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The Mommy Wars: The Case for a Cease Fire

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Outdated Battle

Mothering experts say this not only is unproductive, it’s outdated.

“The whole thing about the mommy wars is that is an antiquated argument,” says Maria Bailey, founder of BlueSuitMom.com, a web site for mothers in professional or managerial positions. “What you’re seeing in the upcoming generation of mothers is a shift.”

That shift started in the 1990s, when the number of married mothers opting to stay at home with their young children began to climb. By 2002, the Census Bureau reported that nearly a quarter of all children in the United States— 10.4 million of them— had stay-at-home mothers, a two percent increase since 1994.

Of the 72% of mothers with children younger than 18 who remain in the labor force, nearly one third work fewer than 40 hours a week, according to 2002 Bureau of Labor statistics.

Bailey says the statistics are deceiving, though, because mothers can be counted in both categories. For instance, mothers who work from home may classify themselves as “stay-at-home” mothers for the Census, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts them part-time workers.

“The term ‘working mom’ and ‘stay-at-home mom’ is completely blurred by the change in attitudes of women,” Bailey says.

The fact is, mothers of Generation X (born from 1965 to 1980) and Generation Y (born after 1977) are re-writing the rules when it comes to balancing work and family. These women came of age in a time of unprecedented education and opportunity for women— indeed, since 1982 more women than man have earned college degrees in the U.S.— and they likely expected to have both a career and a family. Many are doing just that, in creative ways. For instance, former New York times economic reporter Ann Crittenden, in her book The Price of Motherhood: Why The most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, estimates that 45% of women-owned businesses are based at home. And given that the Center for Women’s Business Research calculates that women-owned business are growing at double the rate of all businesses, and are “one of the defining economic and social trends in the U.S. over the past decade,” this is no small number.

Other mothers are simply opting out of the career track for a few years, with every intention of jumping back in when their kids are older. It’s called “sequencing,” a word coined by Dr. Arlene Rossen Cardozo nearly twenty years ago in her book of the same name.

“One of the ways we begin to put the [mommy wars] to rest is to realize that most mothers today are in a continuum,” says Enola Aird of The Motherhood Project, a national coalition of diverse mothers who promote social change to benefit children and families. “Sometimes we are at work, sometimes we are at home, and then we’re back at work again: it’s not ‘us’ against ‘them.’”

Shifting Demographics

The other issue that makes the Mommy Wars increasingly obsolete is the shifting demographics of the country, especially the growth of stay-at-home dads, single mothers, and mothers of color.

The number of stay-at-home dads in the U.S. has increased 18% since 1994. To put that in perspective, one million children lived with stay-at-home dads in 1990; in 2000, that number had jumped to 1.7 million. Likewise, the number of single mothers also increased: in 2000, 13.3 million children lived with a single mother; in 2003, that number swelled to 16.8 million.

For these families, the Mommy Wars are outdated at best and offensive at worst, primarily because they ignore the issues these families face. For instance, dads who opt to stay home usually do so because their wives out-earn them, a new but growing phenomenon: in 2001, 25% of wives in dual-income families made more than their husbands. For some of these families, the wage gap is enough to have the husband work part-time, or quit entirely, to be with the kids— similar to families in which wives earn less than their husbands and exercise the same at-home alternatives. Unlike women, however, men suffer much more societal and employment discrimination when they try to achieve a better work-life balance. Indeed, many dads have no balance at all, given that one third of employed fathers work more than 50 hours a week.

“One of the things that’s harmful about the Mommy Wars is that it takes the focus off of the role of men, who are desperately eager to have more of a role in the family,” says Ellen Bravo of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women. “Men won’t share fully in raising children, and household chores, and deciding about how to balance work and family, until they stop being punished at work for wanting to do that.”

The Mommy Wars also negate the issues of single mothers, the majority of whom must work to provide basic necessities for their children. According to the Child Trends Databank, less than half of parents who were owed child support in 2002 received the full amount they were due. And alimony, at least in Texas, is hard to come by: Texas law allows a maximum of three years alimony— and only if the couple has been married at least ten years and the alimony-seeking spouse is unable to work because she/he lacks the ability, is mentally ill, physically incapacitated, or must care for a child with needs substantial enough to prevent obtaining paid employment. Given this, the debate over whether to stay at home is usually moot.

“Single moms don’t get that choice,” says Cara Santos, founder of the Austin Single Parents Co-Op. “We are automatically thrown into a sink-or-swim situation and it is scary.”

In addition to being the fastest-growing demographic, single mothers also are likely to be low income or poor: the 2000 Census found that 12% of single mothers with children younger than 18 received some form of public assistance. Santos fits that bill, but she wants to raise her children, ages 2 and five months, at home. She manages to make that happen by living in a one-bedroom apartment, babysitting and receiving sporadic child support from her ex-husband. She acknowledges, however, that most single parents simply have to work because there’s no financial alternative. For them, the Mommy Wars add insult to injury.

“Single parents are already judged unnecessarily—[people think] we are all poor, uneducated, sexually promiscuous, [and] drug addicts,” Santos says. “On top of that, now we are ‘bad’ moms for not staying home with the kids.”

The debate also does nothing for mothers of color, says Gloria Perez-Walker, founder of Latina Mami in Austin. Minority mothers are more likely than their white counterparts to be single, low income or on public assistance: nearly a quarter of minority families are below the poverty line, according to the U.S Census Bureau. For them, the Mommy Wars have little relevance.

“Most of the women I work with…don’t have the luxury to deal with [the Mommy Wars],” says Perez-Walker. “It is a very different experience: they’re simply in survival mode.”

Cease Fire For Cultural Change

Perez-Walker’s point is well taken by mothers working to change the national landscape to support all families. Their first item on the agenda: stopping the Mommy Wars.

“As with any other public warfare, women and children are being caught in the crossfire,” says Wallace. “The first way in which that shows up—how you know you’ve been hit—is when you start doubting yourself. The amount of energy women spend doubting themselves would send a rocket to Jupiter.”

Wallace and others believe that energy, if redirected, could fuel a powerful push for social change that would benefit all families.

“[Mothers] are the sleeping giant of American politics,” says Crittenden, who teamed-up with the National Association of Mothers Centers to create Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights: an organization dedicated to promoting the economic, social and political importance of family child and dependent care. “By pitting mothers against each other, politicians don’t have to take action [and] it destroys [mothers’] ability to act as an interest group: Divided we are conquered.”

Now, however, diverse organizations that once had little in common—ranging from the Family and Home Network, which supports at-home parenting, to 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women—are presenting a united front when it comes to the needs of families.

A powerful case in point is the joint statement issued to the press by Heidi Brennan, of the At Home Network, and Dr. Joan Peters, author of When Mothers Work: Loving Our Children Without Sacrificing Ourselves, after their appearance on the Dr. Phil Show. For the first time, two women in seemingly different camps of the Mommy Wars went public—together—to affirm the commonalities in their philosophies about mothers’ needs.

The statement urged mothers to “set aside any negative reactions you have to ‘mommy war’ comments and join us in moving beyond this media-exaggerated conflict.” While the statement acknowledged the differences in opinions mothers have about work and motherhood, it called those differences “marginal to our shared commitment to a society which recognizes the value of care-giving and nurturing of children and others.” In short, it re-framed the argument from one about women to one about families and, specifically, children.

The statement called for, among other things, wide-ranging workplace flexibility for parents, a lower tax burden on families, and health insurance for children. It also took to task the media and a consumerist culture that influences kids and “infect[s] our own personal views about parenting, work, and civic life.”

The white flag went up— in a big way.

Those working in the trenches of the mothers’ movement now say all mothers must join the effort.

“Here’s the thing,” says Ellen Bravo of 9 to 5. “If what we really care about is what’s good for kids, instead of being mad at each other we need to be mad at the lack of flexibility to care for kids.”

Top on the agenda for many mothers’ advocates is paid parental leave. The United States is among just five countries worldwide that do not offer this benefit; the others are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Lesotho and Australia (although Australia’s government is now debating the matter). It’s an issue both stay-at-home moms and working moms can embrace and it has the added benefit of helping all families and, especially, all children.

Other important issues include flexible and reduced work schedules; Social Security credits for stay-at-home parents; pay and benefit parity for part-time work; and easing the tax load for all families. All of these, say mothers’ advocates, would assist mothers on both sides of the Mommy Wars— and, importantly, those who are left out of the debate altogether. Chiefly, because none of the issues is strictly a mothering concern: instead, all reflect consideration for the care of children.

Mothers’ organizations agree it’s an uphill battle: what they’re seeking is no less than a cultural shift, one that changes society from being focused on conflict and consumerism to centered on compassion.

“We [as a society] have to make some hard choices here,” says law professor Joan Williams. “Are we going to reshape work around the values of people and family life or decide that our kids don’t need us and embrace the ‘ideal worker’ norm?”

All of the mothers’ advocacy groups want the former, but getting it is going to take a united front of committed foot soldiers— people who aren’t distracted by fighting the Mommy Wars.

"The bottom line is that American mothers— whether or not they combine paid work and family, regardless of marital status, race or class— are all stuck in the same leaky boat," says Judith Stadtman Tucker of The Mothers Movement Online. "We can make matters worse by trying to shoot each other in the foot, or we can learn to respect our differences and concentrate on building a better boat."

This article originally appeared in Parent:Wise Austin Magazine - May 2004

Kim Pleticha is the editor of Parent:Wise Austin (www.parentwiseaustin.com), a free monthly magazine seeking to create a warm community of informed, thoughtful parents who appreciate serious journalism, sharp writing, and intelligent discussion about matters pertaining to parenthood. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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