Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The "Mommy Wars" Part 2

If you haven't already, you can read Part 1 here.

If you’d rather not listen to me blab on and on about what a terrible and selfish mother I am, here are two good places to go instead. First, “
How to be Friends with a Working Mother” a.k.a. BEST contribution to the so-called “Mommy Wars” yet. If you don’t feel like laughing, instead head over to MomsRising and sign a petition calling the media to put an end to this non-existent “mommy wars” hype.
Part 2: Do Kids Care if Mom is "Happy?"
Her Bad Mother and I see eye to eye in reality, so I’m not picking on her, but one of her posts happened to remind me of one of my biggest pet peeves. (And to clarify, this whole post is not in anyway an “answer to” or “argument with” her post, it’s just a long, rambling - perhaps unfortunate - tangent.) That pet peeve being a common, often-heard idea that the mother’s happiness equals the children's best interest. There are plenty of people who pursue their personal happiness at the expense of their children’s well-being. And that’s not good parenting, even if we cloak it in idealistic feminist language.

Case in point, there’s a good chance that it would make me “happy” to run off and spend eternity (or at least until violence ensues) on a private Fiji beach with Eminem laying in the sun, drinking Pina Coladas and… well, this is a family blog so I won’t elaborate, but I’m sure you can guess where I was going with it. (If Eminem’s not available, Harry Goldenblatt from Sex and the City would do instead… post-back-wax and wearing underwear, of course.) But that doesn’t in any way translate into “that’s what will make my kids happy” or even “that’s what’s best for my kids.” In fact, it’s clearly NOT in the best interest of my kids to be abandoned by their mother. So I do not like the “if mom’s happy everyone’s happy” arguments that are often made by feminist thinkers.

That’s not to say I think the needs of mothers don’t matter or should always come after everyone else’s. I’m still a feminist, and trust me, when my needs aren’t being met everyone around here suffers until the situation is rectified. But it does mean the mother’s needs and happiness always have to be balanced with the needs of the people who are depending on her.

But even more importantly, talking about the mother’s “happiness” misses the point in the context of the so-called “mommy wars.” The greater issue is that sure there is a mom (or two) who has a kick-ass job (like Caitlin Flanagan's or Linda Hirshman’s, ironically) and is really "happy and fulfilled" by continuing to work outside the home. But for the vast majority of working mothers there's a reason they're working and it’s not because their job is so "joyful." There are far more reasons mothers choose to continue working than "they'll be destitute otherwise" or "they are selfish bitches who are so happy to go to work." It's ridiculous for this issue to be so oversimplified the way it always is in the media.

I know many mothers tend to give too much of themselves and forget to take care of themselves (I actually did that too during the co-sleeping/breastfeeding/slinging years with my babies). And for those women a little advice to “make yourself happy” and “do what’s best for you” is really good to help them achieve some sense of balance in their lives. But some of us have the opposite problem. I tend toward thinking of myself and so that kind of message for me is very dangerous (well it’s not that dangerous, I guess, given that Eminem isn’t exactly knocking on my door or anything). I have to remind myself that I’m important to other people besides me and I owe some of myself to them. Not all of myself, of course, but some of myself. For me, a little admonition to suck it up once in a while and think about what’s best for your family is both good and necessary.

Which brings me to the most important point, and one that is always left out of “mommy wars” discussions. And that is that each person’s individual strengths, weaknesses and personal experiences are going to color their views on this more than any ideology will. I’m not going to throw my kids under the bus to make the point that I’m a feminist and by God I can have a career if I want to. And I’m not suggesting that mothers who work are “throwing their kids under the bus,” I’m suggesting that mothers who prioritize an ideology over the needs of their whole families (meaning themselves, their significant others and their children), just may be.

It seems that to some radical (and rare) feminists, feminism means that everything always and everywhere is all about me (“me,” being the woman). Whatever is good for me, is the way it’s going to be, because my mother was depressed for having to wait hand and foot on my dad and my siblings and me, and so my life is all about my happiness and my choice and what is fulfilling to me.

And if that’s going to be our working definition of feminism, then not only am I not a feminist, but motherhood and feminism are completely and unequivocally incompatible. Motherhood is a path of sacrifice. By its very nature it is being of service to another human being. Marriage is too, for that matter. If feminism means that we always and everywhere need to put our needs first before anybody else’s than women can’t marry anymore either. And to be honest, they won’t even make very good friends anymore.

The brilliant Judith Stadtman Tucker says that motherhood is a relationship. Not a job. Not a vocation. A relationship. And we can’t have high quality, meaningful relationships if we’re so concerned that our needs get met in every way that we just assume our children’s needs are taken care of.

Of course I’m not suggesting we ought to go back to the “good ol’ days” when women were expected to sacrifice their needs, their dreams and their talents for the so-called “good” of their families. And this is where I think our own personal experiences play such a huge role in shaping our feelings about these issues. Often women who are vehemently in the camp of “mom needs to be happy” grew up with mothers who were depressed or resentful (or both) for having given something up to care for their families. And I would never want to belittle the effect that experience would have on a person’s psyche.

But I happen to have grown up up-close and personal with the other extreme. My mother made every decision she ever made based solely on what was best for her. I could tell you in great detail what that feels like to a young child. (As an aside, she had and has A LOT of good qualities –and I would positively die without her - but they’re not relevant to this discussion.) To this day she is adamant that a woman has to do what is best for her. Period. And (naturally) the kids will be “fine.” And she will never change. And I will never agree with her.

No one begrudges the mother who works to put food on the table because her kids would starve otherwise. But I can think of at least ten other reasons why I might choose to go back to work full time. Like if I had to in order to maintain a sense of dignity and equality in my marriage, for instance. I know a lot of women are in that situation, and I just can’t judge them for making a decision that I’ve not made, only because I haven’t been forced to. My husband greatly values what I do for us here, and that makes my choice a much easier one to make. I understand not all men share his priorities.

He and I have both made financial sacrifices and I’ve made personal sacrifices so that our kids could have their mother at home with them. Obviously I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t feel it was best for them. We both believe that my staying at home with them is an advantage for them. It’s nothing more and nothing less. It’s an advantage that I can afford to give them (with certain other sacrifices) and so I do. However, before I get too enamored of myself, it would also be to my children’s advantage if I were a billionaire, but I’m not. And the fact that I’m not means simply that they don’t have that particular advantage. Not to be confused with they’re-doomed-to-a-life-of-ignorant-brutish-miserable-servitude. (They are doomed to not have the opportunity to be Paris Hilton, but really, I’m fine with that.)

To have a parent at home is an advantage. To have happy parents is also an advantage. To have a lot of money is yet another advantage. We all do our best to give our kids the best of what we have the ability to give to them. And as feminists it’s absolutely essential that we respect other women’s ability to discern for themselves what’s best for them and for their families. I think in the end, that is the only “essential for calling oneself a feminist” that there can be.

And just because my kids have the advantage of a stay-at-home mom doesn’t mean they will grow up to be geniuses, star athletes or even, simply, decent human beings. They may or may not be any of those things… only time will tell. Some kids have every advantage and still manage to get screwed up along the way. And I know some really wonderful people who grew up with really crappy parents (and I mean objectively crappy). So I know better than to overestimate the power I like to think I wield around here.

We do a disservice to the women’s movement when we judge another mother’s choice to work or not based on our own personal strengths, weaknesses, experiences, needs and circumstances. It’s true that mothers need to consider quite a bit more than just what makes them “happy” when making decisions about work and family, but it’s also true that what looks like selfishness to you might come from a deep and dark issue that another mother is dealing with the best she can.

And I want to especially defend the much-maligned stereotypical mother who appears to be working so she can buy a fancy car and acrylic fingernails. Next time you’re ready to judge one of these mothers, remember that she may be working for a million reasons that have little (or nothing) to do with her love of expensive things. And she may be buying the expensive things just because she can or just as a “pick me up” from feeling guilty about all that she sacrifices to go to work. People are complicated and often don’t share their deepest fears, secrets and struggles at the playground, so we just have to trust each other, support each other, and hope for the best.

Read Part 3 of The Mommy Wars here.

11 comments:

Onetallmomma said...

Whoa! That must have felt great to write.

I agree with you on all points. I am very tired of the judging and comparisons in the media and on a private level. Mothers come in many, many different varieties. As women, we must be more tolerant of choices that differ from our own.

And as a feminist, yes, I still call myself one, I speak to my children about choice. It was my choice to stay home and raise them because both of their parents feel it is best. But as I prepare for this exam and they watch me struggle and study, I am modeling choice as well. My choice to stretch my wings and re-enter the workforce in a few years.

Very well written. Thank you.

Fresh Mommy said...

Wow, Staci. As always, a thoughtful and well written essay.

However, I find one of your statements to be alarming and quite baffling. In fact, I'm wondering if it's a typo. You state that you'd be happy to run off to a private beach in Fiji with...Eminem??? I'm concerned that you may have fallen and hit your head. Do you know what day it is? State your full name, please. How many fingers am I holding up? All right, it's obvious that you have head trauma of some sort and should head to the nearest E.R.

I, on other hand, have not hit my head, so I can say with clarity that if I were to run off to a private beach somewhere, it would be with Julian McMahon of Nip/Tuck fame. Yummy.

Jill said...

Isn't motherhood - strike that - parenthood, all about putting your kids ahead of yourself? What parent wouldn't throw themself in front of a bus to save their kid? That said, putting your child first comes in many forms depending on how a myriad of factors match up. Sometimes it means a working mom, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it means a working dad, sometimes it doesn't.

And to echo Fresh Mommy's excellent and thoughtful point: Eminem?? Really? Harry Goldenblatt?? You gotta work on that Staci.

MommyWithAttitude said...

Oh come on, et tu Minnehana Mama? I'm the only one who thinks Eminem is hot? Perhaps I should start keeping that to myself.

Anjali said...

Another fabulous post, but I do take issue with two points:
1. Can you please assure me that Denzel Washington would also be on your beach? What is a beach without Denzel?
2. I hear the "mommy needs to be happy" justification all the time, but truthfully, I believe it's an antecdote, and not something that the vast majority of mothers (well, except your own, obviously), tend to practice. I've heard a few of my working mom friends use it, but at the same time they say it, I see the pain in their eyes that tells me it's a phrase to cover up their guilt for working. I've also heard many SAHMs use it to justify putting their children in part-time daycare, but can tell that what they really mean is that they feel overwhelmed, and a severe dearth of support, particularly from their own spouses. I'm sure there are some moms out there who really put their needs first, but I have to tell you, I don't really know any. All the moms I know can't find a way to put themselves before their family dog!
Excellent essay, Staci. It's so nice to have a writer out there who does my thinking for me!

Mommy off the Record said...

"each person’s individual strengths, weaknesses and personal experiences are going to color their views on this more than any ideology will."

I like the fact that you acknowledge that each woman is different and that we should not rush to judge other women's choices--especially when we don't really know them.

I also feel that we need to find a balance between sacrificing for our children and pursuing things that will make us happy. I think when I sway too much in either direction, I feel that I am not in a good place. Doing for my son IS my top priority, but part of being a good mother to him means doing things for myself too (developing myself, having "me" time, etc.). However, not at his expense of course.

Anyway, great essay. Very thought-provoking!

Sandy said...

Lovely, thoughtful post...except for that unfortunate Eminem bit that stopped me in my tracks. And clicking through to that imdb link did *not* help this a bit. Did you see that picture?

All I can guess is that something deep and unresolved in your past led to that unfortunate choice. ;-)

Food Mum said...

You've said it all so well. It's not about staying at home v. working. It's about giving your child plenty of love and support. So what is there to fight about?

tomama said...

Thought provoking post (and blog!)

Her Bad Mother said...

I've read through each of the instalments and love every one of them but I came back to comment on this one, well, because I'm vain.

I totally agree that 'mom's happiness = kids' happiness' can be a cop-out of mega proportions. But so can 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' as a guiding axiom for liberalism and democracy. The key is making that happiness meaningful. Which, no, isn't going to happen in all cases. Many parents, mothers, are going to use the excuse of their own happiness to put their choices first, to the detriment of their families. But I still think that it's worth hanging onto to the idea that a happy mother is a good mother and rethinking the whole sacrifice thing a bit.

Which I think that you addressed here nicely. Our lives are complicated. None of them can reduced to happy/not happy, deep/shallow, good/bad. The so-called Mommy Wars wouldn't be flaring (or made to appear as though they're flaring) if we really always kept this in mind.

I don't comment here nearly enough, which is a travesty, because yours is one of my favorite blogs. But I can never even begin to form a comment in my head on one of your posts without it turning into an essay (as you can see), and that takes way more time than I don't have. But I wanted you to know, I love you and your blog.

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