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Working mom, stay-at-home mom: A debate that belittles motherhood

Our American weirdness about the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom debate, comes as much from our strange relationship with work as it does with our ambiguous, nostalgic-but-perhaps-belittling approach to motherhood.

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And then they’ll think about me pasting glitter hearts on a greeting card to sell on Etsy.

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(See, even I’m judgmental.)

But seriously, my set up, to many on the working side of the mommy wars debate, is simply not as respectable as the working mom who, as “Mommy Wars” editor Leslie Morgan Steiner described, juggles sippy cups with legal briefs.

“The portrait of a working mother today is a woman who is stretched really thin and who is crazy.... You work like a maniac all day ... then you rush home and have another whole shift with the kids,” she told Haq. “It’s crazy.”

It reminds me of a time when I lived in Washington, D.C., and the only appropriate response to “How are you?” was “Oh, I’m so busy.”

Take a look at the types of progress women have made in the workplace, and you might start to wonder whether modern-day American feminism hasn’t been co-opted by modern day capitalism. Breast pumping rooms, flex schedules, on-site childcare – these are all life-savers to some moms, but probably even better for employers, who get to keep female employees working long and hard.

Indeed, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, workers in the US in 2010 spent hundreds more hours working than in the UK, Sweden, Germany, or Norway – and pretty much any other western European country. This connects with one of the main reasons Save The Children this week ranked the US pretty low among developed countries as a place to be a mother; unlike number one Norway, the U.S. gives short and unpaid maternity leave.

In other words, we’re making progress in the workplace – as long as it’s good for the workplace.

Now, let me be clear here. I am totally, beyond words, indebted to the women, far stronger than I am, who fought their way into newsrooms and courtrooms, hospitals and assembly lines. They earned for me the ability to make money for my family, the right to have financial independence, the glorious chance to follow intellectual interests and creative pursuits. 

But today’s mommy wars, I believe, are missing the point.  The way the debate is framed, we miss out on talking about how family and parenting fits into our cultural and political landscape – whether our society is doing for children what we'd hope – and instead focus on the is-she-or-isn't-she working.

 But work is not the meaning of life. It just isn’t.

A lot of other cultures recognize this, which is why people looked at me blankly when I lived in South Africa and started asking about the working mom versus stay-at-home mom debate there.

And as long as we get stuck here in the “isn’t that interesting," snarky stay-at-home versus working mom dialogue, we ignore the deeper questions: about life, about meaning, about family, and about finding our individual paths through this beautiful world.


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