The Mommy Wars

Why feminists and conservatives just don't get modern motherhood.

If there is a "Mommy War" going on between mothers who go to work and mothers who stay home, Debra Cermele Ross isn't sure on which side she belongs. Ross, 30, is founder and president of Axton Enterprises, a company that provides technology consulting services to mail-order businesses. She became a first-time mother last September. She is her family's primary breadwinner, yet she doesn't think of herself as "working outside the home." Ross' office is attached to her house in Rochester, New York. For part of the day, a nanny comes in to care for her daughter Madison and for Alex, the 18-month-old son of her business partner Carole Ann Price; but except for occasional day trips on business, Ross is never far away.

"I'm amazed that it is still usually presented as this dichotomy--working-outside-the-home mothers vs. stay-at-home mothers," says Ross. Yet in the public debate, the dichotomy lives on, and so does polarization along familiar political lines.

About a year ago, when the journal Developmental Psychology published a study concluding that children do not suffer when their mothers work, virtually everyone followed the usual "Mommy Wars" script. Liberal newspapers like The Washington Post and The Boston Globe put the story on their front pages, under such headlines as "Mothers' Employment Works for Children" and "Study Supports Working Moms." Then, conservatives rushed in to attack the good news. Some argued that the study's validity was compromised by a skewed sample with a disproportionate number of young, low-income single mothers. But the conservative reaction went beyond a methodological critique.

Psychologist Diane Fisher, a board member of the right-of-center Independent Women's Forum, suggested that the positive headlines were dangerous and could have a "life-changing impact" on young children, presumably by encouraging their mothers to stampede to the office. Syndicated columnist Tony Snow accused the press of "dissing at-home moms" while giving selfish yuppie parents carte blanche to "stash their kids in day-care centers ...the way one might board a poodle."

In mainstream liberal opinion, support for full-time mothering is usually equated with naive nostalgia, while working mothers are often portrayed as victims of sexism, culturally imposed guilt, and benighted public policies. Most champions of working women--from the National Organization for Women to Hillary Rodham Clinton to columnist Ellen Goodman--share the assumption that for women to balance careers and motherhood, "society" (read: "government") will have to help out. In a way, their approach hasn't evolved much since Simone de Beauvoir curtly stated in The Second Sex (1948) that in a "properly organized society...children would be largely taken in charge by the community," freeing women from domestic bondage.

The views expressed at a recent New York conference on work and family life, held by the Cornell University Institute on Women and Work, were typical of this liberal feminist consensus. Women's movement matriarch Betty Friedan spoke in favor of "compulsory preschool" for 2-year-olds and deplored the lack of an organized political push for national daycare. (She even suggested that feminists should have demanded an executive order creating such a program from Clinton, in exchange for their loyalty during the presidential sex scandals.) Virtually everyone on the panel shared Friedan's impatience with most Americans' stubborn insistence on treating work-family issues as "personal issues," along with her conviction that women's struggle for equality would not be complete until these misguided attitudes changed.

If feminists go back and forth between depicting working mothers as heroines and as victims, conservatives go back and forth between depicting them as victims forced into the labor force by feminist bullying and high taxes, and as villains who put their personal fulfillment above their children's well-being. In a 1995 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Arizona assistant attorney general Andrew Peyton Thomas castigated career-minded parents who put their children in daycare. Thomas called them "more respectable, less violent versions of Susan Smith," the North Carolina woman who drowned her two sons in a lake because they were interfering with her post-divorce love life.

Perhaps out of deference to contemporary reality, many conservatives hesitate to declare categorically that mothers should not work. Instead, they say that a career should be a matter of free choice, that full-time mothering should be respected and supported through tax cuts, or maybe taxpayer subsidies. But the right's defense of the choice to stay home often morphs into an indictment of mothers who don't make that choice.

Conservative pundit Danielle Crittenden, author of the 1999 book What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, sometimes protests that she does not condemn working mothers but sympathizes with their plight. At other times, however, she takes nasty swipes at women she judges to be in default of their maternal duties, such as Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Jane Swift, who ran for office while expecting her first baby. In 1998, Crittenden subjected the pro-working mother book, A Mother's Place, by journalist Susan Chira, to a startingly ad feminam thrashing in National Review. Her critique boiled down to the charge that Chira was a bad mother who devoted too much time to work: "As I closed this book, I thought of all the months Miss Chira took to write it--months of shutting her door and steeling herself against her children's yearning to be with her." This took some chutzpah, considering that Crittenden, like Chira a mother of two young children, had herself just completed a book.

Of course, concerns about whether the children of dual-career parents receive enough care and attention are not necessarily reactionary. But it's hard not to suspect that some of the anti-working mother rhetoric on the right has less to do with concern about children than with paranoia about the abolition of "natural distinctions" between the sexes--as evidenced by a vitriolic reaction to parental role reversals. In a 1999 column in the Canadian daily The National Post, Crittenden winces at the unmanliness of fathers she watches at a playground fussing over young children and cooing at them in "unnaturally high" voices; she laments that she cannot imagine these New Dads in the role of warrior and suggests that their wives must be secretly yearning for real men. (She does not, however, go as far as Norman Podhoretz, who once opined that "Mr. Moms" were no better than men who deserted their children.)

Thus, both conservatives and liberals ultimately believe that women's and men's personal choices about work and family are secondary to a greater public good--either achieving gender equity or preserving traditional sexual arrangements.

Just how relevant are these debates to most Americans? While surveys show that many people are ambivalent about mothers with young children entering the labor force, respect for individual choices generally seems to win out. In a 1995 Virginia Slims poll, just one in six women and one in five men were willing to express disapproval of mothers working while raising children; one in three explicitly approved, and the rest said that whatever the mother wanted to do was right.

The idea that mothers today have been deprived of the choice to stay home is ridiculous: Slightly more than a third of women with preschool children are not employed and fewer than half work full-time. Undoubtedly, some working mothers can't afford to stay home and would like to quit their jobs. But the conservative notion of working mothers as victims is greatly exaggerated. In a 1997 Pew Research Center poll, only one in four mothers with children under 18 said that given a choice, they wouldn't work outside the home; 29 percent would work full-time and the rest part-time. The majority of full-time mothers and full-time workers alike chose part-time work as their first preference. Other surveys have found that both mothers and fathers would like to reduce the time they spend on the job, generally by the same number of hours.

What's more, like Debra Ross, the Rochester business owner, many women find that the working-mother-vs.-at-home-mother divide does not accurately describe their lives. A few years ago in a Washington Post Magazine article on the Mommy Wars, writer Tracy Thompson noted that while all the women in her support group for new mothers would call themselves stay-at-home moms, six of the eight were working from home as free-lancers or telecommuters. Ross believes that in just the past few years, there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes toward home-based work.

"Six years ago," Ross recalls, "I went to some lengths to conceal the fact that I operate the business out of my home. Now, our clients are enthusiastic, not to say envious, over the way we've constructed the business and the childcare arrangements. More than a few have told us that we've been inspirational for them as they strive to integrate work and family life. We're even seeing more and more of them working from home themselves."

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    1. You did not provide evidence that unions are against family friendly work policies by the fact that unionized workers (only 7% of all workers) have less benefits than nonunionized workers...perhaps where unions remain after large corporate anti-unioinism in the country, there is less equity and perhaps greater support for unions.

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