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.

Ann Hermes/Staff
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. Rita Cheong plays with her great-grandchild, Annika Liu, as her mother, Ingrid Ahlgren, leaves for work.

Not long after I had Baby M, I was chatting on the phone with an older female relative. (Exact relationship to remain hidden to protect the questionably innocent.)

“So,” she said, words dripping with that I’m-being-nice-really-I-am tone, “don’t you think it’s interesting that both you and your roommate went to Yale, and now you are both stay-at-home moms?”


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I looked down at my sleeping little baby and thought of all the swear words she really shouldn’t hear yet.

“Um, yeah,” I managed. “Interesting. Gotta go now.”

Because "interesting" was decidedly not what I heard.  Rather, from this vanguard of 1970s women-in-the-workplace feminism, I heard “pathetic.” Maybe “disappointing.” Or perhaps “waste of all those tuition dollars.” And honestly, it stung. I knew my time with this little girl felt like the most important thing in the world, but....

As Husna Haq writes in this week’s print Monitor magazine [to be posted online Friday] , Americans are far from beyond the “touchy, judgment-passing hostilities of the so-called mommy war.” And we’re not just judgmental. We’re confused.

While Ms. Haq reported that some 70.6 percent of moms are in the workforce, a related Monitor/TIPP poll found that 46 percent of Americans believe that mother’s should be home with children unless they are the family’s sole breadwinner, and 62 percent of people believe that one parent should be home with the kids. Meanwhile, 68 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “It’s OK for moms to work outside the home, period.”

As women – particularly white women – some of these questions and the answers are even more polarized. To the statement “mothers should be home with children unless they are the family’s sole breadwinner,” 21 percent of white women “agree strongly,” while 29 percent “disagree strongly.” 

A little conflicted, no?

But the more I read about the mommy wars, the more I wonder whether a lot of our American weirdness about this topic comes as much from our strange relationship with work as it does with our ambiguous, nostalgic-but-perhaps-belittling approach to motherhood.

Which takes me back to that oh-so-helpful postpartum conversation.

See, the thing is, at the time I was working. Just not in an office. And I don’t mean “working” as in “mothering,” although I think it’s interesting that to validate the latter we always have to equate it to the former. 

I was actually working as in doing my day-job – writing. During the first year of my baby’s life I finished and sold a book proposal, I wrote pieces for top national publications, I lectured college classes, and I brought her with me to Kenya on a reporting trip. That I did most of this in my sweatpants was not a new characteristic of my work; neither, really, was the fact that I fit it into my own life schedule.

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Acknowledged, with Baby M I have spent less time on this outside work and more time taking care of her.

Oh, the critics will say knowingly: A part time work-at-home mom.

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

(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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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to