The mommy wars are intensifying, with figures as disparate as Ann Romney, Kate Roiphe and Maureen O’Dowd weighing in alongside their French and British counterparts. It’s even, dare I say, heating up at my own kitchen table. The other morning, as we strained over the crunch of our Special K to hear a diatribe from a stressed-out stay-at-home mom on talk radio, my mother, who’d been visiting, was the first to speak.
“I don’t know what these women are complaining about,” she declared. “Being a stay-at-home mom is the easiest job in the world.” The way she lingered on the word “eeeasiest,” you’d have felt quite hysterical for thinking otherwise.
Easy for her to say, I thought, as I cleaned up her breakfast dishes, washed a load of her laundry and put on another pot of coffee.
But once I’d really had a chance to reflect it occurred to me: it was easy for her to say because it was easy. I remember those times. Sure, I was a little naughty and predisposed to tantrums. I fought with my sister, made a mess and picked at my food. On the other hand, I was healthy, as was my sister. We had no allergies, no special needs and very few toys. We lived near a good public school, in a house we bought with cash in a buyer’s market. We hired a cleaner. We had no after-school activities, no tutors or expensive classes. We watched cartoons while my mom caught up on her soaps.
My dad was home at 5.30 every evening for dinner and bedtime; he never worked weekends – or abroad. My mom may have been bored out of her mind, but at least she could commiserate with the dozens of friends she met every day for coffee or playdates. So few of them had jobs outside the home they couldn’t have known what they were missing.
How different things are today – not that my mom has any sympathy. We are competitive. Our schools suck. Our property is unaffordable. We can’t switch on the TV for all the guilt. We can’t eat Twinkies. Or nuts. We and/or our partners are connected to work 24 hours a day.
That makes it sound like we have few choices, but in fact we have loads. From the moment we give birth we are peppered with questions about when we’ll return to work. We soon learn we have to take a stand: return to the rat race and commence the balancing act, or resolve to give it up for the 12-hour daily shuffle between playgroups, doctors, groceries, pharmacies, sporting grounds and parks, or else suffer the consequences of being inside all day. Either way, we’re tortured with grass-is-greener thoughts. When I undertook a part-time existence I expected it would afford me the best of both. Instead, I feel as if I’m everywhere and nowhere in particular. At times I wish I was never given a choice in the first place.
Journalists have been saying as much throughout this so-called War on Women. Two weeks ago Kate Roiphe remarked, in the context of reviewing the erotic paperback Fifty Shades of Grey, that women fantasized about submission because the “free will” we’ve worked so hard, as a gender, to achieve, has become burdensome to many of us. In other words, too much liberation is not always a good thing – unless what you’re liberating yourself from is the power to choose.
Maureen O’Dowd said as much last week in a New York Times column called Phony Mommy Wars: “Women have so many choices that they’re overwhelmed by the stress of so many choices.”
At times I envy my husband, and not in the way you might think. He’s known from the day I discovered my pregnancy that, as the big wage-earner, his role would be to provide us with a steady income. It’s a lot of pressure, no doubt. But he has a defined role and he’s adapted to it.
Me, I’m all over the place. I take each day as it comes, and adapt to it as necessary, whether I’ve got a deadline, a sick child, a class trip or all three. If I were born 50 years earlier (or even 30 years earlier, like my mother) I suppose I would measure my success against my own mother, my peers and my heroes, the majority of which would be stay-at-home moms. And I’d take pride in that work.
Fifty years from now, my grandchildren may be facing a more certain future, possibly supported by infrastructure that allows all parents to work a flexible week and take turns caring for their children.
This is the sort of fantasy I’ve been having lately. Don’t tell my mom.