Recently I’ve been reading Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families which was edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner. The essays delve into the conflict that all mothers seem to face about their child-rearing choices, whether they have made the choice to stay at home, continue their careers, or combine both worlds through part-time work. During my reading, I can’t help but compare how these women have dealt with the issues that I’ve faced during my twelve years as a parent, in my case as one of the “career moms.”
I’ll admit that my guilt over working outside the home has decreased over the years, especially now that all my children are in school full-time. My kids by all accounts are well-adjusted and happy, which goes a long way in reassuring me that my choices haven’t negatively affected my family. That doesn’t mean that I escape the usual situational mommy guilt that comes from not being able to go on every field trip or answer every call for school volunteers. In fact, I just stopped writing to put a new school event on my work calendar, worrying both about making the event and how it would impact my day at work and my ability to get everything done. That doesn’t compare, however, to my response to the sometimes crushing blows from others early in my mothering career.
Throughout my years as a career mother I have been faced on more than one occasion with comments from my co-workers and neighbors, some of whom were childless, some of whom were stay-at-home moms, and some of whom had returned to work after being stay-at-home mothers while their children were young. Two different women commented to me that they had decided to stay home because they didn’t want someone else to “raise their child.” One of these comments was made as I returned to my desk after spending time pumping breast milk for my young son. As I thought of sleepless nights that had gone on for almost a year and of the all out effort I was making to provide him with breast milk while I was away, I wondered how anyone could construe my actions as turning over my responsibility for raising him. In the name of workplace harmony, I made some neutral response to my co-worker’s statement and moved on. I did the same a few months later when a neighbor held forth at length about how another mother, a physician, had decided to close her practice because “she finally realized her children need a full time mother.” I wondered what that made me. A part-time mother? When does that mother switch in the brain turn off? Turn back on? Again, I stayed silent.
My one leap out of silence was probably not my wisest social move. And, really, it wasn’t exactly about my employment status. At neighborhood Bunko night one evening, one of the ladies who was very active in our neighborhood women’s group began soliciting volunteers for the upcoming 4th of July party. In particular she was looking for someone to take on the task of purchasing hamburger meat for the barbeque. I tried to fade into the woodwork, and when asked directly about my willingness to take on the task, I replied that our family would be out of town for the holiday. This was actually the truth as well as a convenient excuse, but it was clearly not enough. As we rotated tables, I found myself playing with the aforementioned volunteer recruiter. She opened her volley with, “I just don’t understand why you don’t want to be more involved in our neighborhood.” The implication was clear, at least to my admittedly somewhat sensitive ears: “If you didn’t work you’d have time to do this.” For some reason, maybe it was the inevitable glass of wine that comes with Bunko games, I didn’t follow my usual silent path. Instead I replied, “You know, I work sixty hours a week at a job that benefits the community; I volunteer at my church and through Junior League, and when I’m not doing that, I do like to spend time with my own children.” All of this would probably have been fine had I not added the last line, “I don’t have time to price hamburger meat.”
That last line is one I’ve regretted for several reasons. First, and maybe foremost, was the small detail that Ms. Volunteer Coordinator ended up being Gym Girl's homeroom mom at school the next year. As another career mom friend of mine said, “You know your kid is getting the smashed cupcake at the next party.” Beyond that, I was greeted with amazement by said homeroom mom each time I darkened the classroom door. “Oh! You were able to get away this time.” On a deeper level, though, I realize that through my statement I had fallen prey to the type of behavior that I claim to despise. How was my condescending comment any different than those made to me about my choice to continue working after having children? Isn’t my making light of her contributions to the neighborhood and community just as bad? We need women who are willing to take on such tasks and do them well. I know countless people benefited from her work, whether she was paid for it or not.
So, the question is, “Why can’t we all just get along?” In the introduction to her book, Leslie Morgan Steiner says her goal is to end the cat fighting among women. The essays go on to show how mothers, despite which individual choices they have made, feel guilt and concern about those choices. Are we spending enough of that rare “quality time” with our kids, are we making valuable contributions to society, are we showing our sons and daughters that women can be independent and make their own choices, even if that choice is to fill a more traditional role?
All of these are questions to be thoughtfully considered, but one recent parenting moment helped make things clear to me. On my way home earlier this week, after having put in a rather full day at work, I was contemplating my afternoon and evening carpooling schedule when a favorite song came on the radio. I began singing along, somewhat distractedly. Soccer Boy asked, “Mom, is that you singing?” The implication that I should probably cease and desist was clear. I joked, “Hey, don’t you like it? Singing is my special talent.” As he giggled at this obvious exaggeration, Gym Girl chimed in, “No, your special talent is being our mom.” As I thanked her through teary eyes, I knew that she was right.