midpoint (2006-12)

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.

© 2006 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.