We all know the type: the mothers at the elementary school every morning, their hair in perky ponytails, their feet in white sneakers, shepherding their adorable tots through the kindergarten room door. Or they're sitting cheerily behind the bake sale table or leading long lines of youngsters on the class trip to the zoo.
The stay-at-home moms. You can be sure that they garner their fair share of resentment from the working moms, especially when those working moms are on the receiving end of a phone call from one of the stay-at-homes at 9:00 p.m. Could they help put together a few gardening gift baskets for the school's silent auction?
Even more daunting are the stay-at-home Super Moms (one recent book calls them Queen Bees) who are on a first-name basis with their kid's teacher, who keep tastefully decorated and immaculate homes, and who can produce a moist bundt cake for a teacher appreciation tea at a moment's notice. We admire them, we resent them, we spend a good portion of our waking hours obsessing over what they might say when our offspring comes home with head lice.
In the other corner of what has become a kind of virtual boxing ring are the working moms. They're at school, too, at least in the morning, looking frantic and frazzled, an overloaded briefcase in one hand and kids' backpacks and baseball gloves in the other. And then there are the working Super Moms who manage to run the PTA, head up the library committee, and come up with brilliant science fair projects that don't involve mice, all while climbing the career ladder. In my most uncharitable moments, I could only hope that their kitchens were overrun with ants.
As a mom who worked part-time for most of my kids' early years, I find I can ally myself with the simmering resentment on both sides, depending on my mood. I can be annoyed at the friend who calls me to chat at 6:30 p.m. just as I've walked in the door from work. I can also be annoyed by the friends who always seem too busy to have lunch or even catch up on the phone. It's a good thing I'm not keeping track of these things.
In fact, we all need to be hit over the head every once in a while with a whop of common sense. After all, there is one thing that most mothers (and many women in general) have in common: We've bought the cultural hype about perfection and it's turned us against each other, like rats in a science fair project gone bad.
Of course, perfection for women doesn't just cover mothering. We must have gorgeous bodies, unlined faces, stylish clothes, ungray hair. We must make balanced but appealing meals, so that our children don't gorge themselves on junk food and become obese, which then, of course, would be our fault. We all laugh at the women's magazines whose covers proclaim the newest trick to lose 10 pounds, next to a photo of a pudding pie.
So I'm calling for an end to the mommy wars. Let's stop judging one another, and let's relax our standards just a bit. Let's stop putting ourselves into a hierarchy based on where our kids get into college.
Here's one of my favorite family stories from the 1960s, perfect in its symbolic message about motherhood. My mother and my Aunt Ro are taking us nine cousins to the supermarket in a station wagon. (I have no idea where they put the actual groceries.) Of course, no one is wearing a seat belt. We kids start pummeling each other. Aunt Ro, still driving, leans down, slips off a shoe, and tosses it over her shoulder.
The shock value of the gesture is enough to keep us in a stunned silence for the rest of the ride. So much for perfection. You won't see that tip on a magazine cover. And yet it says much about Aunt Ro's form of carefree mothering. Love them, watch over them, and once in a while, wing it. We kids turned out all right.
• Debra Bruno is a newspaper editor.