midpoint (2006-15)

Return of the ‘Mommy Wars’

Seems Like Old Times

by Stephanie Piper

A new generation is fighting the Mommy Wars. I feel like a grizzled veteran, watching the action through binoculars as the troops skirmish over the same old territory. I thought we’d done this, taken that hill, held that position. But the struggle continues. The stay-at-homes are either oppressed or smug. The career mothers are alternately defensive and superior. The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

I was a stay-at-home mother by default. When Friedan and Greer threw down the liberation gauntlet in the early ’70s, I was ready to throw off my shackles. Home with two small children, I balanced the price of daycare against what my B.A. in French would command on the open market. The figures were daunting. A job, it seemed, would end up costing us money.

So I watched my friends suit up and head off to Careerland while I sat on the playground bench, feeling like a second-rate June Cleaver. I grew up in 1950s suburbia, where mothers led scout troops and organized charity balls and dressed in starched shirtwaist dresses and pearls to go to the A & P. Now all the rules had changed, and I was simply not up to speed. I still cringe when I remember a 1972 cocktail party conversation with a formidable woman professor. What do you do, she asked me. I have two little boys, I replied naively. Ah, she said. But what do you do ?

I couldn’t afford a glamorous full-time job, so I scrounged for part-time gigs. A trickle of freelance editorial work became my lifeline. Two manuscripts a week, read while the children napped, brought in $40 free and clear. It meant a few dinners out, and it meant I had a life beyond diapers and playgroup.

My children went to school and I began to write features for a local newspaper. My office was the dining room table. My hours were sandwiched between Little League games and carpool. I typed stories with sick kids on my lap and conducted phone interviews while stirring spaghetti sauce. Sometimes I got up to write at 5 a.m., the only completely quiet hour of the day. It wasn’t perfect, but I was home and working. 

Gradually, the friends I had watched with envy began to look less glamorous. I watched them agonize over childcare and stagger under the double burden of guilt and exhaustion. The payoff was sketchy; the money they made never seemed to be enough. The casualties were heavy. Friendships faded. So did some marriages.

We could have used another full-time income. My husband, then a junior advertising executive, made a salary that barely covered our expenses. Another paycheck would have relieved the financial stress that was a constant, nagging presence in our lives. We could have had a nicer house. We could have taken trips. But weighing it all up, the stakes seemed too high.

When my kids were older, I parlayed years of freelance work into a full-time newspaper job. Even then, the Mommy Wars raged in my head. The career mother told me I should stay at the office until 8 p.m. every night and win a Pulitzer. The former stay-at-home wondered what I was giving those children for dinner. There was, it seemed, never a truce.

Now the old conflict is news again, back on the best-seller list and the talk-show circuit. The numbers have changed since my tour of duty; 71 percent of American women work outside the home today. For many of them, it is a flat-out economic necessity. The June Cleavers are as rare as the dodo bird; staying home has become a luxury.

From a veteran’s perspective, one thing seems clear. The Big Lie of my generation was that women could—indeed, should—have it all: perfect family, perfect career. My own experience was that even a modest success in either area involves patience and sacrifice and a fair share of deferred dreams. If you’re very lucky, you get some, not all. And never all at once.