The Shriver Report – The Mommy Wars: Why We Are Fighting the Wrong Fight
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The Mommy Wars: Why We Are Fighting the Wrong Fight

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When I got pregnant, I swore up and down that I would not become one of the many  women I knew, both personally and as a reader, whose release from the maternity ward came with what felt like a requirement to shelve their previous interests and write about motherhood. Not me, I said: babies be damned, I’ll write instead about religion, ideology, and sometimes war. But once I became a mother, I quickly learned that  motherhood in America is religion and ideology. And it is war.

But it’s not the right war. Instead of fighting over how U.S. family policy ranks alongside only four developing nations as the world’s worst, we henpeck each other in petty squabbles that do nothing but obscure the larger issues, competing over who is mothering the right way or the wrong way, judging and personalizing, nitpicking instead of systematically considering bold solutions to what seems to be broken in the enterprise of American parenting.

In order to reassess stigma and try to shift the conversation to questions of freedom—at least in some small way—I broke my vow, and  wrote a book that is currently shelved (to my private dismay) in the “parenting” sections of bookstores. One and Only is a book about how only children are hardly the misfits we expect them to be, and how parents, in the absence of structural support, might want to consider the option of the usually vilified single-child family as a solution. (Or, if they don’t have a  choice and end up with one child, they should feel fine about it.) It’s hardly a radical message, but it has been branded controversial in a culture that demands we mother more and more—as we work more and more, and also want more and more from our lives outside the office and home.

But then I got drafted, and now I know what it’s like to stand before the frontlines, dodging blog posts and comments fired like bullets. See, I was actually trying to have a valid conversation about our fertility choices and our need for systematic reform that addresses the stress between caring for children and the business of living. But that’s not how it went. Here’s the story of how I ended up there: While I was reporting my book, I learned that four of my favorite non-fiction writers were mothers of onlies themselves: Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick and Susan Sontag. So I wrote an essay for a prominent magazine’s website considering their writing lives as such, and wondering if they would have been different  with more children.

That’s all; I was hardly making an argument.

But the headline, stating the secret to being a writer and mother was to have only one child—nothing I stated, much less even thinkwas a gun shoved in my hand. I was in the army now, whether I wanted to be or not. The rest is history in the annals of the mommy wars.

“Instead of fighting over how U.S. family policy ranks alongside only four developing nations as the world’s worst, we henpeck each other in petty squabbles that do nothing but obscure the larger issues, competing over who is mothering the right way or the wrong way, judging and personalizing, nitpicking instead of systematically considering bold solutions to what seems to be broken in the enterprise of American parenting.”

Comments taking issue flew in from all over the world. I probably should have seen it coming but I really, really didn’t.

After all, I’d painstakingly avoided playing into these wars when writing my book. But intentions are one thing. Clickbait headlines are another. And it turned out I had furnished editors with some serious mum-chum – with a number of other prominent publications following suit, extracting headlines that weren’t an accurate representation of what I was talking about. Months later, my narrow, nerdy essay is still the stuff of debate in the press.

“Most mothers I know like to talk about how hard it is to raise children, but it doesn’t occur to anyone that structural forces are in play, and that we can do something about changing them.”

This summer I was sitting on a panel at the New America Foundation on our dearth of decent family policy, and a question came up. Why are the mommy wars so vicious? How do they escalate? I couldn’t help but think that I had the entire answer before me, in narrative. I had just written a book as intentionally non-divisive as possible, looking at individual and structural solutions, declaring over and over that there is no wrong answer when it comes to our choices as parents. And yet, here I was. And the ink that had spilled all over this battlefield added up to nothing but some clicky headlines dropping some major literary names.  No wonder so many brilliant women I know have told me they want to opt-out of the conversation entirely after finding themselves blog-battered, misquoted and used as link-bait. As an editor friend of mine recently emailed me to say, it’s like the tree falling in the woods—if you write a “women’s” story and it doesn’t set off a petty firefight, did it even happen?  This is the public conversation. Yet the private one tends to be equally beside the point. Most mothers I know like to talk about how hard it is to raise children, but it doesn’t occur to anyone that structural forces are in play, and that we can do something about changing them.

Of course, as we retreat further into our domestic bubbles, thinking about parenting more and policy less, how could it be any other way? Many people believe that culture is the driver to change law. Well, when it comes to family support, I’m loath to agree. Our culture is the culture of a manufactured mommy war, which too many people—including people who should know better—participate in instead of shifting to another battlefield. It should be ok to consider how the number of children we have affects our work and our extra-domestic fulfillment without starting a brawl.

Furthermore, it should be imperative to consider how our systemic failures make those choices ever more essential. This was what we discussed that evening at the New America Foundation: paid parental leave, sponsored child care, and other measures designed to reconcile the daily tension between work and child-rearing addressed at the business or government level. It was a conversation about structural change rather than this mean-girls sport we make of it, fighting over who has it hardest, or who does it best,or who wants it more.

“…It’s not a sorority throwdown we need, but instead, need parents of both genders involved in a productive conversation about how to resolve the ongoing conflict between parenthood and the business of modern life.”

You’d think that the recent finding that 4 out of 10 breadwinners today are women would push some of us to take up arms alongside each other in this fight, but forget it. It’s not how the mommy wars are structured. Instead we have mothers fighting mothers. Furthermore, it’s not a sorority throw down we need, but instead need parents of both rather genders involved in a productive conversation about how to resolve the ongoing conflict between parenthood and the business of modern life. That’s how we make real progress. Consider health care reform: there was a national conversation in which people—men and women alike—agreed this was change we needed. There’s no comparable conversation about achieving better family policy, which, like health care, is something the rest of the world thinks we’re crazy to live without.

Dozens of studies have shown that in countries with government policy that addresses the balance between work and family life, women have high participation in the work force, a smaller gender wage gap, indicating that such policy could encourage mothers to stay in their occupations while also encouraging men to take on a greater childrearing role. In Europe, especially the farther north you go, these barriers have been chipped away with equal pay, state-funded day care, and so on. But such policies remain unthinkable in the US, where we depend on a workforce of women more than ever. Instead of seeing structural barriers shaping our overstretched lives, we blame ourselves for not being able to manage what the French call le conflit—never mind working towards the systemic reform that exists elsewhere. Then we take to the blogosphere to take our frustrations out on each other, as if we’re beating each other with our field hockey sticks in the girls’ locker room, motivated by schadenfreude, competition, jealousy, and insecurity.

“Dozens of studies have shown that in countries with government policy that addresses the balance between work and family life, women have high participation in the work
force, a smaller gender wage gap, indicating that such policy could encourage mothers to stay in their occupations while also encouraging men to take on a greater childrearing role.”

I’m all for the cultural conversation, but let’s start a substantive one, instead of perpetuating this ongoing catfight. There’s a much bigger war to wage: one for our sanity and freedom. Put down the sticks, ladies, and start fighting for what matters.

 

Resources:

In the News:

Lauren Sandler is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Lauren Sandler is the author of the new bestselling book One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, and Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. She has appeared on NPR, PBS, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC and the BBC.
Also from Lauren Sandler:
The Shriver Report aims to ignite conversations about our modern realities, however comments that are obscene, sexually explicit or include hate speech will be removed.
  • deleuzean

    As the proud and deeply engaged father of an (intentionally) only child, I have learned to keep my mouth shut.

    Thanks for helping me feel like it might be okay to relax my jaw a bit once in a while.

    Also: “mum-chum” – LOL

  • lisaangerame

    so well said. sadly, the media stirs the pot and creates false issues. i am the mother of one son and happy. i don’t even want to engage in any discussions where i feel i have to defend my choices. no one else (meaning those with more than one child) has to or feels compelled to or is asked to defend theirs. and the point is the system and our culture. keep doing what you are doing. the truth is there for everyone to see.

  • Linda_Strout

    I think part of the ‘mommy wars’ has to do with the desire in this country to keep women at home and out of the workforce. The belief in the 1950′s myth of the perfect family is very strong.

  • Josh Murray

    Good points, but hard to make feasible in American politics. Too many well-funded interest groups all trying to push their own agenda and think that arriving to some sort of compromise is a compromise of their values. In Sweden you can fund programs like this with taxpayer money…because there is a TON of taxpayer money and the politics point to social welfare. In the states you have to fight over funding with the big, well-funded corporate lobbyists that want bigger subsidies. Facts and figures may win the average person over, but they’re much less effective when profits are on the line. Those million/billion-dollar industries don’t want to pay for the kind of benefits that most mothers would need, and we know that these changes are going to be coming out of their wallets. It would take a considerable shift in politics for this to happen in the U.S.

  • Melanie Hetzel-Riggin

    I think one of the statements you made is really important, “encourage mothers to stay in their occupations while also encouraging men to take on a greater childrearing role.” How much of the mommy wars is a reflection of the strong patriarchy that has been the history of the United States? I am a professional working mother of two, and am happy with both my professional and personal self, yet the standards set by the patriarchal and historically male-dominated work force make it that much more difficult for I, as a woman, to be as invested in all parts of my profession as compared to my husband. It is amazing how when he has to go on a business trip it is assumed by employers that I will be able to rearrange my schedule to care for my children while when I do the same both of our employers are often incredulous that he would need to have a more flexible schedule to care for his children. I think this speaks to the assumed expectations of the value of women in the work force and for men within their family life – and in my mind, both genders lose.

  • arcsinice

    Sandler’s complaints are really a paean to feminism…….., ultimately promoting “equality” and “the ability to do it all”, a la Jean d’Arc.
    I’m sure Jean was an interesting study, possibly good with a sword, but was she happy? I think not. Today’s American “woman” is a sad case if ever there was. Decades of propaganda by the feminazis of being able to “do it all’, “having it all” – but first, do away with the “shackles” of marriage and above all motherhood has led most women down an irreversible path of essential despair and everyday malaise. These feminist leaders at the top, mind you, all have one thing in common………….. They’re lesbians. Think. About. That. So, non lesbian women unwittingly and progressively (no pun intended) took their lead from “women” who, notwithstanding their inherent self-loathing and revulsion toward provincial society held no biological interest whatsoever in being either married nor a mother and if ever a “mother”, then having a turkey baster baby. Cute. And again, look where same has precipitated…………. A massive collection of “women” in the once great USA who are effectively fish out of water. “Women” who HAVE surrendered their pulchritude, this in turn their power. Today’s American “woman” is, by choice – or chance – “just one of the guys”……….. And it so v. much shows. And the biggest casualty being society. After all, woman inherently is THE bedrock of society, the anchor outright. But now she is clearly cast adrift and men (make that eternally maligned men, of course – they really are such a despicable lot are they not……….., of course they are) are the worse for same. Small wonder once great America is more and more everyday in the commode.

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