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 think—was 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.
- Today: The Mom-Judging Olympics: A Competition Nobody Meant to Enter
- MomsRising.org: Maternity/Paternity Leave
In the News: