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That Mommy Wars Thing

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It just won't go away, will it?

My copy of Leslie Morgan Steiner's Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families arrived last week and although I have not yet had a chance to dip underneath its spilled milk cover, I feel as though I have already formulated an opinion.

There has been a lot of angry buzz in the blogosphere about the book. Rebel Dad, a blogger I respect a lot, has declared a bit of a war of his own on Steiner's seemingly devisive book. And while I do agree that Miriam Peskowitz's excellent The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars should be receiving more publicity (and ought to be sold in tandem with Steiner's book on Amazon) as it is a very thoughtful and balanced look at the issue, I suspect that Steiner might be getting a bit of a raw deal.

I want to reserve commentary until I've read the book. But from the article and the one piece I have read (excerpted on Literary Mama here), I am not sure that this book is about moms "facing off" at all. I do think that is more about the inner struggle moms have when trying to figure out how to balance childrearing and an identity outside of motherhood. As for the title, yup, it's a bad one, but again, I'm not convinced that Steiner has not been saddled with the provocative title by her publisher.

So I was keen to hear about the Berkeley MotherTalk featuring Leslie Steiner that a number of Literary Mama contributors including Caroline Grant (who blogs about the evening here), Sophia Raday, Sybil Lockhart, and Heidi Raykiel attended. I asked Literary Mama Review Editor and MotherTalk host Rebecca Kaminsky how the session went:

RK: It was a lovely intimate group of about fifteen women, some writers including mommy blogger Mary Tsao (you can read her review of the evening here) and local poet and musician Sarah Kilts (of the band "Diablo's Dust), some Literary Mama readers, and even a (personally and professionally) interested reporter from the sf chronicle. Several of the guests were also members of the local writer's group "Motherlode".

I read the book before the evening and was very impressed -- the stories are deep and honest, and not about "facing off" in the way you might think (or the way the title might lead one to think). Each woman wrote a memoir-type piece about how they came to motherhood and how they define themselves as mothers. Most wrote about their own mothers and how their mothers had affected their choices. These are the kind of stories I love -- these women really sat down and thought deeply about their lives. I didn't agree with everyone, but I think that was the point. We all come to different choices and the rub is to not judge each other.

If there is one overall theme to the book I would say that it is about reframing the "mommy wars" as a war not between SAHMs and mothers who work outside the home, but as a war within each woman who wrestles with how society judges her and how she judges her own mothering. The book also did a great job of finding voices on the whole spectrum, from strict stay at home moms, to moms who work part time and define themselves as either "SAHM's who work part time" or "Working moms who are at home with their kids," to pantyhose wearing working moms.

One wouldn't have thought at first blush that Ms. Steiner, an east coast journalist and MBA would have fit into this slightly crunchy Berkeley crowd (she was in a smart business suit and most of us in jeans and sandals) -- but we all warmed up right away. She began by reading from her introduction to the book, "Our Inner Catfight". Her motherhood story was moving and very personal, her courage in sharing it gained respect from her audience right away. Soon we were all laughing and talking about our own lives and how they relate to the themes of the book. We covered many topics: the definitions of motherhood society forces upon us and how we deal with that in our everyday lives, how defining motherhood differs from defining fatherhood, whether her book title was detrimental to her topic, how the definitions of motherhood change along race and class lines (something the book touched on but could have done more -- definitely needs to be opened up into a wider discussion), and how our own childhood experiences often frame our motherhood choices. We all ended up bonding across the coastal divide and were sad to see the evening end.

Rebecca also shared with me her comments about the book's controversy, especially in the blogosphere:

RK: With respect to the seemingly devisive title, Steiner did say that the title was her publishers choice, not hers. But to dismiss her book because of that makes us guilty of fanning the war flames too. The actual stories (along with her intro) seem to dispel the myths of the mommy wars -- she seems to be trying to reframe the judgement mothers have for each other to be more about a war within when society that forces these roles upon us, but yeah, the "facing off" part of the title seems to be fanning the flames -- I had the hardest time with that part of the title.

Also folks have pointed out that she's helping perpetuate a mainstream framing of motherhood -- I can see that point, but won't any book that successful fall victim to "sound bite" theorizing. On the other hand, it is annoying that so many other of the more carefully theorized and deeper books in the new wave of motherhood literature don't get the same great publicity.

Hopefully the publicity generated by Steiner's book will demonstrate to publishers that women are interested in having this dialogue and it will open the gates for many more mother writers to weigh in on this issue. For more on Steiner, you might also want to check out Literary Mama Editor Helaine Olen's interview with Steiner on Salon.com.


Jen Lawrence is an MBA and former banker who left the world of finance for the world of sippy cups and goldfish crackers. She writes about her experiences on her blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). She is an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama’s Reviews section and also contributes to the Literary Mama blog. Her work has appeared in The Philosophical Mother. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two children.


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I am happy to take Steiner at her word that the essays in the book are more about inner struggles with the work/family dynamic than any actual inter-parental fisticuffs, and I have a great deal of respect for a lot of the authors represented. My major objection is that the book is being sold and marketed as a "Mommy Wars" tome, and the substantial press it has received has a lot more to do with the fightin' words on the cover than the essays inside. With a few exceptions, Steiner's media appearances and blog entries have promoted the idea that there is indeed a simmering conflict among parents, an idea that distracts from the real problems that all parents face. Thanks for the link, Rebel Dad P.S. I also have serious, serious issues with Steiner's consistent dad-bashing, but that's a whole other rant ...
Thanks, Jen -- and Rebecca -- for a great summation of the evening and Steiner's book. I have too much to say about the night to fit here, so I've put the rest of my commentary over on my own blog...
Well - I definately want to go and get the book (title notwithstanding) as I have felt the same conflicts (even as a working outside the home with a stay at home partner). That said, the number one thing your note sparked in me Jen was a serious jealously of the Berkley moms getting together to have the discussion and debate with Steiner (and to share their stories of their own mothers, which sounds fascinating). Can we get her in TO?????
For me, the masculine sports reference is the problem. "Face off" is not a term women use, unless they are specifically talking about sports. That expression itself denies the title any authenticity. It seems obvious that it was thought up by a man who has -- or rather thinks he has -- no dog in the fight.
I've been really underwhelmed by Steiner's articles & especially her blog, but I'm reserving judgement on the book itself. With that many contributing authors, I'm sure there will be some chapters that I like, and others that don't do much for me.
Just wanted to wish you and your blog a happy birthday.... Welcome to your second year. I've written some on the Momaroonie Wars... Cheers... Hattie at MotherPie.com
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