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Playground Revolution

An interview with Miriam Peskowitz,
author of “The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars”

Introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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I’ve spent the last seven years daydreaming about what motherhood could look and feel like in a more enlightened society, so naturally I’ve paid close attention to the so-called “Mommy Wars”— you know, those caustic verbal beat-downs that pit “full time” at-home moms against mothers who work for pay. I won’t try to tell you that such mother-on-mother viciousness is a figment of your imagination, or suggest it’s the wholesale invention of TV talk show hosts who want to boost their ratings. It really happens, it’s really ugly, and you can find its scattered shrapnel it in the most unexpected places (Amazon reader reviews of almost anything in the “mother lit” genre are a surprisingly rich source).

What’s going on here? I wondered. If this is a war, who is in command? What are the stakes, and who are its casualties? Why does this long-standing cultural anomaly— by all accounts, the Mommy Wars have been knocking around for at least 25 years— still have traction as a red hot media topic, when it’s nearly impossible to find serious press coverage of real motherhood issues? And what does all this have to do with resistance to women’s progress and half-changed ideas about women, work and family?

Being the perennial egghead, I went in search of documentation. I compiled a thick dossier. I spread out all my papers and tried to make sense of it. And I arrived at the conclusion that: a) the media and marketing industries did not create the “mom v. mom” phenomenon— at least not entirely— although they definitely play a role in keeping it alive in the public mind; and b) the longevity of the Mommy Wars— and the primal fear that keeps them going— has almost nothing to do with disagreements between individual mothers about the superiority of different work-life solutions, and almost everything to do with the inevitable conflict between progressive ideals— including feminist ideals— and the radically conservative values of the nation’s power elite. In the Mommy Wars, defending the status quo is the objective, women are the target, and mothers and children are the biggest losers.

Recent books on the motherhood problem have all, in one way or another, assessed the harmful fallout from this ideological collision. Joan Williams’ Unbending Gender illustrates how it plays out in the high-performance workplace, and Ann Crittenden calculated the toll it takes on mothers’ economic security in The Price of Motherhood. Daphne de Marneffe and Janna Malamud Smith discuss how it invades the inner lives of mothers, and Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels study how it bubbles up in popular culture as “The Mommy Myth.” In Dispatches from A Not So Perfect Life and Mother Shock, Faulkner Fox and Andrea Buchanan write evocatively about their personal experience of the clash between new possibilities for women and cultural and structural forces that press mothers back into outmoded gender roles. In her vitally important new book, "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes A Good Mother" (Seal Press, April 2005), Miriam Peskowitz looks at what’s happening to mothers and fathers at ground level— at work, at home, in neighborhoods— and what they are doing, both individually and collectively, to break through the impasse. “The truth behind Mommy Wars,” she writes, “is that in real life mothers are casting about for lives that feel sane and safe, and we need more help than we’re getting.”

Peskowitz interviewed a diverse cross-section of parents— white parents and parents of color, middle-class and low-income mothers, at-home moms, mothers working full or part-time in professional and service occupations, single parent women, welfare mothers, activist mothers, young mothers and mid-life moms, and many fathers. “What they all have in common,” Peskowitz writes, “is that today’s mothers and fathers are caught between cultural assumptions of an egalitarian society and a cultural reality that is not exactly egalitarian. This is the parent problem, the contradiction that is hard to name. The parent problem is not a working-mom problem or a stay-at-home-mom problem… The parent problem is a serious structural problem. It’s a remnant of an economy that saw men as central and ideal workers and relegated women to supporting roles at home.”

As the book’s title suggests, Peskowitz offers a skillful dissection of the Mommy Wars in past and present manifestations, and along the way she draws attention to the fact that simplistic stereotypes of mothers always have a discreet cultural origin and, very often, a political purpose. Peskowitz also describes the process of her own awakening to the “parent problem” when she quit her job as a newly tenured professor to be at home with her baby daughter. “As a feminist daughter, I had just smashed into two limits: first, the end of an identity built so thoroughly around work and public success, and second, the limits of our society's toleration of our liberation: we can be liberated as women but not yet, entirely, as mothers.” Peskowitz applied her perspective as a feminist scholar to understanding the broader social context of her personal dilemma— and happily for the rest of us, she weaves these insights into her deeply intelligent and exceptionally compassionate book, a book about how mothers and fathers are managing in a society in which productive work of care and caregiving is treated as a private concern rather than a collective responsibility, and where we need to go from here to make a better world for families, and a fairer world for mothers.

Peskowitz calls for a “playground revolution,” a new movement for social change that she believes will take place on both micro and macro levels. It begins when we acknowledge and address the disconnect between what is and what is possible for mothers, fathers and families as a social issue— first in our own heads and hearts, then in our neighborhoods and communities. And if we simply continue moving outward, we will almost inevitably create a more humane and just society. In The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, Peskowitz affirms that this revolution is already underway— and that no matter who we are or what our lives look like, we can each hold a piece of it: “Women, men, and groups of concerned parents are getting together to make change for the better… They’re taking their insights and skills and they’re tending the home and looking outward, too, from their small corners of the world to make things better for others… They talk openly about what’s wrong, about specific ways to make family life better and their own lives as mothers and fathers a bit better. Small acts matter. They expand our consciousness; they create more visible space for family life that’s integrated with work; they acknowledge the work it takes to build and nurture a family. They show other families what change is possible when people start thinking about life with their kids in tow.”

In the following interview with the MMO, author Miriam Peskowitz shares more of her thoughts on motherhood, feminism, the parent problem and the value of small acts of resistance.

MMO: You’ve devoted most of your working life to formal scholarship— your previous books examine the intersection between religion and gender— when and why did you decide to write about motherhood as a social issue? Do you feel there is any continuity between your earlier works and The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars? And why did you choose the framework of the Mommy Wars as a starting point?

Miriam Peskowitz: I worked as a professor until my daughter was born. In the book I tell the story of leaving my job and leaving behind tenure. My university was an eight-hour drive from where my husband and I lived. It was all too much, so I ending up as a stay at home mom, at least for those first few years. When my daughter was young, I taught a few courses here and there. In those few moments I could scrounge for writing, I would set out to draft a book I’d been working on about religion in America. But what really happened is that I’d open my journal and type in anecdotes and insights about motherhood. It was all so new. Even though I had a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies, I felt like I knew nothing about how gender really works in our society. You have to see what becoming a mother does to you, you have to walk into stores and see the pink clothes on one side and the blue on the other, separated by an aisle in between, you have to hear the silly stereotypes people tell you about boys and girls to truly understand how deep gender goes in our society, and the many ways that these divisions are ingrained in our children.

Once I became a mother, motherhood was the social issue that vexed me the most. I loved being with my daughter. I was thrilled by my new life as a mother. And I couldn’t believe the social price I was being asked to pay to incorporate her into my life. I had heard so many mothers talk about motherhood and its frustrations, and their visions for what would make life better. Mothers and fathers at the playground often have very sophisticated answers for what will improve life for women, men and families, but as I write in the book, CNN never comes down to the playground. My daughter started pre-K, in a full day program, and it was time for me to figure out a new phase of mixing motherhood and paid work. It was clear to me what I wanted to write, and once I had the time, I wrote with real urgency.

In one sense, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars is a jump into a new pond for me. Even as a professor, I was interested in good writing, in audience, and in melding personal interests and stories with ideas and research. And my academic training and writing gave me solid explanatory frameworks to make subtle points about women and work. That’s really the big connection. I think professors get a bad rap these days. People think they’re boring and dull and removed from real life, and sometimes they are. They forget that what we bring to the motherhood-and-feminism table is an ability to do research and an ability to take different kinds of evidence and pull it together into a new story.

Credit for the Mommy Wars framework goes to Leslie Miller, my editor at Seal. Here’s the backstory. Leslie’s son was sick, and she was home taking care of him, and very uncharacteristically switched on the TV and found the Dr. Phil episode “Mom vs. Mom” that I write about it in the book. That’s the episode where Dr. Phil puts the working moms on one side of the room, the at home moms on the other, and despite the fact that the conversation that ensued more cooperative and supportive, edited and cut to make it into a Mommy Wars scene. The episode infuriated her. As an editor, her response was that a book needed to be published that dismantled the Mommy Wars. She was all fired up about it. Later that week she happened to be traveling to NY. She met my agent for coffee, and learned about my book, which was then in a very different form. Leslie and I had several conversations, in which we really thought together about all the pieces of a “big book” on the politics of motherhood. To give credit where it’s due, it was Leslie’s editorial suggestion to start with the mommy wars. We worked very closely together on this book. Leslie’s a mother, and was pregnant with her second child while I was writing the book. At the beginning of our work together, Leslie was working part time, but primarily identifying herself as a working mother. Just as I was finishing, Leslie resigned her job at Seal, and was looking ahead to some time as a stay at home mom. I was starting to work much more. Together, we really had empathy with all the decisions that parents make.

I am so tired of seeing the media treat motherhood as a female style issue

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