Mommie Dearest: The Real “Mommy Wars” Are Against Mothers, Not Between Them

One of the worst terms surrounding motherhood is “the Mommy Wars.” To be fair, “Mommy Porn” is a really close second (thanks, 50 Shades of Grey!), but when it comes down to it, my disdain for the Mommy Wars knows no bounds. Not only are these “wars” sexist-as-all-get-out — I mean, have you ever heard of the “Daddy Wars”? — but they’re also steeped in a hell of a lot of privilege, something that is rarely acknowledged in all the news stories, magazine covers, and internet blurbs that love to trot out the term.

When heated debates focus on being “mom enough,” Sandberg vs. Mayer, or Having It All, they tend to neglect the women who don’t even have the opportunity to contemplate such ideas. While “having it all” has come to mean finding a way to balance family and a successful career sparked by a pricy education, for many mothers it means something completely different. Instead of arguing about whether the new “retro mom” is feminist or not, or whether stay-at-home mothers or working mothers have it harder, many women are simply trying to find ways to keep their families fed, their bills paid on time, and a roof over their heads. They lack the privilege or luxury to debate issues surrounding helicopter parenting, birth choices, or three-martini playdates.

That’s not to say that these topics aren’t worth discussing. They are. But I’m over them being the default discussion when it comes to motherhood in the US. If mothers are going to wage war on anything, it certainly shouldn’t be on each other. Instead, we should be rising up and fighting for common sense necessities like mandated paid family leave, security from being fired for pregnancy-related issues, paid sick leave, subsidized, quality childcare and the like.

However, I’m quite aware that those crucial issues don’t always make for controversial, sexy, or linkbait-filled headlines for most corporate media. So we’re stuck with the more mainstream definition of the Mommy Wars. That being said, imagine my surprise to see MORE magazine delve into the The Mommy Wars, and acknowledge the role of privilege right off the bat for their new article, “Why The Mommy Wars Rage On.” Editors at MORE teamed up with Citi’s Women & Co. to poll parents with children ranging from six months to 16 years to find out if “working moms and stay-at-home moms still have a beef with one another.”

They found that, yes, this type of Mommy War is still alive and well … if you’re asking those making above $75,000 a year. The survey found that those women who felt more financially secure were more likely to stay home, which makes sense in some regard. But I wonder how many of these women think of the larger picture. Do they think about what the impact of being out of the workforce for so long might have on any future earning potential? Do they think about what might happen if they end up divorced or widowed? Of course, nobody wants to think of these scenarios, but the reality is that more women than not find themselves in such situations and end up in financial trouble. However, if we’re polling women from higher family income brackets, then perhaps they wouldn’t run into the same sort of money woes, so again we’re brought back to the privileged few.

The flip side of the coin are the women that say they can’t afford to work, meaning that any income they would earn would immediately be sucked dry by childcare needs, so it wouldn’t “make sense” for them to work. I’ve heard this one a lot, and it seems like a cornerstone for many stay-at-home-mothers who enter into the Mommy War debate. I certainly understand the desire for a parent to stay home, especially during the early, formative years of a child’s life. At the same time, I wonder if mothers who “can’t afford” to work, can afford the potential repercussions of that missed time in the workforce?

There’s also the fact that saying “you can’t afford to work” isn’t wholly accurate as well as far too simplistic. There are many layers at play here and I wish more people talked about those aspects. For example, let’s question why mothers are predominantly the ones deciding it’s not financially feasible for them to go to work. How many families pose that question to fathers? The answer for a lot of families is a complicated mix of women traditionally falling into the primary role of caregiver and men historically outearning women in most fields. To me, that feels more about a war against mothers than any sort of “Mommy War” between them.

While I appreciate MORE magazine attempting to parse out the more specific, financially-based realities of The Mommy Wars, their attempt felt like more of the same. I would love to hear from women who aren’t in those positions of privilege and don’t have any actual choice in whether they work or not. When we can really have a choice thanks to mandated paid family leave and subsidized child care,  then we can really have the Mommy Wars debate the media seems so eager to foist upon us.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto.