The Mommy War Ma­chine

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By E.J. Graff

You see the mag­a­zine il­lus­tra­tion: two women glar­ing at each other, about to take a swing with their satchels — one a brief­case, the other a di­a­per bag. And you know right away what’s com­ing: an­other “Mommy Wars” story, a juicy tale of moth­ers who work and moms who stay home, diss­ing each other on play­grounds and in school park­ing lots with ju­nior-high-level bile.

This trend story has been run­ning for a gen­er­a­tion. Just this month, the latest salvo — Les­lie Ben­netts’s book “The Fem­i­nine Mis­take,” a call-to-work warn­ing women about the long-term costs of stay­ing at home — hit the shelves with a bang, set­ting off an­other round of news sto­ries, talk shows and cy­berspace de­bates about the progress on the bat­tle­front.

But I’ve got news for you: This is a war that isn’t.

The bal­ly­hooed Mommy Wars ex­ist mainly in the minds — and the mar­ket­ing ma­chines — of the me­dia and pub­lish­ing

in­dus­try, which have been churn­ing out mom vs. mom news flashes since, be­lieve it or not, the 1950s. All while the num­ber of work­ing moth­ers has been ris­ing.

Here are the facts: Since 2000, the per­cent­age of work­ing moth­ers with in­fants has held steady at 53.5 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a Fe­bru­ary re­port from the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics. When they can af­ford it, mar­ried women with in­fants take ma­ter­nity leaves of a year or so, but then head steadily back to work: 75 per­cent of moth­ers with school-age chil­dren are on the job. Most work be­cause they have to. And most of their stay-at-home peers don’t hold it against them.

But that doesn’t stop the me­dia ma­chine. Whether or not William Ran­dolph Hearst ever re­ally said “You sup­ply the pic­tures, I’ll sup­ply the war,” ev­ery­one knows that a war, any war, is good for the news busi­ness. The Mommy Wars sell news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, TV shows and ra­dio broad­casts, as moth­ers ev­ery­where seize on the sub­ject and ag­o­nize, in spite of them­selves. “Ev­ery other week there’s an ar­ti­cle say­ing that if you don’t work, you’re in trou­ble fi­nan­cially, and if you do work, your child is at risk,” a sin­gle mother of three who works part time told me. An es­pe­cially in­flam­ma­tory ar­ti­cle or episode can in­crease Web site hits, achieve “most e-mailed” sta­tus, drag more ou­traged view­ers or lis­ten­ers to the phone lines and burn a me­dia brand more deeply into con­sumers’ minds.

That’s be­cause mid­dle- and up­per-mid­dle-class women are a de­mo­graphic that re­sponds well to anx­i­ety, says Caryl Rivers, au­thor of “Sell­ing Anx­i­ety: How the News Me­dia Scare Women.” She sees the Mommy Wars as “the in­tel­lec­tual ver­sion of ‘Thin Thighs in 30 Days.’ ” Tell women that work­ing will dam­age their mar­riages, harm their health and ruin their chil­dren, and they will buy your mag­a­zine, click on your Web site, blog about your episode and write end­less let­ters to the ed­i­tor. They may do so out of fury, anx­i­ety, scorn or an earnest de­sire to cor­rect your sta­tis­ti­cal er­rors — but if your goal is to in­crease your hit rate or im­press your ed­i­tor, pro­ducer or pub­lisher with some­thing that’s widely dis­cussed, where’s the down­side?

All the above was ac­com­plished by some of the most no­to­ri­ous Mommy Wars ar­ti­cles, which, in re­cent years, have ap­peared in the elite tri­umvi­rate of the New York Times, the At­lantic and the New Yorker. That list in­cludes “The OptOut Revo­lu­tion” by Lisa Belkin, a 2003 Times Mag­a­zine cover story that looked at a hand­ful of Prince­ton grads who (un­like most of their peers) left de­mand­ing jobs to stay at home with their chil­dren; Caitlin Flana­gan’s gloat­ing pot­shots at work­ing moms, es­pe­cially “How Serf­dom Saved the Women’s Move­ment” in the At­lantic in March 2004 and “To Hell with All That” in the New Yorker in July 2004; and an ar­ti­cle on the New York Times’s front page on Sept. 20, 2005, that re­peated that many women at elite col­leges were opt­ing for moth­er­hood over ca­reers.

Each of th­ese gar­nered enor­mous buzz, as we say in the me­dia biz. Belkin’s piece was the most e-mailed Times ar­ti­cle of the year. It drew so many ou­traged and lauda­tory let­ters that the Times ran them for four weeks. The ar­ti­cle was cri­tiqued on al­most ev­ery prom­i­nent me­dia Web site and on­line opin­ion mag­a­zine and was de­bated on count­less e-mail dis­cus­sion groups. Google “The Opt-Out Revo­lu­tion,” and you’ll get more than 42,000 hits. The ar­ti­cle was clearly a re­sound­ing mar­ket­ing suc­cess.

The New York Times is tug­ging at the guilt of the priv­i­leged — and has been for more than half a cen­tury, with “ca­reer women go home” ar­ti­cles dat­ing to 1953. But the less af­flu­ent are just as heav­ily tar­geted by the Mommy Wars mar­ket­ing ma­chine. In a “Dr. Phil” show that aired in Novem­ber 2003, work­ing moms and stayat-home moms were seated on op­po­site sides of the aisle and en­cour­aged to hurl in­sults across the di­vide. The show’s Web site drew 152 pages of com­ments, a joint state­ment of dis­ap­proval from its two fea­tured ex­perts (who in­sisted that their thought­ful dis­cus­sion was mis­lead­ingly edited to look like a fight), and an “Ap­ple Pie in the Face” award from the or­ga­ni­za­tion Moth­ers and More — and the show is still be­ing talked about to­day.

Or con­sider a re­cent “Oprah” show, aired on Jan. 23, called “My Baby or My Job: Why El­iz­a­beth Var­gas Stepped Down.” The show at­tracted nearly 1,500 mes­sages on its Web site de­spite its flatly false premise, as Var­gas still has an im­pres­sive job, even if it’s an­chor­ing “20/ 20” in­stead of the ABC evening news.

Book pub­lish­ers can im­pose this false di­vi­sion as well. Take Les­lie Morgan Steiner’s 2006 book of es­says by moth­ers, a vol­ume she edited ex­plic­itly to bridge mis­un­der­stand­ings be­tween moth­ers at home and those at work. Her own es­says were ti­tled “Our In­ner Cat­fight” and “End­ing the Mommy Wars.” And yet, over her ob­jec­tions, Ran­dom House ti­tled the book “Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Ca­reer Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Fam­i­lies.” Can you say “in­flam­ma­tory”?

Steiner, a Wash­ing­ton Post blog­ger and mag­a­zine ex­ec­u­tive, now says she ac­cepts that the ti­tle (if not the sub­ti­tle) worked to get the book into the hands of those who most needed to read it. “In a mar­ket where 200,000 books are pub­lished a year, and 70,000 alone are pitched to the top three TV morn­ing shows,” she says, that hot-but­ton ti­tle got her on television and snagged na­tion­wide re­views.

Of course, even William Ran­dolph Hearst couldn’t have ginned up a war with­out some nasty facts on the ground. The Mommy Wars con­struct sells be­cause, how­ever dis­torted it is, it does touch a nerve. No mat­ter what choice a work­ing wo­man makes af­ter she has a child, the grass al­ways looks greener on the other side. Daniele Levy is a Mas­sachusetts lawyer who stayed home for a cou­ple of years when her two chil­dren were in­fants. Now she works a four­day week at a nearby law firm. “When I was home full-time, I thought, ‘Wow, look at those women who can make it work,’ ” she said. “ ‘They have their chil­dren and their ca­reers, it must be re­ally great.’ Now I’m work­ing, and I just talked to a friend who’s at home, I’m think­ing, ‘Wow, that’s re­ally fun, that must be re­ally great.’ ”

“We don’t live in a so­ci­ety that has a mind­set that work­ers get preg­nant and have ba­bies,” says Ju­dith Stadt­man Tucker, ed­i­tor of the Web mag­a­zine Moth­ers Move­ment On­line. She points out that moth­ers’ march into the work­force started to plateau in the 1980s — just as child­care costs started ris­ing sharply. At the same time, the work­place has be­come steadily more de­mand­ing, with manda­tory over­time for many who have jobs. Mean­while, the United States no­to­ri­ously lags be­hind all other de­vel­oped na­tions on such poli­cies as paid ma­ter­nity leave, fam­ily sick leave or health care that’s not tied to that one all-con­sum­ing job. Nor has the cul­ture re­lin­quished the idea that car­ing for chil­dren — or for any­one in need — is women’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, with men “help­ing” oc­ca­sion­ally, if asked.

So who can blame women for bat­tling in­ter­nally over how to give their all to both work and baby — a bat­tle the me­dia blow up into a sand­box show­down?

But the con­flict may be near­ing its ex­pi­ra­tion date. In 2006, sev­eral prom­i­nent books on the sub­ject were pub­lished — and sold abysmally, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from Nielsen BookS­can. Only 9,000 copies sold of Caitlin Flana­gan’s widely re­viewed “To Hell With All That: Lov­ing and Loathing Our In­ner House­wife,” in which a wo­man wealthy enough to stay home and have a nanny in­sisted that moth­er­ing from home was the only right way. Only 4,000 copies sold of Linda Hir­sh­man’s “Get to Work: A Man­i­festo for Women of the World,” which ar­gued the op­po­site po­si­tion: that elite women were wast­ing an en­tire gen­er­a­tion’s hu­man cap­i­tal un­less they stayed in am­bi­tious jobs. Could it be that women don’t want to shell out $25 to be told they’re liv­ing in a war zone?

Or could it be that women and men to­day refuse th­ese false choices? Carol Fassino, a mother of three who works part­time, reads all the Mommy Wars ar­ti­cles but shrugs them off. “Ev­ery­body lives a dif­fer­ent life,” she says. “I’m not gonna put down the news­pa­per and go slit my wrists. I know women who work or don’t work or are like me, in the mid­dle. But if peo­ple have felt judg­men­tal, they kept it to them­selves.”

Most women to­day have to work: it’s the only way their fam­i­lies are go­ing to be fed, housed and ed­u­cated. A new col­legee­d­u­cated gen­er­a­tion takes it for granted that women will both work and care for their fam­i­lies — and that men must be an in­te­gral part of their chil­dren’s lives. It’s a gen­er­a­tion that un­der­stands that stay-ath­ome moms and work­ing moth­ers aren’t firmly op­pos­ing philo­soph­i­cal stances but the same women in dif­fer­ent life phases, mov­ing in and out of the part-time and full-time work­force for the few years while their chil­dren are young.

“The mommy wars thing is a lit­tle sim­plis­tic,” con­firms Julie Huck, a 38-yearold work­ing mom with two preschool chil­dren. “It’s all hyped up and a lit­tle silly.” Like Fassino and oth­ers, she longs for a cul­tural shift and fam­ily-friendly poli­cies that al­low ev­ery­one — women and men — to work more flexible hours, with­out ca­reer penal­ties.

Would that end the Mommy Wars? Let’s hope.



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