Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Who enlisted in the "Mommy Wars"?

Have any of you heard or seen the term "Mommy Wars" lately? It was bandied about quite a bit several years ago. There are surely some folks who still resort to this term in describing relations between stay-at-home mothers and those who choose to, or who must work outside of the home. Leslie Morgan Steiner published the book, "Mommy Wars" in 2006. Here is the top news story link to the term "Mommy Wars", dating all the way back to 1998: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/mommywars/mommy.htm

I have always been bothered by the term and by the media's depiction of this supposedly intense conflict between two categories of women. Who really likes to be labeled or categorized in this way?

Before I had children I dabbled in academia for four years and then worked as a corporate lawyer for five years. I worked with a lot of mothers and probably slightly more single or childless women. I definitely heard a lot of negative talk about stay-at-home moms, certainly from the ivory tower mavens that instructed me in my Ph.D. program, and even more so from the senior associates and female law partners in the firms.

I heard disparaging remarks about non-working mothers even as a child. I remember my father commenting on the lack of ambition of women who choose to stay home to raise their children. It was even common to hear derisive language used to describe teachers, and this from many of the adults in my life. How many times did I hear the phrase, "If you can do, do. If you can't do, teach". You may say to yourself, "She grew up around some judgmental people!" That's most likely an accurate assessment. From a very young age I had the impression that when I reached womanhood, child-rearing and the pursuit of a lofty career were to be achieved simultaneously, or my life would be judged a failure. I took this advice to heart and during my early adult life, I simply assumed that through hard work and adept dating maneuvers, I would be able to achieve both goals. Older and distant female relatives were pointed out to me, those with children and thriving careers, and those who had only one or the other. Of course, there were the many mass media pictures painted for me as well. "Little girl, don't you want to be Superwoman when you grow up? You can look like one of Charlie's Angels and be the lady described in that Whitney Houston song, "I'm Every Woman"... you can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan".

Now I have children. My one and two year old boys are my sole occupation at the present time. How did I come to this lifestyle choice? Through illness. I developed Bell's Palsy during my first pregnancy, and was soon after diagnosed with Lyme Disease, which I was told may or may not have triggered the facial paralysis. I can honestly say that had I not experienced this traumatic health issue at the end of my first pregnancy, I would never have stayed at home to raise my boys. No matter how much I may have wanted to, my mental programming would have rejected such a decision. The drastic change in my appearance following my illness had such a negative effect on my confidence that I felt unable to return to law firm life in New York City. There are a lot of stereotypes about NYC women. Ugly is probably not one of the more common stereotypes. There are also a lot of stereotypes about New York lawyers. Tough and shrewd are common ones, but faltering confidence is generally not associated with top law school graduates. For the first time in my life, I was truly at a loss for the type of persona I should adopt. I felt like an actor with my part suddenly ripped away from me. I knew there were so many understudies just waiting to step into my former childless city lawyer life. Someone else would be getting e-mails from friends that said, "Watch out! Your life is starting to sound a lot like 'Sex in the City'!"

After almost three years raising baby boys, and an incomplete recovery from my illness, I have had a lot of time to rethink my ideas about career and mothering. I have had time to remember the many times that I made judgmental comments about women who were having difficulty balancing family and career. I made these comments simply because the struggles I saw were so rare! Many women do not have the desire, and possibly not the strength or confidence to honestly describe their experience for the benefit of younger, childless peers. I said things to fit in, and also to boost my own confidence in my future ability to do it all.

At present, I feel a lot of compassion for both stay-at-home parents and for working parents. I could never have estimated the emotional and physical changes brought about by parenthood. Experience is truly the only teacher. It is absolutely impossible to judge parenthood from the outside, never having experienced it. I don't care if you have been a nanny for ten years, or if you have 50 nieces and nephews. You just can't speak if you are not speaking from experience. To all of you people who told me that before I had kids, here's to you! Right you were.

There are many aspects of full-time parenting that I have passionately loved. There are also many sad and anxious moments I have spent thinking about what I could be accomplishing in my former profession. My decision to stay home was never meant to be a permanent one, and I have a strong belief and desire motivating me to return to work. I feel that my physical condition has improved, and more importantly, I have learned to cope with it emotionally. I also wish from my heart to use my education and skill set to benefit individuals outside of my family. Part of the reason I wish to do this is to set an example for my sons. I think that stay-at-home parents set a wonderful example in selflessness and dedication. My opinion with respect to stay-at-home parents with higher education differs slightly. If nothing else, those of us with higher education can always volunteer or reach out to the world in meaningful ways once we feel ready to do so, even if that means once the children enter high school! Higher education is a blessing and a gift and I do feel strongly that it confers a duty on those who have achieved it. Paying back student loans is only a small part of that duty!

My personal feelings on educated parents aside, I do not have any judgmental inclinations or emotions toward any person who chooses to dedicate his or her life entirely to raising children and providing a stable and healthy home environment. I say "his or her" because I am meeting increasing numbers of stay-at-home dads. I love those guys! Having fathers as well as mothers to chat with makes the park feel so much more like the office! The cultural lessons on equality and gender neutral career choices still dominate my brain, so carefully programmed during the glorious Reagan years! Isn't contradiction awesome?

I love and respect career women with children more than I ever have. I have a greater sense of the strength that lies behind the facade. I also feel immense tenderness and awe for those who have set aside their egos, material and personal ambitions to devote their lives to their children. For those who cannot put food on the table without two full-time jobs and inexpensive daycare, I feel sincere compassion and I know that I could never understand that life until living it. I wish that other options were available to those who are constantly physically and emotionally exhausted. There is nothing I could ever say or write that would make me anything but enviable or despicable to those people, in spite of my illness. I didn't have to wait tables at a 24 hour diner to feed my kids. That could have been my situation. I thank God that it was not. I hope that God will show me a way to lend strength and support to parents in every situation, for the remainder of my life. I am thankful for the lessons I have learned these past three years.

And I do wonder... are there really women consciously fighting a Mommy War? I don't think so.

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