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."

Part-time arrangements are also becoming more common, even in professions where anything less than a 60-hour week was once frowned upon. Jennifer Braceras, a 32-year-old attorney with a major law firm in Boston, has been working a three-day week ever since her older daughter was born two years ago. (In February, she went on maternity leave, on generous terms provided by the firm, after having her second child.) While part-time work is theoretically viewed by the firm as a transition back to full-time work, there is no rigid timetable: Braceras plans to stay on a reduced workload until the children are in college.

"I knew that I didn't want to work full-time after I had children," she says. "For me, the ideal balance was always to have a professional life and time for my children. I need to be with my family more than I'm at work, and this way I'm at work three days a week and at home four days a week, so I'm comfortable with that." Braceras is also comfortable with the knowledge that she is unlikely to become a partner in her law firm. Would any government program have enabled her to achieve parity with colleagues, male and female, who are not on the "mommy track"? No, says Braceras, because she would never have availed herself of any program that would have allowed her to be away from her children more.

To complicate things further, some mothers who are nominally not in the labor force may be giving more time to non-domestic pursuits than some part-time workers. A 1998 New York Times Magazine profile of Elizabeth Munro, a corporate lawyer who had given up her career to raise three children, pointed out that "the '90s-style stay-at-home mother is not even home all that much." Munro was a dedicated amateur athlete as well as a busy volunteer serving on the town planning board—at one time, she had chaired the board, putting in 15 to 20 hours a week—and working with charitable and educational organizations. Not surprisingly, she had paid childcare help.

Men's lives are changing too. Both feminists and conservatives are inclined to dismiss the New Dad as a creature of wishful thinking, but father care is hardly fictional or marginal. According to the Census Bureau, nearly one in four fathers in two-earner families provide childcare while the mother is at work, and nearly one in five are the primary caregivers (which adds up to about 2 million men). With nearly one in three working wives now outearning their husbands, more couples who believe that one parent should remain at home may decide that it should be the father. True "full-time dads" are still rare, and they still labor under a cloud of suspicion that they are slackers; but quite a few fathers avail themselves of broader opportunities to work from home.

One of them is Debra Ross' husband David, a mathematician working in the research department of Eastman Kodak Co., who switched to part-time, home-based work after their daughter was born. Ross stresses that he does not simply "help out" with the baby but is "a full partner" in child-rearing.

Brian Carnell, 31, a freelance writer and Web site designer who also works in data processing for Western Michigan University, has consciously scaled down his career ambitions since the birth of his daughter Emma, now 3, and made family his top priority. His 29-year-old wife Lisa is completing her master's degree in medieval history at WMU, where she also has a half-time secretarial job and team-teaches a course.

One of Carnell's chief goals at present, he says, is to work out an arrangement that would allow him more time at home when they have their next child. This is not part of some politically correct effort to transcend gender roles; in fact, both Brian and Lisa have often battled political correctness, including radical feminism, on campus. But conservative dogma about the nature of motherhood and fatherhood also leaves them cold. "It's really the same argument—there's only one proper way to have a family," says Brian Carnell. "For Al Gore it's spending $5 billion a year on universal preschool. For many conservatives, it's a strict sexual separation of labor: Women take care of the kids, men go out and earn the money. Both forget that few people fit strictly into these molds. I know that if Lisa had stayed home with Emma and I tried to go out and be the traditional breadwinner, the result would have been a disaster. Families really aren't one-size-fits-all."

Biological differences between the sexes may be real enough to ensure that there are always going to be more women who put hands-on child rearing ahead of career ambition (and more men who see breadwinning as the key part of their parental responsibility). But, given individual variability among men and women, it is likely that the proportion of men taking the "daddy track" will rise—and that the marketplace will adjust to this change, just as it has adapted to the presence of working mothers.

Is there any evidence that dual-earner families are bad for children? On the whole, no. A mother's employment, for instance, does not seem to reduce the time school-age children spend interacting with parents, in part because these children get more attention from their fathers. In a large study of 10- to 13-year-olds published in Child Development in 1994, parents in two-income households actually spent more time doing homework with their children. The same year, the Child Trends research group issued a report showing that mothers who work (especially part-time) are more likely than full-time homemakers to volunteer at their children's schools, attend Parent-Teacher Association meetings, and go to class plays or varsity games.

Whether preschool children are at a disadvantage when both parents work remains a hotly contested question in social science as well as public-policy debates, with charges of political bias flying back and forth. There is no question that feminists, childcare advocates, and their supporters in the media are much too quick to seize on any data that can be reported under a headline like "The Kids Are All Right"—such as the Developmental Psychology study mentioned above, or an earlier major study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which received the same enthusiastic treatment on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Even in these studies, there is evidence that children who spend a lot of time in daycare in their first year of life have somewhat worse relationships with their mothers—at least if the mother had not been very warm and responsive to begin with.

The daycare cheerleaders are also prone to ignore other research that shows a slight but consistent increase in psychological and behavioral problems among children who were in non-maternal care as infants.

But critics are just as likely to err on the side of alarmism and ignore the good news: for instance, that children's cognitive and emotional development is far more affected by the home environment than by daycare. Clearly, what such findings suggest is not that "parents don't matter"—the message conservatives often impute to any report giving non-parental childcare a clean bill of health—but that even when parents aren't there all the time, they still matter a great deal. And, as will often happen, neither side is above playing fast and loose with facts and figures.

Consider the reaction to the Developmental Psychology study that was so widely hailed as an antidote to working-mother guilt. Conservatives correctly cautioned that there were serious problems with applying this study's conclusions to the general population: the data, collected by University of Massachusetts (Amherst) psychologist Elizabeth Harvey, came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which included a large sample of younger-than-average mothers disproportionately likely to be unmarried, uneducated, and poor.

In a column for Investor's Business Daily, Diane Fisher, the IWF-affiliated psychologist, suggested that maternal employment might have positive effects for children in such circumstances, while married, middle-income mothers would probably do their children more good by staying home. Yet other NLSY-based reports, published in the Journal of Family Issues in 1993 and 1995 by North Carolina State University sociologist Theodore Greenstein, show that middle-class children are less likely to suffer when their mothers work. Greenstein found that, except in the lowest-income groups, children of continuously employed mothers had the fewest behavioral problems—and children of women with good occupational prospects tended to fare worse, socially and academically, if their mothers dropped out of the workforce for an extended period of time.

Ironically, some conservatives have also invoked equally flawed data to make the case against working mothers. In one such diatribe in National Review, Maggie Gallagher cited a 1991 study by Jay Belsky and David Eggebeen that found that 3- and 4-year-olds were more disobedient if their mothers had worked full-time in their first two years. Apart from the fact—unmentioned by Gallagher—that the difference was very slight, the sample in that study was actually less representative than in Harvey's: Nearly two-thirds of the mothers had given birth before the age of 22, and fewer than one in seven had ever attended college.

In other instances, both critics and defenders of working mothers have used the same weak or misreported research to bolster their views. One notorious example is the overhyped doctrine, persuasively debunked in John Bruer's recent book The Myth of the First Three Years, that if a child doesn't get the right kind of mental stimulation before the age of 3, the neural "circuitry" of the brain will fail to develop properly and forever remain impaired. (Crucial brain development does occur in the first three years, but it takes very severe deprivation to stunt normal growth.) Of course, the First Three Years theory was picked up by some—including Hillary Clinton—to argue that the federal government must promote "quality" childcare, and by others to argue that mothers must stay home and devote themselves to tending their children's brains.

Indeed, the lack of "quality" daycare is another pseudo-fact bandied about by both sides. Susan Chira, Hillary Clinton, and other advocates of more government involvement in childcare wring their hands over studies supposedly showing that 80 percent of daycare in the U.S. is woefully inadequate (while simultaneously insisting that children in daycare are doing fine). Gallagher and other champions of full-time motherhood predictably use this as proof that daycare is hazardous to children. But such traditionalists forget to mention that the same research gives the lowest marks to childcare by relatives—the kind that conservatives generally find the least objectionable, and that most parents prefer—and the highest to government-regulated centers.

Is this research accurate? Actually, the studies in question, by the Families and Work Institute and by scholars at the University of Colorado, suffer from the familiar problem of demographically unrepresentative sampling. Most of the relatives and unregulated home-based care providers were poor; nearly half had never earned a high school diploma. It's hardly surprising that the environment they created for their little charges did not meet the standards of child development experts; the children's parents probably wouldn't have fared much better. (Whether the negative assessments reflect middle-class bias or actual bad childcare—or both—is another question.)

On the other hand, when the NICHD looked at a more typical population, it came up with far more positive results: 70 percent to 80 percent of 6-month-olds with working mothers were receiving good or excellent care, and less than five percent were in low-quality daycare. Moreover, care by fathers and grandparents was found to be best, followed by home-based childcare—while daycare centers came in last.

In her 1997 Cato Institute paper "The Advancing Nanny State: Why the Government Should Stay Out of Childcare," Darcy Olsen, now director of education and child policy at Cato, debunks the notion of a childcare crisis in America. Her well-documented conclusions belie panic-mongering left and right. While Hillary Clinton laments in It Takes a Village that our childcare system "looks more like a patchwork quilt than a security blanket," Olsen argues that a heterogeneous childcare market works well, "reflecting the diversity of its buyers." While Danielle Crittenden warns in a 1997 Weekly Standard article that "in the debate over national childcare, the advocates of an expanded government role are tapping into a pulsing vein of parental dread and dissatisfaction," Olsen shows that about nine out of 10 working parents are satisfied with their childcare arrangements.

The clear-cut preference of most working parents for childcare by relatives or in family-like settings is routinely ignored or disparaged by daycare advocates. Conservatives occasionally bring up this fact when they criticize liberal schemes for universal daycare—but somehow forget all about it when they lament that, with so many mothers in the workforce, children are being "warehoused" with uncaring strangers.

No one trusts mother and father to know best. Liberals think parents just don't know enough to understand what's good for their kids. (As Hillary Clinton once put it, "A lot of times they don't know what is quality.") Conservatives think parents are deluding themselves to alleviate their guilt—or, worse yet, that they just don't care enough.

Of course, studies and statistics cannot and do not capture the reality of what happens between parents and children. The reality, as Brian Carnell, the freelance writer and Web designer, recognizes, is that one size does not fit all. Some children have probably benefitted from having a mother at home, while others thrive in dual-career families. Certainly, neglected children whose parents are too busy with their careers are hardly a myth. Such parents deserve to be stigmatized, though some pro-working mother commentators are reluctant to do so. (In A Mother's Place, Susan Chira claims that a woman she knows, who gets home from work just in time to chat with her daughter for about half an hour as the child is drifting off to sleep, still manages to be a wonderful mother.)

But most working mothers and many fathers make plenty of compromises and accommodations to ensure that their children get enough attention and affection. The problem is an either/or mentality, such as radio psychologist Laura Schlessinger growling at a mother-to-be who plans to work from home, "Why don't you just get a pet?" The real issue is not exactly, "Should a mother work or not?" says Debra Ross. It's "What is successful childrearing?"

The habit of treating work and motherhood as an either/or proposition shows up even among conservatives who seem to know better. In her 1997 book The Assault on Parenthood, Dana Mack writes that what she calls New Familism is found less in a return to full-time mothering than in "increasingly inventive ways parents combine work and parenting"—such as telecommuting and tag-team arrangements between fathers and mothers working different shifts. Elsewhere in the book, however, Mack champions the ideal of full-time motherhood, insists on the necessity of sex-based parental roles, and even chides policy analyst William Galston, who is by Mack's admission "a notable defender of the family." Galston's heresy? Taking the view that a modern family policy "must accommodate the 'right' of women to participate in the workforce."

There is nothing new about the involvement of mothers in market labor, or about extensive non-parental childcare. In agricultural societies, women were always engaged in economically vital work, with childcare spread among the extended family (the "village" of the African proverb that Hillary Clinton redefines to include social workers and federal bureaucrats). As late as 1920, report Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg in Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (1989), the typical farm wife put in workdays of up to 11 hours, not counting childcare. In the cities, the wives of shopkeepers and artisans were once partners in the family business. Large numbers of working-class mothers worked outside the home, often raising the children of the middle- and upper-classes. Even women who had the means to devote themselves to motherhood resorted to childcare arrangements that would make child psychologists weep. In 18th-century England, the future novelist Jane Austen and her seven siblings—children of an Oxford-educated country vicar—were placed in the care of a peasant family as infants, and remained there until they were about 3 years old.

Obviously, just because certain practices were common in the past doesn't mean they are good. In Enemies of Eros (1989), Maggie Gallagher asserts that before the modern emphasis on the mother-child bond, childhood was a dreary, brutal experience. While she probably overstates the horrors, it is a valid point. On the other hand, it may be no accident that the modern preoccupation with family "dysfunction" and with the psychic injuries parents inflict on children—a trend Mack deplores in The Assault on Parenthood—started when intense parental attachment became the primary vocation of wives and mothers. What's more, even as the equality of the sexes was gaining wider acceptance, women's loss of their role as producers may have diminished their status, as some authors have argued. The more work came to be seen as the fulfillment of human potential, the more participation in the marketplace came to be seen as liberating for women; such attitudes were already on the rise when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

Proponents of stay-at-home motherhood such as Danielle Crittenden often deride the idea of jobs as "fulfilling," pointing out that few women (or men) have interesting, meaningful jobs; that women lawyers, for example, are vastly outnumbered by bookkeepers and receptionists. It goes without saying that such occupational distinctions are highly arguable. But there's no question that this attitude is as elitist as the feminist tendency to project the values and motives of upper-middle-class professional women onto all women. In fact, about two-thirds of working mothers in various studies say they enjoy their work. "Women who worked long hours for minimum wage…took pride in their ability to hold down a job," writes researcher Beverly Burris in Social Science Quarterly.

In her Washington Post Magazine story about mothers and work, Tracy Thompson tells the story of Ana Kinney, a hairdresser, the mother of two young children, and a reluctant primary breadwinner since her husband's business venture had folded. Kinney was very upset about spending too little time at home when her younger daughter was born; yet she was not longing simply to go back to the nest. When asked what her ideal life would be like, she had a ready answer: working at the hair salon a couple of days a week and running a bridal consulting business from home. The working-class daughter of Cuban immigrants and a woman unlikely to be swayed by political correctness, she nonetheless told Thompson that she couldn't imagine home and motherhood as a full-time job.

Both feminists and conservatives believe—obviously, from very different perspectives—that the large-scale entry of women into the marketplace inevitably leads to pressures for expanded government services. But despite the rhetoric of politicians, there has been little such pressure at the grass roots, to the chagrin of the Hillary Clintons and the Betty Friedans. Instead of demanding government-run daycare, many working parents are circumventing the government altogether by relying on unlicensed caregivers, or even knowingly placing children with home-care providers who violate certain regulations (such as limits on the number of children who can be in the home at one time) but whom they personally trust.

Notably, too, family-friendly workplaces in America are not being created by government fiat but by companies anxious to retain good workers—and, rather embarrassingly for progressives, the resistance to these policies often comes from labor unions. Dana Friedman, a senior advisor with Bright Horizons, a company that provides worksite childcare and corporate consulting on family issues, says that non-unionized workplaces tend to offer far more "work-life benefits," such as flextime and telecommuting opportunities, than unionized ones.

Of course, any policy changes that would let families keep more of their earnings would help parents, though it's unlikely that such steps would entice many women to go home. (The Reagan tax cuts in the 1980s had precisely the opposite effect, by spurring job growth and reducing marginal tax rates on two-income couples.) So would policies promoting real flexibility in the workplace, such as Republican-backed legislation that would allow employees to trade extra overtime pay for extra time off—an arrangement forbidden under current federal law. Though the Republicans are clearly more at home with a family model based on Leave It to Beaver, such measures are clearly based on the understanding that combining work and child rearing is part of the new reality.

Full-time child rearing, whether for short or extended periods, will always remain an option—though perhaps a less gender-specific one. But what is far more important is that a more dynamic and flexible marketplace will continue to create new choices for both men and women, often blurring the lines between work and home. In a generation or two, most people may find the polarization between "working moms" and "stay-at-home moms" as meaningless as such young entrepreneurs as Debra Ross do now.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young (CathyYoung1@cs.com) is the author of Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (The Free Press).