It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The Great Debate

I’ve been thinking this week about the Great Divide amongst mothers. Stay at home or go back to work. The so-called “Mommy Wars”, a term I loathe. I loathe it because it’s too simplistic. I loathe it because it’s too often true — women do wage war with other women over this issue. I loathe it because it’s so damned unhelpful.

I was inspired to muse upon it as a result of an email conversation with a woman I quite admire. We were discussing a parenting issue she had recently encountered, and as I composed my notes, I was having to pause, consider, reconsider, rephrase, edit, alter, tweak…

She isn’t a difficult, prickly woman. It wasn’t a difficult, prickly subject, except that it was informed and underscored by the work-home debate. The issue haunted our conversation. As I sought examples from my own parenting experience to bring to her dilemma, they were, necessarily, examples from the other side of that great divide. I wasn’t attempting to convince her of the superiority of my choice over hers, but it’s so easy to mis-step, so easy to cause offense, even when trying very hard not to.

I got to wondering why that would be. Why, even when two women are trying very hard to be respectful, is it so easy to poke at the other’s sore spots?

You know what? I had an insight, I think.

When a woman is deciding whether to go back to work after the birth of her child —

oh, wait.

I need to back off a pace and address a pre-issue, lest I cause offense to yet another group of women. I am very much aware that there is a significant percentage of mothers for whom this entire debate is irrelevant, and its continual appearance in public discourse a continuous abrasion. Because, as they rightly say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if it were an actual choice? Wouldn’t I love to have to luxury to even consider making a choice?” No matter that some of them might still choose to return to paid work, the fact is for them it isn’t a choice. You can speculate as much as you wish on how many of the people who think they don’t have a choice in fact do, but it is undeniably fact that many, many families simply cannot afford to have a parent stay home. So, no choice, and the unceasing blah-blah-blah about it is just too freaking annoying for words!!!

So, to you women? You might just opt to skip this post now.

Back to the post.

When a woman is deciding whether to go back to work after the birth of her child, she (and her partner) will take a set of factors into account.

She’ll consider practical issues like finances, insurance, availability and quality of daycare, professional development, pension, time. Personal issues like ambition (this is not a dirty word, by the way), aspirations (for yourself, your partner, your children), self-esteem (what are its sources, for you?). Parenting concerns: will my child be best served by having this role model, or that? living here or there? having mom around all the time, or sharing time with other loving people?

The thing is, each woman making the decision is going to be choosing from a very similar range of factors. When two women weigh “child’s emotional health + personal aspirations + finances + role model + professional development” and come out with two entirely different choices, it can be very easy to see the other woman’s choice as a criticism of yours.

If you weigh the same set of factors, shouldn’t you come up with the same decision?

Well, no. Only if those factors carry precisely the same emotional weight for each person. Professional advancement was never a huge motivator for me. I might like the increased salary that came with it, but the job title isn’t a biggie. For me. I am not going to extend that to someone else and say, “If you really valued your children, “mom” would be the only job title you’d aspire to.” Any more than I would accept it if someone said of me, “If you really valued your daughters’ future, you’d be showing them that women can achieve great things in the world.”

We need to stop saying this critical stuff to each other, and even more important, we need to stop reading it into what other women are saying. Because really? I believe we read offense into things far more often than it’s intended.

(A little secret? Even if offense is intended, the best response is often to refuse to hear the insult. React to it straight, as if you believe they were only sharing a different perspective, with no judgment at all. Very often, if you do that, they will retract the claws and go along with your interpretation. They may even feel quietly ashamed of themselves, and change their tune a little. Thus we evade and re-direct aggression, and reduce the intensity of the Mommy Wars.)

Human beings are emotional animals. It is pretty much impossible for us to make a 100% rational, 100% non-emotive decision. In the case of parenting, I tend to think that’s for the best, anyway. Parenting is so very much about emotions, after all. You can’t eliminate them from your parenting decisions, nor should you.

So, you’ll weigh the same sorts of factors, and you’ll come up with a different conclusion than your sister, your best friend, your co-worker. Not because you’re right and they’re wrong. (Nor even because they’re right and you’re wrong — relax!) But because the factors carry a different emotional weight for each of us.

And that’s as it should be. We are different. Our children are different. Go to work or stay at home? Make the decision that feels right to you, that meets your needs and matches your values as closely as possible. And your children? Will be FINE. Love your child/ren, spend time with them, respect them, guide and correct them, provide a stable and nurturing home … and they’ll be fine.

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January 2, 2012 - Posted by | controversy, parenting | , , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. Amen Sister.

    Comment by jwgmom | January 2, 2012 | Reply

  2. Preach it!

    Comment by Kathy | January 2, 2012 | Reply

  3. I wish I could express myself with such clarity. Thank you!

    Comment by Lynette | January 2, 2012 | Reply

  4. Great take on this very critical topic. Being a mom of a toddler, and struggling to find a good work-life balance, I face this so very often. However, I am proud of the choices I have made, and grateful for the choices that I can afford to make.

    Comment by Shachi Thakkar | January 2, 2012 | Reply

  5. Thank you! This was really good for me considering my first starts his weaning in at daycare today! My baby (literally still) is off to spend an hour getting acquainted with his teachers, new friends and new routines. I hope he’s having a good time — and I know that we’ve made the best decision for him and us by choosing this route. But it’s nice to read your words!

    Comment by Cindy | January 3, 2012 | Reply

  6. My personal “resolution” this year is try to live by “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” I am going to try to do just as you said and “refuse to hear insults” anytime I can. Such good advice.

    Thank you! For my part, I loooove your resolution. Terrific!

    Comment by ktjrdn | January 3, 2012 | Reply

  7. Amen. As a nanny I often socialize with SAHMs and frequently someone makes a comment and I have to gently insist that my boss is, in fact, a fantastic mother who truly loves spending time with her children. Great parents come in many varieties!

    Comment by Samantha | January 3, 2012 | Reply


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