I know that “how to end the Mommy Wars” posts are common. This is not another typical call to support each other in our choices or simply be more respectful in motherhood debates. Those are certainly good goals, but an effort for happy talk will only make the debates more civil. It won’t end them.
To end the Mommy Wars, we must first look at how they started.
The Mommy Wars began when the first daughters of the Second Wave of feminism had children. Unlike the adult women who went on domestic strike to enter the workforce, when the ’80s power woman started a family, she didn’t have at-home neighbors or extended family to rely upon for childcare. She had moved away from home, her family had aged and gotten smaller, and teenagers and co-eds no longer supplemented their income with babysitting. She would have to do everything herself or find help. Enter Helen Gurley Brown of Cosmopolitan magazine. Besides taking over Cosmopolitan and turning it into a mag about sex, money, and career, she also wrote a book, Having It All, which assured women that they could, well, do it all.* Indeed, the era had the feel of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, but with an emphasis on sex.
Thus, a great social experiment was born. Some women opted to do it all. Other women recognized the Lean In + sex advice for the nonsense it has since proven to be. They stayed, or went back, home. Neither group of women, however, had any guiding standards of success. The old standards for housewives were gone and the new standards for professional women were untried. The only thing it seems everyone agreed on was that domestic chores and wifery were beneath the modern woman. Women might have houses and husbands, but they would not be a priority.
The women of the ’80s and ’90s would judge the success of their ‘to work or not to work’ choice by motherhood. If the kids were all right in the end, then the professional plan would become the new standard. If the kids melted down, then the traditional plan would hold sway.
The motherhood rat race between working moms and stay at home moms was on. But waiting two and a half decades to figure out which mothers had raised the happiest and most productive citizens, that measure was far too long. These mothers needed shorter, visible measures. Mothers started competing over the number of languages spoken, instruments played, months and then years breastfed, drugs during childbirth, drugs during childhood, hours spent volunteering at school, school admissions, and so many others. By the mid-’80s Child magazine coined the term Mommy Wars.
Why are the Mommy Wars still raging after 30 years?
Thirty years on, we have seen the front line battles change many times. The topics no longer easily conform to at-office or at-home teams, but they are all easily measured and focused on the short term. (Vaccines and breastfeeding have been the latest battles to rage.) The tactics change, too. Combatants have gotten more passive aggressive in person than they were in the past, while aggression lurks online. (Note the date on that link, 1990.)
The battles are bad, but it is the fact that they still raging which annoys mothers the most. It has been decades. Why are the Mommy Wars still with us? The answer is deceptively simple. The Mommy Wars still rage because we have not answered the original question. We haven’t set new standards. In fact, we aren’t allowed to set standards.
The fashionable philosophy of the era tells us there are no standards. We only can do what is best for us. This supposedly comforting sentiment has two major shortcomings. First, it cuts us off from the wisdom of experience. No single motherhood situation is exactly like any other. A modern mother can easily distinguish any been-there-done-that fact pattern from her own truth. This wouldn’t be so bad but for the second problem. The sentiment does not account for the fact that we have very little experience with children before our own arrive.
We aren’t supposed to think of motherhood until we have deemed ourselves ready, found a source of sperm, and then seen the double blue line. Even then, we are supposed to focus on our pregnant bodies first, while avoiding any negative facts or stories. Negative energy is not healthy and pregnancy is supposed to be a blissful time of blooming and life.
Thus, it is often when we find ourselves with an unexpectedly fascinating and helpless newborn in our arms, healing cesarean scars or vaginal tears, and bleeding nipples that our meticulous positive pregnancy planning first encounters unyielding reality. We have no idea what to do next.
We reach for books because studying hard is supposed to get us through everything else. Good girls — smart girls — excel at formal education and get advanced degrees, right? (Many of those mindset problems Mike Rowe sees apply to more than blue collar work.) Surely book learning will work for motherhood, we think. We talk about motherhood the way we once spoke of exams. Just a sample from the popular Scary Mommy site: [profanity edited]
Of course people warned me. Told me their horror stories. I read everything I could get my hands on, downloaded every pregnancy app on my phone, signed up for every class our hospital offered. I was going to study the sh*t out of motherhood and totally ace this. I even got my placenta encapsulated in hopes that I would replenish my body with the hormones I would so suddenly lose. I was prepared to look postpartum in the eye and say, F#@k off. I’ve got this.
The author admits this preparation was naive. She blames culture’s lack of support and understanding, but I see our lack of knowledge as an ignorance encouraged by culture and aggravated by the overwhelming amount of often contradictory information available.
Alone with our piles of expert reading material and the sinking feeling that we won’t know if we are doing well for years, we look for the next best, or really the next available thing: what are the other mommies doing? Not what they are saying, mind. That doesn’t matter much as moms train each other to cushion everything they say with an admission that her choice is particular to her details. Therefore, to assure ourselves that we are doing the right thing, we want to see other moms doing what we are doing. This is motherhood-by-majority-rule, and that is how mothers vote.
Or shorter, the Mommy Wars are crises of confidence. Cure the confidence problem, and the battles will finally end. We can see this even now. Look around and find that the typical mothers who do not engage in the Mommy Wars came from large families or have more than two children. They have confidence born of experience. They have seen which actions have long term consequences and which ones only remain for a developmental stage. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They conserve their energy for the big problems.
Happily, curing the confidence problem will be relatively simple, if long term. It just takes a little experience. I suggest three easy fixes to start:
1. Current parents should stop steering older children and teens away from engagement with children. Currently, we occupy older children’s lives with enrichment activities for college resume padding. There isn’t much time left for the babysitting jobs. The summer job as a camp counselor loses out to gigs with a little more professional pizzaz. It shouldn’t.
2. Young couples should add a little babysitting help to their baby prep. A good friend of mine didn’t make my wedding because she delivered her first child that morning. Over the next three years I spent many weekends with her. We would visit, and I got some practical infant care experience. It was a win win.
3. Current mothers should seek advice beyond their kids’ developmental stage. Modern mothers of, say, 4-year-olds, tend to seek advice from other mothers of 4-year-olds. It is part of the need for endorsement that drives the Mommy Wars, but it encourages short term thinking. Motherhood, however, is only short term in the tiny details. Seek out the voice of experience or get caught up in those tiny details. The best mothering advice I received, and have since given: worry more about who your child will be at 35 than what they will do tomorrow.
Some practical knowledge about babies and children blended with the voice of experience will smother the insecurity that drives the Mommy Wars.
*The New York Times Magazine link I chose for Having It All, might seem a little odd. Why not just link to the book? I could, but this little article stood out to me. For one, the author Jennifer Salazi’s basic argument is that women like me are silly for blaming Second Wave feminists for telling ’80s women that they could have it all. Yes, Brown’s book was popular. Yes, it was titled Having It All: Love. Success. Sex. Money. (Even if you are starting from nothing). And yes, Brown pushed the Lean In + sex sentiment to make Cosmo a huge success lauded by many feminists. But, we learn from the article, Brown’s publisher chose the title. Brown wanted to call it The Mousebuger Plan. Therefore, the idea that feminists set we women on a quest to have it all, that idea is just a twist occasioned by the title a capitalist publisher chose. If it were a rose by another name, then it wouldn’t have been a rose, apparently. The other reason the article intrigued me, it quotes me without attribution. If you click though, see the part about The Federalist peddling the silly ‘feminists lied’ idea followed by a quote. The quote is mine from a catalog piece of feminist ironies. I have two attribution objections: one, the piece should at least name or link to the quote so that readers may find the source material easily themselves. Note, the piece only links left, for instance to Patricia Ireland formerly head of NOW. Carrie Lucas at the Independent Women’s Forum at least gets proper text attribution, but still no link. The NYT makes it easy to find like minded persons, but hard to find any opposition. Two, The Federalist does not take editorial positions (we are such a diverse intellectual crew, editorial positions wouldn’t even be possible, trust me). Attributing the quote to The Federalist is both vague and misleading.
It is the New York Times, not exactly the bastion of good journalism practices despite their cultivated reputation, and this is a little NYT Mag piece, so I don’t expect that they will care. But I just wanted them to know, people notice their poor practices and I’m not afraid of linking to the opposition.