those fellow parents have chosen the exact same childcare vs. work options that they themselves have? Are we so insecure in our parenting decisions these days that the idea of someone else feeling content about a decision that strays from our own feels intolerably threatening?

And if so, why?


Jim said...

Beware, maybe some morning you will awaken and see the "subjects" of this discussion perched on lawnchairs in your backyard stareing you down perpetrating a real backyard mommy war! Nonetheless, we and Dr. Laura are proud of you!

Shan said...

Yikes, let's leave Dr. Laura out of this!