Monday, August 07, 2006

diving in

for the most part i don't give too much thought to the whole "mommy wars" debate that has been running around for the past few years—you know, stay at home moms [sahms] vs. working outside the home moms [wohms], all the books and articles and sniping and blah blah blah. but then in the past week i stumbled across this and this, which begat this.

please take a moment to read or skim.

done? okay, moving on.

after reading and rereading both of these, it's been all i can think about. and i know this is unsafe territory to be walking in to. as a matter of fact, real life example: just a couple of weeks ago mona and i were sitting in a coffee shop having lunch with our friend stephanie (and all of our offspring, of course), talking mom talk, and stephanie said something like "i just can't imagine going back to work after 3 months," and the woman grabbing some straws and napkins from the bar behind us raised her eyebrows so high i thought they were going to merge with her hairline and turned to us and said "you're lucky you didn't have to!" to which stephanie replied, "i know." to which eyebrows mcgee gave us a sanctimonius smile and walked out saying "have a nice day, ladies...."

so lest you injure your eyebrows while reading this, let me start this whole thing by saying: i know. i know that i'm lucky that i didn't have to go back to work for economic reasons. i know that a large percentage of the mother who go back to work do so because they have to.

okay, so now that we're past the disclaimers, what's been stewing in my brain is this: what the hell is up with this (sometimes angry) backlash against sahms? why is working outside the home (you know, for money) seen as something that validates our existence, confirms our worth, and forms our identity, and working in the home (aka being a stay-at-home parent) so often pissed on?

the amy sohn piece that i linked to up there (on mr. nice guy's blog) has been all over the blogs (although if you try to follow the link to the original piece, on her site, you'll find it's been deleted. coward.), and while most of the comments have called her out as the ludicrous beyotch that she seems to be, there have also been a fair share of "sahm go home"–type comments. this is a response to a comment that calls sohn's essay the result of "a guilty conscience lashing out":

guilty conscience lashing out? maybe, but at least she has enough sense to be ashamed. unlike so many stay-at-home parents who've taken to parenthood without a trace of regret or doubt.

i'm sorry, i just hallucinated for a minute. what? the "sense to be ashamed" of....staying at home with her child part time? heh? and why exactly am i supposed to feel regret and/or doubt about my choice to stay home with my baby?

and sohn's essay itself, even though she starts off pissing and moaning about how sahms are "lionized", goes on to smack down the sahms, positing that staying at home with your baby makes you crazy, stupid, and a bad mother. oh and if you went to college, it makes you irresposible, because you're wasting your education by not working. which encapsulates the attitude toward sahms that i've been running into lately and that's got a bee in my bonnet: people feel that sahms are being lionized, but really they're being put down and patronized to; treated like a second choice, something you do with a heavy heart.

i feel like every time i read something about sahms, the writer is, often in the very same breath, saying how very awesome it is for women to stay at home with their babies but also how it is such a sacrifice and how by staying home you're missing out on, you know, life. example: the woman who writes the parenting column in our neighborhood paper reacted to sohm's article this week. and while she chastizes sohm for being so "nasty" towards motherhood and "putting down" sahms, she also says that she "found it exceedingly boring to be home with [her] one-year old", and only made it through because she was able to "escape" to her writers' group and therapist.

all of which, you know, is valid. you need a break from the 24/7 baby immersion, absolutely. but, as any writer knows, choice of words is powerful, and using the word "escape" makes being at home with your baby sound like a prison sentence. and, yes, life with a one-year old is definitely big on repetition and low on intellectual stimulation. but it's pretty big on emotional stimulation. and again, word choice! "exceedingly" boring? really? all the time? could you maybe mention the good parts too?

the parenting columnist called what sohn and others are spewing "mommy rage". i think a more accurate term—or maybe just a related symptom?—would be "mommy shame". in addition to her diatribe against sahms, sohn wrote a stupid article in new york magazine in which she dished about how her "goal is not to look like a mother so much as a still-young, still-cool person who just happens to have a child". like it's embarrassing to admit you like being a mom. it's like how i used to be embarassed to admit that i liked destiny's child because oh no, i don't listen to anything that's on z100, i listen to indie rock and hip hop. but you know what? i really like destiny's child. and my not admitting i like destiny's child doesn't harm destiny's child, or pop music in general. but moms being freaked out about admitting that they like being moms—or even that they are moms—is really damaging. it's like how "mommybloggers" have become a whipping post in the blog world: first off the term, which is slightly condescending, and then the attitude from other bloggers that parenting blogs are somehow less intersting/valid than other blogs, that mom blogs are just stupid women blathering on about how wonderful their kids are and woe is me how hard mothering can be and oh they should try getting out in the real world if they want to see hard. and that just pisses me off, because what it comes down to is the idea that if something isn't in the public sphere it's not valid, which is a bunch of bullshit. if only two people see a beautiful painting, is it not beautiful?

i think this is partially a failing of modern feminism (hello again, unsafe territory!). i know that the first step of second wave (60s and 70s) feminism was getting women out of the home, getting equal pay, equal opportunities, etc. but saying "staying home with the kids is for suckers! we want to be out in the world, doing important work!" made it so: staying at home with the kids was for suckers, and only work done outside the home, for money, was important.

now, before my stepmom gets in the car to come down here and smack some sense in to me, let me say: thank you, second wave feminists. we have choices. we have stay-at-home dads. we have female CEOs. we are free to be you and me. life would truly suck if the women's movement hadn't done their thing. (and i might not be such a blissed out sahm if being a sahm was a given rather than a choice, like it was back in the day, since lord knows there's nothing i hate more than being told what to do.) but! we also still have people clinging to the idea that staying at home with your child is a "sacrifice" and something to "regret".

and maybe another part of the problem is that there does exist this holier-than-thou picture of the sahm—it's better for the kids, you should love every second you spend with your children or you're a bad mom, etc. and so some women try to adhere to to the "ideal" even though they realize after a few months (weeks, whatever) that being a sahm is not for them. and then they do go kinda crazy, and get really frustrated, and, in venting their frustrations, perpertuate the idea that being a sahm is something done with many reservations. to which i say: then don't do it! go back to work! but don't slam being a sahm just cause it's not for you.

i love being home with wile. but i didn't quit or take time off from a career i adored to have my baby. i like being at home, puttering around the house. i like being by myself. i'm not all that ambitious. i've always been one for simple pleasures. but that's my story. i know it's not everyone's. but it's mine. and anyone who wants to tell me it's a bad story can fuck straight off. i hope all mothers can say the same.


Anonymous said...

yes mother told me i would be bored shitless after like 2 months if i decided to be a stay at home mom. we'll see.
one thing troubles me on each side of the equation.
on the "whoa we're feminists and now we can work in the office" side: the expansion of opportunties for women outside the home has not yet translated into a wholesale revision of the traditional division of labor within the home except in the most exceptional and progressive of households. by going to work outside the home, feminists may have won one battle but also incurred a double burden in which many professional women are now responsible for job tasks both at home and in the office. women, even professional women, still do the vast majority of cleaning, cooking, laundry, and child rearing in this country. (and this is one of the primary problems with these microenterprise loan problems that are so popular with non-profits and int'l development organizations. great idea to empower women in developing countries, but for many women, having an independent source of income means a full additional set of responsibilities and a loan to pay off and isn't as empowering as we might have hoped since most men aren't stepping in to share the burden at home).
however, on the flip side of being a sahm: i don't give a rats ass about "wasting my education" or some bullshit thing like that. who's wasting what? as if shaping a future person/citizen/spouse/friend isn't important or intellectually stimulating or something...however, at the end of the day, there is still something to be said about economic autonomy. in some really progressive households, it may only be semantics, but control over money (which is fundamentally controlled by he or she who earns it) ultimately still entails power. in our society, it's probably not so overt in many households, but a power differential still remains as long as one partner earns money and one does not. this is the only part that i can't quite reconcile with my desire to be a sahm...i would ultimately have to forfeit equality of power in a relationship. (and yes women still tend to earn less than men, but if i earned and he earned, then at least we're approximating equality of contribution and therefore approaching equal power in the relationship).


hey mama said...

agreed: yes, definitely, money = power. and the place that feminism has led us to now obviously isn't working: in the end, men haven't given up ALL that much power, and women have ended up trying to live up to unrealistic ideals. (funny (or not) that we're supposed to be so enlightened and progressive over here in the first world yet we're still having the same problems as the struggling third-world mothers: men not stepping in to share the burden at home....) so i can't think that the solution is simply that women continue to go back to work 3 months after having a baby and fight for more rights for working moms, better maternity leave, better daycare, etc., cause a) that fight doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, and b) there will always be men who can work longer hours (most likely because their wives are sahms!) and make working moms look bad by raising the expectations of what a "good" employee looks like.

so i think that the only real solution is a total shift in how we look at work and family in our society; that raising the kids/taking care of the home is given equal importance/validity/status with working outside the home, and that we all stop working so damn much. that a 60-hour work week isn't considered normal. that there's maternity leave and paternity leave, that part-time work and job-sharing become accepted and easy to do. that, you know, we become a little more european.... and maybe this is hopelessly unrealistically idealistic, especially since i don't think all the christian-family-values-red-state americans would be down with it. but what we're doing? isn't working.

Anonymous said...

yeah i'm still trying to figure out how to relocate to paris permanently so i can get a sexy pied-a-terre and subsist on baguettes, fresh goat cheese, nectarines, and those cute little quiche things they have at the bakery while valuing my leisure time and the sheer pleasure of savoring life.
alternatively i have been considering a switch to a career in competitive eating.

Terra said...

I had no idea that this heated debate was going on out there in the blogosphere. While I don't really want to get into the debate itself other than to say that I'm so glad my husband has a flexible work schedule that allows him to spend two half days and one full day with our daughter, and I wish I could do the same.

What really strikes me about this debate, though, is how quick mothers (and maybe parents in general) are to criticize each other. I think it's because raising children comes with a very steep learning curve, so we're all struggling to come up with the best solutions. We then look for validation for the choices we've made, and if someone else has made another choice, we're quick to question them. I am going to make a concious effort to back off. I think you're completely right that we each have our own story, and things work or don't work for us and our babies for different reasons.

I took birthing classes with Amy Sohn.

hey mama said...

i catch myself dogging other moms' choices sometimes too and try really hard not too.... i think you're dead-on about the reasons why it happens so often.

and more importantly, you took birthing classes with amy sohn??!! any dirt?

Terra said...

That convo is better in person.

mad said...

It is a battle. I'm neither a working mom, nor stay at home mom - hell, I'm not a mom, since I don't have a child - BUT, sadly that doesn't stop me from making snap judgments about either/both groups.

I see it in my profession all the time. Women lawyers hate when other women lawyers get pregnant b/c it either perpetuates the urban-legend that women are only lawyers for so long, before they leave the field and become sahm, thereby screwing the rest of us b/c the men lawyers at the top refuse to give any us the good deals since we're only going to leave to raise babies anyway.

OR the flip-side, women lawyers work until midnight every night, even when they're 9 months pregnant, pop the baby out and are back at work in 3 weeks (Weeks, not months!) while a nanny raises their kids, to prove that they're not "sacrificing" their career. And then - then they're the "ball buster" "man-eating" attorney that no one wants to work with.

And I wonder - is either one happy? Both are making "choices" - but I highly doubt either wants to choose the option in front of them. Both are likely trying to live up to an ideal, an insurmountable concept of what a "good mom" or "good lawyer" is. Death by firing squad or electric chair.

And you know what? Sadly, I don't know where I fall in. I want to be BOTH. I think I CAN be both. And yet when it comes down to it ... I don't know that that's truly and honestly possible until the male/female dichotomy/dynamic changes. And until then, I'll do my best to try and not judge.

casey said...

I've come across a lot of this debate on places like livejournal, and not even in mothering-related forums or boards. Not being a mom at all, I tend to stay out of it, but I just wanted to "bravo!" once or twice, because you make excellent points and otherwise say everything I would have said, but much more succinctly. You rock.

If and when the time comes, I know which side of the fence I fall on, and if anybody wants to judge a woman for doing what she's both comfortable with and feels is right for her child and life, they can fuck right off. Indeed.