Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Miriam Peskowitz

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In The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?, author Miriam Peskowitz presents the political and social issues mothers face in a nation where the conservative view of motherhood -- the full-time stay-at-home kind -- is offered as the ideal. In addition to The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, Peskowitz is the author of Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender, and History, as well as numerous articles about women and family. She left her career as a full-time, tenured professor to be a stay-at-home mom, and started working on The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars when her daughter started kindergarten. She, her husband, and her six-year-old daughter live in Mt. Airy, Pennsylvania. In an interview with Managing Editor Andi Buchanan, Peskowitz talks about the inspiration and writing process behind her book, the untold truth about women helping other women and how a single act for change can indeed spark a playground revolution.

Andi Buchanan: I know that this book started out as more of a memoir exploring your personal struggles to reconcile parenting and fairly compensated, meaningful work; this genre -- especially the "momoir" subgenre -- has been the target of much criticism of late. Was that part of why your book evolved into a more journalistic approach?

Miriam Peskowitz: It wasn't fear of criticism that changed my book from a memoir form to a more journalistic and researched account of motherhood. My book shifted from being primarily my story to being primarily about other mothers' stories because no editor wanted to publish it. That's the truth. My agent, himself a father of three, sent the proposal through two rounds of New York editors, and no one wanted it. Around that time, he connected me with Seal Press. Seal was interested in a motherhood book, but with the proviso that it be more researched, more journalistic, and contain a real argument about our contemporary debates about motherhood. When we write in memoir, our stories have an implicit argument, but they wanted me to be much more explicit about the politics of motherhood.

I knew I had a perspective that wasn't being heard in public. I had been privy to so many playground conversations, so many discussions among mothers who love their kids very much and are also frustrated by the either/or work options available to us, or who were chafing under low-paying part time jobs. They know what's frustrating, and why, and what needs to change. Even though I loved the memoir draft, I was excited at the chance to work with Seal editor Leslie Miller, and to develop the book in this new direction. We had an amazing working relationship with lots of conversation and emails back and forth about the state of motherhood and work.

What didn't change is my commitment to mothers' stories, and to transcribing the realities of our lives, and our visions for the future.

That's the backstory. But I don't want to leave this question in the grip of one author's strategy to get her book published. The critique of momoir is a politically motivated attack on mothers. I can't stand hearing how mothers' stories are boring, and then the next day open the New York Times Magazine to read Joseph Lelyveld's tedious narrative of himself as a boy. It's not memoir that the publishing world doesn't like, but ordinary stories about mothers' everyday lives. I believe strongly that we need to hear mothers' stories until they become common knowledge, until everyone knows what mothers' work, what parenting work, what fatherly work is, and it is no longer invisible and unvalued.

AB: Do you think mothering memoirs have a place in the political landscape around issues of maternity and feminism?

MP: Absolutely. Early, powerful feminism soared with women sitting around telling our stories, realizing we weren't alone in our struggles, and figuring out together how to explain what's gone wrong. Through telling our stories of being women and mothers in our society, and by linking our individual stories with larger social forces, women found creative ways to change our society and improve our conditions. Change revolves around stories -- and their published versions, whether these are memoirs, or other accounts of our lives. If once there were consciousness-raising circles, now we have books and listservs and blogs.

Motherhood and its rituals are still so invisible to the general culture. I'm sorry that some people find this boring and tedious and repetitive, but aspects of it are boring and tedious and repetitive. They're also very real, and political, and in need of attention. The fact that so many women are putting ourselves at economic risk to parent is a political issue as real to us as how much we love our kids. And until we let ourselves hear these stories and put them into a social and public context, we'll never be able to fully value women's work as mothers or as anything else. We've got to keep telling them till something gets fixed.

Even in the more intimate sense of being able to get through the day, of seeing our maternal lives as part of a larger cloth, mothers' stories are crucial. I'm not an avid "Desperate Housewives" watcher, but remember the episode where Lynnette is overdoing it on Ritalin, and ends up alone, crying, out on the soccer field? Her friends come and find her. They comfort her with tales of how hard it was to parent small children. They tell her how it nearly drove them batty, that it made them anxious and depressed. It's a scene that mothers play out every day at playgrounds, playgroups, and water coolers across America, that moment where pulling it together to get through the day is enough to make you cry, and somehow your only lucky break that day is another mother ready to comfort you through it. This scene has never before been seen on television or in the movies never before been turned into images larger than our lives, and shared in public. We get to hear Lynnette testify to the pain and anguish of motherhood, and we get to see her friends help her through the day. It was a very intimate scene.

AB: How long did it take you to research and write the book?

MP: The first answer is that I unknowingly started the minute my daughter was born back in September 1998. I loved how motherhood changed me. And I was horrified by how it changed other people's perception of me.

I had worked as a professor, and been relatively successful. Once I resigned my tenure, moved back to the city where my husband lives, and decided after a year fully at home, to work part-time, I was the target of much hostility. Older colleagues, especially women, criticized me because I left my job. They told me how they worked full-time and their kids turned out okay. The man who hired me to teach part time, at an extremely low wage, justified it by saying I would be doing the "donkey work" (i.e.: adjunct teaching), but that it was okay, his wife did it too.

Before I was a mother, I had been invited onto the prestigious board of the journal in my field. I was their youngest member ever, and I was proud of this. After I was a stay-at-home mom for a year, and then returned to part-time work, the editor mailed a letter to my home that announced he had dropped me from the board. When I confronted him and asked him why, first he said he couldn't find me. When I mentioned that he had been sending articles to my home address to review, he changed course and said, "Do you have a real job?" I thought I was creatively finding a way to mother almost full-time and keep a toehold in my career. I thought I was following all the mom advice books. But on all these levels, I encountered hostility. I mean, 37 percent of mothers work part-time, but no one in my profession even thought part-time work counted as real work. There was absolutely no recognition of how hard it is for mothers to even make this option happen. Good thing I had the moms at the playground to bounce all this off of; they kept me sane, and I kept writing, month after month, to make sense of all this. I wasn't planning a book. I was just writing to salvage my full life.

The first draft, if I can even call it that, was in my journal. When my daughter started pre-K, I finally had the time and space to write, and I wanted to reflect on the past five years. That was the first inkling of turning these musings into a book. I gathered my journals, gave the sections titles, wrote the titles on index cards and moved them around on a large piece of butcher paper pinned on my wall until they crafted themselves into a more literary form. I started editing and writing from there, and that was the book that didn't sell.

I signed the contract for Truth Behind the Mommy Wars in March of 2004. Then, I took to my desk and worked like a demon to meet the October deadline. I was insane, and it was harder than I imagined. There were so many moving parts to the book: media analysis. Talks with policy experts and motherhood organizations. More interviews with mothers. Marketing reports. Census reports. Questions for historians. I really had to live with all this until somehow -- and with the help of Leslie Miller's intricate editing -- all the info and insights found their way into chapters, and cohered as a book. I do feel sorry for everyone who had to live with me while I wrote this book. That August we went to stay with my parents at their home near the beach. I was so grumpy and tense and unpleasant to be around that had I not been the mother of their delightful granddaughter, I certainly would have been dropped off at the bus station half-way through.

The second answer, then, is that I wrote and edited the book in eight frenzied months. I must tell you the details, though. My daughter was in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. In July, she went to day camp with her friends; the bus picked her up at 7.30 a.m. and returned her to me at 4 p.m. In between, she was watched by her dad, and by her four grandparents. Friends helped, too. In late September as my deadline rapidly approached, her friend Eva's parents, Kathy and Paul, scooped her up one Saturday for an all-day playdate so I could write and edit -- and when they dropped her off, it turned out they brought dinner over for all of us, with wine, too! I tell you, I had lots of support to write this book. It's important to tell this part of the writing story, the gritty, material part of it, because the details of how mothers work are important. Many mothers want to write, and they look at writer-mothers and think, "How are you getting your work done when I have three kids at home and no time to myself?" I don't want writing about motherhood to be yet another standard by which we moms judge ourselves lacking (as in, I'm a bad mom; I haven't even written a book about motherhood, horrors!). I had time to write, and lots of support, and it made all the difference.

AB: One of the things that struck me about your book was the sense that mothers might actually be more cooperative than they are generally portrayed in the mainstream media -- more willing to engage, to discuss, and to work together. Did you find mothers eager to talk?

MP: When my daughter was little, my experience of motherhood was cooperative. If I walked to the playground and forgot snacks, someone else would offer Goldfish. The mothers -- and fathers -- talked, all the time, and we got each other through happy times and frustrating times. When I went looking for part time work, other women -- both mothers and women who didn't have kids and never suffered through the work-and-family challenge -- reached out to me and helped. And I got to experience first-hand an episode I write about in the book about a group of mothers who together renovated a public playground in Candler Park, Atlanta. They applied for grants, and sold bricks, went door-to-door, got local businesses involved, held yard sales. They pushed through the city permits, found the playground designers -- together, cooperatively, they made it happen. It was very inspiring. They could have just installed great playscapes in their backyards, but they had a bigger vision than that; they really worked together, and for everyone's good. Yes, mothers compete. Shoot, Americans compete; that's our national character; it's what we're supposed to do. But we also work together. And since the mainstream account is that mothers are always competing with each other over trivia like preschool admission, birthday parties and cake-baking, I wanted to write about the alternative.

Some mothers don't want to talk about these issues, and some do; I was lucky to find many of the latter. Many more women volunteered to be interviewed than I could ever have managed.

AB: Were you surprised by the discussions that evolved in your experience of interviewing mothers? Did the mothers you speak with defy your expectations?

MP: I was often surprised by their eloquence, and the way that many mothers' days are filled with so many pulls and tugs. I have a great respect for those who can barely make it through each day, and for those who have something left over at the end. Sometimes, I was most surprised when I would interview very well-dressed, thoroughly put-together moms, and they would be clearer than a bell on what's going wrong.

Here's one more thing that surprised me, though in retrospect, it shouldn't have, since the project in some regard is all about how being a mother can be frail and insecure, and how mothers don't have the control over their lives that they need. At a certain point in my interviews, I was surprised by how many mothers either were facing poverty, or extreme economic hardship, and by how many mothers told me that at some point they had spent some time in the welfare system. For many, poverty is the great unspoken, and I'm indebted to the many women who talked with me, who willingly educated me on what it's like to be falling into the small safety net our government provides.

Now remember, unlike many mom books, my book covers mothers from a very wide economic range. I invited over one woman I knew; I'll call her Sally. She's the single mom of two. All I knew about her is that her kids went to the same small Quaker school as my daughter, and that her dream was to become a doctor. We sat down at my kitchen table, I offered her tea, and turned on the tape recorder. Within minutes, her story became one of sexual abuse, a story of how her path to a medical career had been interrupted by a terrible, violent relationship, and of the difficulty of steering herself and her two daughters out of it; a story of how hard she tried, of the time she spent on welfare, and how she still receives childcare vouchers and healthcare because her part time job doing development work doesn't pay enough.

AB: Was there a difference between talking "on the record" and "off the record"? Were women more reticent when they realized their remarks might be published? If so, why do you think that is?

MP: Here's the thing: the fathers I interviewed were always eager to talk. If I mentioned I was interested in talking with them about being a stay-at-home dad they would follow up, make sure it happened, and tell me that when their story was published to use their first name, last name, of course. They wanted to be out there! They wanted to be noticed!

Mothers wanted to talk, but were much more circumspect, and scared. As the manuscript moved closer to completion, more and more of the mothers called to ask if I could use a pseudonym. I started a conversation with one mom by asking her if she'd felt judged as a mother, and whether she could talk about this in very specific terms. The words just flowed out, in full paragraphs, no hems and haws. I didn't have my tape recorder that day, and my typing hands could barely keep up with her. She gave me permission to use her words, yet when I saw her a few weeks later, she told me how afraid she was to tell anyone about the book. She had been exquisitely honest about her relatives' judgments of her and didn't want them to know about it.

Another mother became very upset when I showed her the paragraphs I had written about her work and family story. She wanted all sorts of details changed, and requested a pseudonym, so she would never be recognized. She had just found a very good job, it was part time, she hoped it would become fulltime, and she kept repeating to me, "What if my colleagues read this?" She could tell the truth, but she didn't want anyone to hear it. She wanted to control the story of her life for public consumption.

Stories about the intimacies of daily life, and work, and family economy can feel very threatening. It's as if we have no problem talking all we want about sex, but it's way too hard to speak honestly about the nuts and bolts of how our families run. I think the most transgressive topic a mother, or anyone, can broach is honest talk about salary, household finance, and the economics of being a family. It's the thing we most don't want to talk about in public.

Many of us mothers still want to keep up a public face. We don't want to appear vulnerable. And we are afraid of the repercussions of speaking out. We're afraid of being belittled, laughed at; we're afraid of losing the little bit that we have.

And I understand this fear of speaking out. We moms are supposed to be okay. In control. Fine. It's unnerving and scary to say that things aren't as good as they can be. Now that my daughter is six, I have some part-time teaching work, and some consulting, and this book, of course. From one angle, it looks like I have it all. I like this image of me. We all want to look and feel competent. We want people to think we're independent, and doing exactly what we want. There are times when I don't want to admit to anyone that one of my jobs pays terribly, or that I have incredibly low status at another. I push a little bit, and try to negotiate, but that doesn't change the general situation that the decisions I made to parent in a very hands-on way have had repercussions that I did not, and would not, have chosen. If I raise too big a fuss, I risk losing the job altogether. Dealing with work issues when you're a mom means realizing that you're not actually as powerful as you want to be, and that's very hard to come to terms with. I understand what makes us want to cover up the truths about our mommy lives.

AB: Your title is The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars. What do you think is so compelling about the military analogy in our public discourse on mothers? Why is the media so reluctant to stray from its mom vs. mom framing of issues having to do with parenting?

MP: Our media loves fights, and they always make the fight have only two sides. It's the Jerry Springerization of motherhood. War is big, war is news, so it's no real surprise that in the early 1980's when journalists start to write about the frustrations that mothers experience trying to work fulltime and raise their children, they framed it as a war, and that's when the phrase Mommy Wars begins. So, many debates during that decade were framed in military terms: think about the Culture Wars, which really were just discussions among academics, until they were politicized and raised to a pitched battle by our nation's newspapers and magazines. As a culture, we love to see people fight -- it's not our finest quality, I'm afraid, but it's true -- and describing motherhood as a catfight fits right in.

Not too many journalists and editors want to stray from what's tried and true. I've had the experience of talking with reporters and offering them more true-to-life explanations about mother's lives, and then a week later I see I've been quoted out of context and slipped right into a Mommy Wars model, or into some other narrative that's just as bad. That's the worst: when you know a journalist had a chance to get the story right, and you see up front how they chose not to.

We're in such conservative times right now, no one really wants to let a new, forward-thinking conversation about motherhood begin. Recognizing the truths about mother's lives doesn't fit into either a right or left agenda. People on the ideological right still favor mothers at home, and don't really want much support for mothers who work at all, or for improved childcare. And people on the left are still focused on the idea that the modern, feminist mother works fulltime. They don't want to think about the 37 percent of mothers who work part-time, or that nearly 63 percent of mothers in our country don't work full-time. Too often, this truth is treated as if it's just wrong-headed, as if the answer is for more mothers to work full-time, not more support and pay and protections for all mothers and the many ways that we fit different kinds of work into our lives as parents. Our new feminism is mother friendly, and it may not fit cleanly into traditional political ideas.

Keeping working moms and stay at home moms fighting with each other is a great way to keep all mothers' eyes off the real prize, which would be lots more support for parenting and the work that so many mothers, and some fathers, are doing.

I can't help thinking that this is about to change, that we're near a tipping point, and that these issues will find a place on our national stage. I've interviewed women around the country, and I know that they're frustrated, and I know that just beneath the media radar, mothers are wanting and making changes to improve their lives, even in this tough political and economic climate. I know how people are trying, and I do feel that the start of a new movement for change is out there. And that will be good for all of us.

AB: And why is it always framed as Mommy Wars and not Parent Wars? Why are any of these issues specifically women's problems? Isn't limiting the focus and excluding fathers in fact preventing us from ever making any real headway in the work vs. family debate?

MP: Several months after my daughter was born, I took my first two days away and went to New Orleans -- breast pump in hand! There, I met my old friend, Tom; he's one of the stay-at-home dads I write about in the book. At the time, he had recently left his high level job with the Seattle public schools to become a stay at home dad of two elementary age kids. I was struggling with what to do with my own career, and how to reconcile my real desires to slow down and be with my daughter with my fear that the professions are too rigid, and I would never have interesting work again. Tom's way of talking about his life made a big impression on me. He was so clear about his decision to parent. So, when I sat down to write the book, it was important to me to include fathers. Part of the problem right now is that a relatively conservative cultural climate has reinstated the traditional idea that parenting is primarily mother's work. That makes it harder for mothers, and harder for fathers who want to parent. In contrast, we can all thank gay fathers everywhere for leading the way in showing how active fatherhood is part and parcel of being a man, and dispelling myths of how men can't parent.

I want all dads to talk about their lives with the same adjectives we mothers use. I'd love to hear a dad talk about himself as a "working dad," to combine an identity of work and parenting the way most mothers do. I want to see a Working Father magazine that provides tips to fathers about how to do their chores while working full-time, saving time for self, negotiating paid family leave and arranging part-time work, complete with fashion, health, and beauty tips. I want to read stories that begin with, "When I began my marketing presentation, I didn't realize I had baby spit up on my Helmut Lang suit and tie. . ." I want to see "How He Does It" features, "100 Best Companies for Working Dads" survey results, and, especially, the annual "Raising a Ruckus" award for fathers. We'll have come a long way when there's a dad version of Working Mother.

We also need more fathers actively engaged in negotiating with bosses over family issues, in part because they have more social power. A lawyer friend of mine recounts being in the courtroom at 5 p.m. when the judge announced that the session would be extended. She and the other women attorneys all looked at each other -- they didn't even need to mouth the words, "How the hell am I going to pick up my kids on time?" A male attorney in the courtroom raised his hand and asked the judge to call a 10-minute break so he could make childcare arrangements. The judge agreed, and the relief in the room was palpable. My friend swears that had a woman asked, the judge would have declined, and they would have suffered prestige loss, too.

AB: Your original title for the book was "Playground Revolution" -- which I love, as it seems to imply that these enormous societal changes might be accomplished, little by little, through individual acts by mothers deep in the daily experience of mothering young children. What is one thing you think a mother can do to work for change on a personal level?

MP: We can all start talking about our visions and what we want changed, without fear of being tarred a mother-feminist. That, and we can locate a single thing that would make life easier for us as mothers, and figure out who to talk with to see how to make things change, and follow through on what we learn. And keep talking. And imagining. And making phone calls and writing e-mails and staying on it. Sometimes change is easier than we think. Sometimes it's harder, and we figure out the pieces along the way.

That, and be kind to yourself and other mothers.

AB: What's next for you?

MP: Oh, like most writers, that question makes me tremble. Sometimes, I feel like diving deeply into my next book, right now. I have some topics in mind, but I have to wait and see what next pulls me, what feels so urgent and necessary that I can't help but write it.

In real life, I'll be promoting The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars for many months, and living everyday life, which means packing school lunches, cooking dinner, listening to first-grade woes, and trying to get some exercise every so often. I'll be out there writing and touring and talking about motherhood, so mothers don't feel so alone, and so we can really start to talk about how to raise a fuss so we can have a better time of it, just like our kids do.

Andrea J. Buchanan is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book is The Beginning of Everything, which was a finalist for the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing. Her other work includes the multimedia young adult novel Gift, the internationally bestselling The Daring Book for Girls, her essay collection on early motherhood Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, and seven other books.

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