Recently I’ve been troubled by the resurgence of the “Mommy War” (as Lisa Endlich Heffernan refers to it) conversation. So have others. I have read many thoughtful essays by people that I have come to admire and respect, Lisa being one of them. Her, our, counterparts in other parts of the blogosphere have provided their own thoughtful insight into this always volatile topic — people like Sharon Hodor Greenthal, Jennifer Comet Wagner, Karen and Wendy Irving, to name a few. These are all women with whom I feel a kinship. I have, outside of the virtual world, had the opportunity to spend time with a couple of them — we’ve enjoyed each other’s company at lunches, dinners, and conferences. They are, in many ways, very much like me.
Still, I don’t fully agree with any of them.
I struggled with whether or not to add to this conversation — not because I don’t want to disagree with friends or because I have nothing valid to contribute, but because I would really prefer the whole “Mommy Wars” topic to go away. And then I thought about it. I concluded that most things, when ignored, don’t actually go away. Often they simply go underground — where, much like, fungi, they fester and they multiply.
Also, there seems to be a gaping hole in both sides of the argument. When I first read Lisa’s piece on “The Mommy War Within” several months back, what struck me was that she was addressing what I would consider to be a very elite group of women — women who were in a financial position to make the choice to either stay at home with their children or to remain in their high-powered jobs. They were fortunate — and I think they know it. Most women, myself included, didn’t have their choices.
I’m not saying that their choices came without consequences. Those that left the corporate world took a financial hit, both immediate and long-term. What they, and many others like them, are discovering now that their children are grown, is that it’s difficult, impossible even, to return to the workforce after a twenty-year absence to any job even resembling the one they left.
Women who chose to remain in the workforce — the ones who took advantage of the child care options that were available to them — sacrificed time spent with their children. For many, what they made in dollars they paid in guilt.
I didn’t know it then, but I was probably one of the lucky ones, as well — though I didn’t feel so lucky at the time. What I felt was exhausted — both physically and mentally. You see, I got to do both — I got to stay at home during the day and I had the pleasure of working at night. I was never able to “have it all”, though. I sacrificed sleep and, for many years, my mental health. It was hard. I didn’t have any other choice, though — not because I lacked education, but because I couldn’t use my degree in history for any type of work that would allow me to stay at home during the day. And no job that I was qualified for paid anything near what I would need to make to keep body and soul together. As a result, I remained underemployed in the service industry.
My husband was lucky, too. He had the opportunity to truly “parent” his child — while I was off slinging hash or mixing up martinis, he was responsible for all of the activities that I wasn’t home to coordinate — things like meals, bedtime rituals, and sports as she got older. He, too, held two jobs — and he was a better parent for having had these opportunities. I daresay that he was tired, too.
I, too, have regrets about the choices I made. I wish that my daughter had seen a woman who held a job that she loved — not just a job that held a paycheck. What I hope she did notice was that I spent a lot of years and a great deal of energy volunteering in organizations that had an impact on her community — and I did so with gusto, vigor, and, I hope, a fair amount of competence. In these years I also made lifelong friends — friendships that have sustained me and that continue to nurture me.
I don’t know whether or not the “Mommy Wars” will ever enjoy a cease fire, but I hope that the folks who are having the conversation will take into consideration the large percentage of women who never had the choices that were available to them. Some of us, for better or for worse, just soldiered on — we didn’t have the luxury of wondering whether or not we were doing the “right” thing. We were too busy doing “all” the things.