Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
War, What Is It Good For? A Review of Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families

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By Leslie Morgan Steiner (Random House, 2006; $24.95)

Against every belief I ever thought I had, I am a stay-at-home mom.

For a brief period after the birth of my first child, I was a working mom. I went to work; pumped breast milk; interacted with other adults; and returned home at night to find my husband, my daughter, and my dinner awaiting me. It was a good life.

And then my husband and I realized that we couldn't afford our full-time nanny. A spot opened up in a daycare ten minutes away from my job, which was forty-five minutes from home. The cost savings was significant and I started bringing my four-month-old daughter to work with me.

As the laundry piled up my milk started drying up.

When my daughter was five-months-old we took a family vacation. At the airport bookstore a title caught my eye: The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the TRUTH About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. I bought it and read it while my daughter, surrounded by a makeshift barrier of pillows, napped on our hotel bed.

When I returned to work a week later, I quit my job. I didn't want to be a bitch, in the house or out, and reading "The Bitch in the House" had helped me to realize my attempt to juggle career and family was turning me into one.

I therefore approached reading Leslie Morgan Steiner's Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families with a little trepidation. I've been a stay-at-home mom for over two years now and our family has grown with the addition of our son. Although I do miss some aspects of working (namely, getting time to myself without small ones tugging at my pants and whining about juice), I don't plan on returning. At least not this year.

I worried that my feelings of happiness at being a stay-at-home mom might change after I read the essays in Steiner's book that were written by working moms. For me, the grass tends to be greener on the other side. When I read how successful women manage both their exciting careers as well as their family lives, I feel like a failure because I could not. I didn't want to read Steiner's book and feel like a failure, a stay-at-home loser.

That's not how Steiner's book made me feel.

Instead, her book confirmed for me that I had made the right choice. Not because I had chosen to stay home with my kids, but that I had chosen what was best for both me and them. I made a choice, just like all of the women whose writing is featured in Steiner's book.

In the Introduction to Mommy Wars, Steiner writes:

How can some moms stay home? Why is it that others, like me, so clearly cannot? Do we all fight our own private battle about whether to work or stay at home? Does that explain why we're so bitchy to women who've made different choices?"

Titles need to be provocative in order to stand out, in order to pull into a bookstore a random traveler walking through the airport. The Bitch in the House. Mommy Wars. But what is odd about the title of Steiner's book--and her use of the word "bitchy" -- is that I didn't sense a lot of bitchiness in the essays themselves. I saw the mommies, but where was the war? Instead of writing about hatred and resentment towards other moms, the essayists wrote about what most mothers know: parenting is difficult and time-consuming; finding balance -- either life-work or family-self -- is hard. Both the stay-at-home moms as well as the working moms featured in the book wrote about their struggles with these issues -- not about their struggles with each other -- and how compromise is the key to finding happiness, whether at home or at work.

For example, in her essay "The Donna Reed Syndrome," Lonnae O'Neal Parker explores her decision to quit her job and then her decision to return to it. She writes:

I'm a working mother, in and out of the house, and I've learned that overarching balance is elusive, mythical, so I just take it one weekday at a time. Still, I'm sustained by memories of my year of living as Donna Reed and my new, post-modern realization: I can have it all, just not on the same day.

In her essay "I Do Know How She Does It," Ann Misiaszek Sarnoff writes about combining motherhood and -- as Steiner describes it -- ambition, but also admits that her success at having a career is due to her competent nanny as well as her husband. Of her husband and what she sees as the problem with focusing the life-work balance discourse on how we can help working moms, she writes:

Richard's support in parenting is also key. Like me, Richard balances being successful at work with being a great dad. So much of the work/life balance discourse focuses on working moms, and the push for change centers on corporations becoming more mom-friendly. But from my perspective, working dads who are involved in their children's daily lives don't get enough credit, and they don't get much flexibility from the companies they work for. Most of my female friends who have left the workforce after having children have done so because, for the most part, their husband's work schedule is too demanding for the family overall to keep a balance between work and kids. . . . I could not be happy in a marriage with that imbalance, and certainly I couldn't be successful at work without my husband's partnership at home.

I found Sarnoff's commentary spot-on and refreshing; if you are part of a modern nuclear family unit, you understand that decisions such as who works, who doesn't work, and who does which chores around the house, are very much made in light of what benefits the family unit as a whole. If they aren't, they should be. But that's a subject for another book.

Unfortunately, while Steiner's book is a wonderful collection of essays, it doesn't focus specifically on this subject nor does it offer solutions to provide better working conditions for moms who are struggling to find life-work balance or to provide now stay-at-home moms with tools they can use to keep their on-hold careers still simmering while on the back burner. And for most of the writers in the book, the choice to work or stay home was just that: a choice. In the case of Steiner's book, the political is personal, but the personal is privileged, too.

Catherine Clifford, whose essay "Mother Superior" is written from her perspective of a stay-at-home mom, believes that good moms -- whether working or stay at home -- put their kids first, although she also writes honestly about the fact that stay-at-home mom is a temporary job:

Now, as the kids get older, I want to watch out for being so wedded to my self-definition as full-time mom that I overlook openings for broadening my life again, professionally or personally.

One thing I've noticed, the more mother-centric anthologies I read, is that buried in the center of most of these books there lies an essay that will force you to reconsider any preconceived notions you may have about mothering and will most likely make you weep. Steiner's book is no exception.

Monica Buckley Price's essay "Red Boots and Cole Haans," is about her difficult journey through motherhood starting with the traumatic birth of her son ("I was in bloody shreds. But Wills was here.") to her life with a young baby and a husband who works fourteen-hour days ("I hated him for being bathed and out in the world, for not having to feed the baby from one or two of his body parts, for having a penis that wasn't stitched like Frankenstein's forehead.") to her realization when her son was eighteen-months old that something about him was not quite right ("I looked into two completely blank eyes. Wills was not there.")

As Price writes about how her son is diagnosed with autism and how her life as a stay-at-home mom -- because of his diagnosis and temperament -- was unlike other stay-at-home mothers', the reader begins to understand that every decision a mother makes is based on the love she has for her child. Working moms maintain careers for financial reasons or to ensure that they're happy with themselves. Both reasons are ultimately so that they can be the best parents they can be, for their children's sake. Stay-at-home moms have chosen their path because they believe they're doing what's right for their children even when the sacrifices sometimes seem to outweigh the benefits. The same is true for working moms.

Choosing sides in the supposed war of the working moms versus the stay-at-home moms is more to satisfy a need to belong to a group than anything else. Because Price had a son who was "different," she never felt she belonged to any group of moms. It wasn't until her son was able to exhibit signs of connecting, that she felt she did, too:

Then something happened. It was so small that nobody in the crowd would have noticed it. But to me it was a miracle. Wills let his hands slip away from his ears, his body relaxed for just a moment, and I heard vibrations coming from his throat. I had never heard him sing or hum anything. Even in front of a huge group of people, his worst nightmare, Wills was finding his own way to be part of the sing-along. His psychologist was right. As anxious as Wills was, there was still a part of him that wanted to belong, to connect, as even I did, as we all do.

How can we be at war when all moms -- whether we are working outside the home or not -- are doing the same difficult job: mothering? In that regard, we all are on the same team. We all want to belong. We all want to connect. We all want to be good mothers. And as good mothers we all want what's best for our children.

No matter if the stories they bring to the table are from their perspective as a working mother or as a stay-at-home mother, all of the women bring to the book their hard-earned wisdom on the reality of being a good mom. In her essay "Good Enough" freelance writer Beth Brophy writes:

With one foot in each camp, I still identify with the mothers who work. I've also had years to observe the schoolyard mothers up close. I was wrong about a few things. The inner peace I used to attribute to them may have been an illusion. Some of them are great mothers; some aren't. The same goes for working mothers. Personality, temperament, values, and wisdom are more reliable indicators of maternal ability than whether a mom works or not.

That's not to say that some of the writing in the book is less "feel good." For example, if you are a working mom, you might be offended by Catherine Clifford's opinion in her essay "Mother Superior" when she writes:

. . . recently the kids and I were all settled into the family room watching a movie in which a wealthy mother chokes up over how much she loves her son.

Darcy, now ten, snorted to the TV, "Yeah, you love him so much, how come you leave him with some nanny person all the time?"

And while I geared up to do a quick consider-all-sides speech, what I was feeling was, "Damn right."

Unfortunately, it's not the essays in Steiner's book -- or the opinions expressed therein -- that are helping to generate press for it. It's the title of her book that is upsetting both citizen journalists (bloggers) and high profile book reviewers.

I don't mind the fact that Steiner's book is called Mommy Wars, although I didn't see the strife in her book that she alludes to on the cover. The essays weren't face offs; they were written independently of each other and not in response to the others. And despite some examples of mothering smugness, if Steiner's book was a manifesto by either stay-at-home moms or working moms, it wasn't obvious to me.

War, what is it good for? For Steiner, it's good for publicity and book sales. There is no mommy war -- at least not in this book -- and in fact, both stay-at-home moms as well as working moms will find solace in these essays. Instead of a struggle, they also may find peace from the validation that they are doing the right thing. Whatever it is that they're doing.

Mary Tsao is a stay at home mother who writes to make sense of a world filled with tiny people who have big needs. She lives in Silicon Valley with her engineer husband and their two toddlers. In her former life she was a technical writer, but she knows many more people read her blog than ever read her user guides.

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