OPEN UNIVERSITY MAY 13, 2007
by Linda Hirshman
It's Mother's Day time again. A year ago, on Mother's Day 2006, Time magazine begged for a "truce" in the Mommy Wars. We got a surge instead. Stay at home moms and working moms, generously supported by legions of commentators in the blogs and in the papers, have been going at it nonstop. "Just a Pile of Pay Stubs!" one critic described working women's lives. Her opposite number called the decision to stay at home "The Feminine Mistake." http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9781401303068-2 Joan Walsh, editor of the online magazine Salon, recently called the year of strife "deadly and futile." Why does everyone tell women what to do, these important journalists asked? Why can't we all support each other in our different choices?
Peace always sounds more appealing than war, but in this case, it's a mistake--because Mommy Wars actually turned out to be good for mothers.
The Mommy Wars finally opened a much delayed discussion. Why is it that the burden of child-rearing and home-making falls so hard on women that they feel they must give up promising careers, because they cannot manage it all? Why is it that the burden of child-rearing and home-making falls so hard on women that if they cannot afford to quit they are driving themselves crazy trying to manage it all? Where are the fathers in all this?
After the smoke settled on the battleground of the '70s, for a long time there were no wars, because the public discussion was dominated by only one point of view: how wonderful it is for women to take care of home and children. It was peaceful, but so is the grave. The high point in the new momism had to be Mother's Day five years ago, with the publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book, Creating a Life, which asserted that successful women were overwhelmingly regretful that they had not had children, or had more children, or had more children, sooner. Scholars at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management summed up the climate that year: "Day care causes kids to become bullies. Women are rushing out of the workforce and turning into stay-at-home moms. Professional female managers are rueful over their family lives."
But in 2003, The New York Times Magazine published an article showing educated women giving up their jobs because they could not manage it all, the discussion exploded. They called it the "Opt Out Revolution" and suggested that when educated women stayed home, employers would have to change the workplaces to lure them back. This year, an organization called Moms Rising emerged from the Internet activist site Moveon.org, with a full agenda for such farsighted businesses and for the government: paid family leave, restricted mandatory overtime, increased child care funding and after school programs, increasing and indexing the minimum wage, and more. I can't imagine moms rising if the Times hadn't shown moms opting out first.
I have, I admit, enlisted in the wars myself, with my book, Get to Work, advising young women to protect themselves from being caught in the work/family bind, rather than counting on revolutionary employers or governments to save them. Take school seriously, never quit a job until you have another one, and don't marry a jerk, I advised. And journalist Leslie Bennetts is telling women about the perils of economic dependency, with an eye to both individual and public solutions. Both Leslie and I have been the subject of withering fire; my favorite shot is the article from a mommy blogger, "Everybody Hates Linda."
The calls to quiet down are tempting, I admit. But sometimes, as good mothers know, the price of peace is too high, and a little tough love is required. Social change never comes without pain and, yes, strife. Women leaving their jobs as doctors, school teachers, and television producers pay a high price for their unequal share of keeping the family afloat. Women rushing from job to home and back pay a high price. Let's face that fact and do something about it. What better way to celebrate Mother's Day?