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An Imperfect Solution

Last week’s poll was about what sort of labels we use for ourselves as mothers: stay-at-home mom, work-outside-the-home mom, work-at-home mom, primary caregiver with part-time job, and so forth.

Almost half of you called yourself a 24/7, stay-at-home mom. Everyone else weighed in as working outside by necessity, work-from-home but around kids’ schedules, or primary caregiver with some other sort of time commitment outside the home. I think the primary caregiver one is the label I’d most easily choose for myself, but I’m not real thrilled with any of the options.

This topic has been on my mind a lot recently, partly because I’ve been reading a bit on the subject. Mommy Wars is a collection of essays in which working moms and stay-at-homes square off in the ring and defend their positions. I was drawn to some essays more than others, partly because of writing quality and partly because of the point of view. One of the sections that stuck with me most, actually, was the introduction; the editor dissected our apparent need as mothers to pick apart the people on the “other” side of the fence. Why do we feel the need to make the other moms out there feel bad if their situation’s not the same as ours? Why do all working moms seem to look at stay-at-homes and think, “What does she do all day? Is she really that lazy?” while stay-at-homes regard working moms and think, “My gosh, how guilty she must feel at leaving her kids all day. Why have them if she isn’t going to raise them herself?” These attitudes are bound to come through in our interactions and conversations, making both sides feel horrible.

The so-called Mommy Wars have been in the media’s eye for almost a decade now and show no signs of abating. Frankly, I keep waiting for a woman to have that “Eureka!” moment and write the essay in which she realizes that there is no perfect solution; any choice you make after becoming a mother is less than ideal. I know I’ve written here about my struggles with my identity, with returning to work even very part-time, with my fear about what my unknown future holds for me as a person.

Because here’s the deal: you are not the same person leaving the hospital that you were going in. That woman just flat-out doesn’t exist any more, and it’s no use pretending she does. This new woman, with responsibilities and aching boobs and stretch marks, is going to have to figure out how to maintain her sanity and her financial stability and raise great kids all at the same time. And no one can tell her how to do it, because no one knows her or her kids as well as she does.

And let’s be honest – the whole agonizing over whether or not you should return to work is a singular wrestling match reserved for the relatively wealthy. For most moms out there, returning to work is a necessity: you’re a single mom, you have the job with health insurance, you have a mortgage that requires both of you working, whatever. While reading Mommy Wars I had the hardest time relating to Molly Jong-Fast (Erica Jong’s daughter) and her essay on being a working mom. I can’t buy into a woman with a trust fund and a bestselling novel who is looking for sympathy about the heartache of leaving her child with a nanny. If it hurts so much, fly to Paris a bit less and keep the kid with you.

And it’s also hard for me to hear the stay-at-home moms touting the virtue of “giving it all up” for their kids, sacrificing their careers and allowing their creativity to die while they raise exceptional human beings. You know why? Because these women are professional writers! I understand stepping out of the fast lane and allowing promotions and great opportunities to pass you by so that you can be at your child’s recital. But if the bio at the beginning of an essay lists national magazines as current credits, you are not “just” a stay-at-home mom! You are a writer!

Hear me out for a minute before sending me the hate mail. In my mind, a 24/7 SAHM has chosen to take on mothering and home maintenance as her full-time career. She has no freelance writing assignments, no three months a year directing theatre in Maine, no part-time job on evenings. In other words, much of her identity is tied up with the household and family. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this; a friend of mine was a high-powered lawyer here in NYC and has four kids, eleven to fifteen, to whom she’s devoted the past 15 years of her life. She’s incredibly sacrificial (in a non-martyr way), is very happy, and has raised great kids. This, to me, takes a very special kind of person, and I freely admit I am not it.

I consider myself the primary caregiver, but I do get out of the house a couple nights a week while my husband watches Maddie. I do write for this website every night, giving me a creative outlet. I have channels very close to the surface I can dip into when the Mommy job overwhelms me. And I think most SAHMs do best with this type of scenario.

So it’s hard for me to see some woman who writes all day while her kids are at school, feeding her own identity and contributing to the household income, turn around and lecture a single mom with no child support on the psychological dangers of not being there for after-school pickups. That’s what I’m saying.

I think that Iris Krasnow’s essay summed it up best for me. As the author of Surrendering to Motherhood, a book urging women to “give in” to motherhood and step off the workforce, she’s often “blamed” with starting off the Mommy Wars. Almost ten years after she wrote it, she’s admitted that she made it through the mommy years by keeping one finger on the “pulse” of her old life, and urges other moms to do the same; not quite the same advice she originally gave, but it resonates with me now.

In the end, every woman contemplating full-time care-giving has to start with one basic question. Is it financially possible? If not, that’s the end of the discussion, and you do the best you can for your kids by giving them food and shelter and they know that.

If the answer to that question is yes, then you have to take a long, hard look at what you really want to do. A resentful, angry SAHM is no better parent than the working mom who is fulfilled at her job and is present for her kids outside of work. If you need to work to stay sane, that’s your choice; only you know what’s best for you and for your family. Brian and I have made the decision to try very hard not to put Maddie in surrogate care, which means financial and career sacrifices all around, and the knowledge that for me, this is what my life looks like at least until she starts school. I’m getting good bits of every world, though: I’m with my daughter all day, I do work outside the home a bit that I enjoy, I have this blog to look forward to after she’s in bed, and I’ve got family around to give us a free break when we need to get away for a movie. I’m also surrounded by friends who understand my desire to be a SAHM and don’t make me feel less for choosing it.

I do still occasionally feel the sting of the choices I’ve made, though, and the need to defend them. A friend of ours went on a tirade a few months ago over a news show she’d seen following women who had chosen to drop out of the white-collar life to have kids. She railed about the “waste” of a college education these women were, and how “disgusted” she was that they had tied up the educational system and taken the place of someone who could have really “used it”.

I can’t believe that all my life up to now has been a waste; that my school and life and performing experiences are not serving to make me a better, more thoughtful, more intentional mother. I do not feel the need to apologize for my decision to either my friend or my daughter. Maddie will be standing on my shoulders, and they would be neither as wide nor as broad if I had done things differently in my life. I am fortunate: I had a choice. And I believe I made the right one for me, and for my child.



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