An interviewer recently asked me so many wild questions about the imaginary “mommy wars” that I got really tired. I told him that I think the “mommy war” is a battle that rages INSIDE each parent – that internal battle between guilt and sanity – between “perfection” and reality. Between what family life is supposed look like (calm and pretty and Pinterest!) and what family life actually looks like (chaos and messy and Survivor!). Those of us who can’t handle that tension take the war from inside to outside – and start to judge and project and lash out at others. We defend our circumstances by snarking about people in different circumstances.
I really think that’s how it works – we either learn to let our uncertainty and pain come and go or we don’t – and we dump it on others. So much depends on just learning that pain and confusion are not a sign that anything’s wrong with you or with your life- they are just signs that you’re human. Nobody’s got it all figured out. NOBODY. We’ve all got pain and confusion and joy and pride and exhaustion surrounding this parenting thing. Or this LIFE thing, really. Beautiful things are hard – they’re designed that way. I think that’s so we can allow all the hard to bring us together instead of pushing us apart. We should practice more. We can do hard things.
I recently heard a vicious radio debate between women who believe that mothers should stay home and others who believe that mothers should work outside the home. All the debaters were mothers themselves.
As I listened wearily while ducking and dodging the ladies’ sucker punches like a cornered boxer, I thought… this is really getting old.
I’ve been both a “working” and a “stay-at-home” mom so I’ve experienced both sides of the internal and eternal debate moms endure all day, every day. When I worked outside my house, Mommy Guilt rode shotgun with me each morning, chiding me for dropping off my sick boy at day care instead of keeping him home and for rocking him the night before instead of preparing for work. When I got to work each day Mommy Guilt whispered that a good mom would still be at home with her son and when I returned home she’d insist that a better teacher would have stayed at work longer. When I’d visit girlfriends who stayed home, Mommy Guilt would say “See… this lady’s doing it right. Her kids are better off than yours are.” And Mommy Guilt certainly had a lot to say when Chase’s day care provider admitted that he had taken his first steps while I was working. Every night when I finally got Chase to sleep, finished grading papers, and collapsed into the couch, Mommy Guilt would snuggle up next to me and sweetly say “shouldn’t you spend some quality time with your husband instead of checking out?” And finally, before I fell asleep each night, Mommy Guilt would whisper in my ear, “YOU KNOW, THE ONLY WAY YOU’RE GOING TO BE A GOOD MOTHER AND WIFE IS IF YOU QUIT YOUR JOB AND STAY HOME.”
And so now I’m a stay-at-home mom. And the thing is that Mommy Guilt stays home with me. These days I experience her less as a drive-by-shooter and more as a constant commentator. Now she sounds like this:
“Did you go to all three of those college classes just so you could clean the kitchen and play Candy Land all day? And how is it that you don’t even do those things very well? Can you concentrate on nothing? Look at this mess! A good mom would clean more and play less. Also, a good mom would clean less and play more. Also a good mom would clean more and play more and quit emailing altogether. Additionally, I’ve been meaning to ask if you’re sure you feel comfortable spending so much money when you don’t even make any. Moreover, when was the last time you volunteered at Chase’s school? What kind of stay at home mom doesn’t go to PTA meetings or know how to make lasagna? Furthermore, nobody in this house appreciates you.”
My favorite, though, is that when I finally do sit down, concentrate on one of my kids, and read a few books all the way through… instead of saying “Good job!” Mommy Guilt says, “See how happy your daughter is? You’re home all day…why don’t you do this more often?”
And of course, before I go to sleep every night she whispers… “YOU KNOW, MAYBE YOU’D BE A BETTER MOTHER AND WOMAN IF YOU COULD JUST GET OUT OF THE HOUSE AND WORK.”
Mommy Guilt is like that scene from “Liar Liar” in which Jim Carrey enters a bathroom, throws himself against the walls, slams his head into the toilet, and rubs soap into his eyes. When a confused observer asks what on Earth he’s doing he says, “I WAS KICKIN’ MY ASS! DO YA MIND?”
I understand the act of kicking one’s own ass. I do it all the time.
What I don’t understand is why some people insist on making everything worse by kicking each other’s asses.
To the women who argue vehemently that all “good mothers” stay at home: Are you nuts? If you got your way, who would show my daughters that some women actually change out of yoga pants and into scrubs and police uniforms and power suits each day? How would my girls even know that women who don’t feel like carrying diaper bags can carry briefcases or stethoscopes instead…or also? How, pray tell, could I tell them with a straight face that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be?
And to the women who argue that all stay home mothers damage women’s liberation: Are you nuts? Aren’t you causing some damage by suggesting that we all must fit into a category, that women are a cause instead of individuals? And doesn’t choosing to spend your limited time and energy attacking “us” set “us” back? But for argument’s sake, what if you got your way and every mother was required to work outside of the home? What would that mean to ME? Who would volunteer to lead my son’s reading group at school, host his class party, plan his Sunday school lesson or wait with him in the parking lot when I forget to pick him up? Who would watch my daughter while the baby gets her shots? Who would knock on my door and tell me that my keys are still in the front door, the doors to my van are open, and my purse is in the driveway?
And if every woman made the same decision, how would my children learn that sometimes motherhood looks like going to work to put food on the table or stay sane or share your gifts or because you want to work and you’ve earned that right. And that other times motherhood looks like staying home for all of the exact same reasons.
As far as I can tell, no matter what decision a woman makes, she’s offering an invaluable gift to my daughters and me. So I’d like to thank all of you. Because I’m not necessarily trying to raise an executive or a mommy. I’m trying to raise a woman. And there are as many different right ways to be a woman as there are women.
So, angry, debating ladies… here’s the thing. My daughter is watching me AND you to learn what it means to be a woman. And I’d like her to learn that a woman’s value is determined less by her career choices and more by how she treats other women, in particular, women who are different than she is. I’d like her to learn that her strength is defined by her honesty and her ability to exist in grey areas without succumbing to masking her insecurities with generalizations or accusations. And I’d like her to learn that the only way to be both graceful and powerful is to dance among the endless definitions of the word woman… and to refuse to organize women into categories, to view ideas in black and white, or to choose sides and come out swinging. Because being a woman is not that easy, and it’s not that hard.
And speaking of “Liar Liar” – angry debating ladies . . . when you yell about how much peace you have with your decisions, it just doesn’t ring true. The thing is, if you’re yelling, I don’t believe that you’ve got it all figured out. I don’t even believe that YOU believe you’ve got it all figured out. I think your problem might be that you’re as internally conflicted as the rest of us about your choices. But instead of kicking your own ass, you’ve decided it’d be easier to kick ours.
Which is tempting, but also wrong.
So, maybe instead of tearing each other up, we could each admit that we’re a bit torn up about our choices, or lack thereof. And we could offer each other a shoulder or a hand. And then maybe our girls would see what it really means to be a woman.
Author of the New York Times Bestselling Memoir CARRY ON, WARRIOR
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