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The Mommy Wars

The Case for a Cease Fire

By Kim Pleticha

It had all of the makings of a train wreck: stay-at-home mothers, working mothers, an angry audience and television cameras. So it came as no surprise, then, when everything exploded into flames only a few minutes after the conductor, Dr. Phil of TV talk show fame, pulled out of the yard. Minutes into the show, otherwise composed mothers dissolved into screaming match, egged on by an audience that actually “meowed” at them.

It was a low moment, even for The Mommy Wars.

Ironically, the Dr. Phil show Mom vs. Mom (the actual title) may have done some good for the so-called “Mommy Wars,” those battles between women over whether to work or stay at home while raising children. Days after the show aired, two of its guests—women usually considered to be on opposing sides of the Mommy Wars—released a joint statement to the press calling on mothers to put aside their differences and join together to improve the status of families and the lives of children. Likewise, Mothers & More, a national organization for women who have altered their careers to care for their children, issued a public “Apple Pie in the Face Award” to Dr. Phil; the group also made mothering stereotypes the focus of its 2004 Mothers Day Campaign.

The Mommy Wars, and the media’s infatuation with them, infuriate people like Joanne Brundage, founder of Mothers & More, who see them as a diversion tactic that redirects mothers’ attention from the real issue at hand: the lack of support and respect for caregiving in this country.

“If we’re going to have a war, it should be on how society ignores caregiving roles and the people who fill them,” says Brundage. “We are all suffering [from] a larger societal disease but all we focus on is the symptoms.”

How We Got Here

The Mommy Wars are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around, in one form or another, since the Victorian Age. The 1854 publication of the book The Angel in the House fired the first public shot. Written by Coventry Patmore, the book extolled the virtues of his wife, Emily, and portrayed her as the quintessential wife and mother—one who sacrificed herself for her husband and family. Initially successful among the middle class, the book’s ideals received royal reinforcement from Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert, which in turn caused the message to spread throughout society.

One hundred and fifty years later, some scholars believe those ideals are at the heart of the Mommy Wars. Dr. Catherine Wallace, author of Selling Ourselves Short: Why We Struggle To Earn A Living And Have A Life, argues that firmly entrenched ideals of the “perfect” mother, when combined with America’s ideal-worker, consumerist society, put mothers in a no-win situation.

“The workplace was [originally] understood to be amoral competition, something like warfare….that was why women were supposed to stay out of it,” says Wallace, a former college professor and mother of three. “All morality was then invested in the figure who never went to work, which was the mother, who was then the ‘angel in the house’: she was the guardian of all that was pure and noble and morally centered and spiritually enlightened and gracious and kind and pure.”

What mother can live up to that?

Modern mothers, however, are encouraged to try through a plethora of mixed messages. Television commercials, for instance, on one hand glamorize motherhood (think of the ad for that new minivan that says “moms have changed” while showing numerous impeccably dressed women but no children) but also tell moms they shouldn’t rest until they’ve found the perfect dish soap/laundry detergent/quick-fix-meal to keep their families healthy and happy. And those are the benign messages. Others are more insidious: the constant clash of scientists to determine whether daycare is harmful or beneficial for children; the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that babies be exclusively breastfed for six months while working mothers are entitled to only four months of unpaid maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act; or a 1998 U.S. House and Senate joint resolution that stated Congress “should acknowledge the importance of at-home parents” yet offered nothing to assist those parents.

“We have these two inconsistent ideals: the ‘ideal worker’ norm that mandates working full time for 40 years, and also the ‘ideal mother’ norm that mandates children need time with their parents and that the mother should provide that,” says Joan Williams, a professor of law and the author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to do About it. “It is virtually impossible for women to live up to both of these ideals.”

Although women understand this intellectually, many feel guilty emotionally. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Daphne de Marneffe, author of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life, says women often cope with guilty feelings of not doing enough—for their children, themselves, or their families—by building a rigid identity for themselves.

“I think partly why the mommy wars are so vociferous is that being a mother— and the kind of mother we are— is a core identity and is incredibly important to us,” says de Marneffe, a mother of three. “In order to cope with the things we give up, we try to shore ourselves up.”

That manifests itself in the Mommy Wars: mothers judging other mothers. And it is a vicious cycle.

“The smug sense of superiority that comes from denigrating another mother’s values can be very seductive,” says Judith Stadtman Tucker of The Mothers Movement Online, a national organization for mothers to discuss social change. “Over and over again, that’s exactly where mothers get hung up.”

an outdated battle

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