A couple of years ago, when I was still working from home, I received this message on Facebook:
I know I probably shouldn’t say this, but I have to ask you, how did you end up a “stay at home mom” with no job after all the university you took? … I have to take you off my Facebook as it is such a disappointment that you never did anything with your life and you do this all day… it was not what I would have imagined for you Catherine… so sad.
As it happened, I had a job — I was running my own business, quite successfully — and so my Facebook critic’s concerns were misdirected, but that didn’t stop me from being furious. “So there you have it, people,” I wrote. “I am a disappointment. I have no job. I am doing the worthless and pathetic work — wait! no! unwork — of raising two beautiful children, when instead I should be, I don’t know, out there in the world using my years of education to teach other peoples’ children about Plato or sell cola or design widgets or something really meaningful.”
I was frustrated, not because the whole thing was insulting (although it was that), but because it was just so much same old, same old. Stay-at-home moms are lazy! Stay-at-home moms have no ambition! Stay-at-home motherhood is a crime against feminism! The so-called Mommy Wars are fueled by this kind of sentiment – this kind of sentiment, and also the other kind, the kind that goes working moms are selfish! Working moms put their own happiness before their families’ happiness! Working moms are soulless briefcase-toting drones who don’t really love their babies! There is such a thing as the Mommy Wars (I don’t have much patience for the argument that there’s not; witness, currently, the criticisms of Sheryl Sandberg daring to give advice to women who are mothers when – gasp! – she is a working mother) because people continue to believe these things, and to say them out loud.
And the problem with the traditional discourse of the ‘Mommy Wars’ is this: it continues to force the dynamic of disagreement among women about what constitutes the ‘right choices’ for women and for mothers. The hardline combatants of the Wars – the ones who insist that Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t have anything relevant to say to moms, because she’s at the top of the professional food chain, or those, like my erstwhile Facebook friend, who insist that any woman who isn’t fighting her way to the top of the professional food chain doesn’t have anything relevant to say, full stop – demand that we choose sides, even as they insist that we are not within our maternal and/or feminist rights to freely choose our lives. If you wish to be a true mother, a truly good mother, say some, then you have no choice: you must stay at home. If you are a true feminist, a truly good feminist, say others, then you have no choice: you must not stay at home. And regardless of which of those you are, no matter who you are, you have nothing to contribute to a conversation about the condition of the other.
It’s like we’re not all mothers who love their children or something. It’s like we’re not all women who desire happiness. It’s like we don’t all want to do the best by our families, and our selves. It’s like we’re all somehow made fundamentally different by the fact that we make different choices.
We’re not different, not really. Sure, there are gaps and gullies and entire gulfs between our lived experiences – Sheryl Sandberg and I are both working moms, but I don’t work alongside Mark Zuckerberg and I am not on the cover of TIME magazine this month (being named one of the year’s best bloggers by TIME is not comparable, lest we quibble about degrees of separation) – but end of the day, we are all just moms. We delight in the beauty of our children and we worry about their futures; we wring our hands over whether they’re getting enough fiber in their diet and thrill over their mastery of the potty. We kiss their foreheads and tuck them in at night; we feel guilty when we miss tucking them in at night.
And we are all, too, just women. Our identities don’t begin and end with our motherhood. We have dreams and ambitions and desires, whether these be dreams of a corner office or a published novel or an hour alone in the bathroom or all of the above. Some of us find joy in pursuing a career, in fulfilling some professional ambition. Others find joy in making their families and households the focus of their work. There is power and nobility in both. There are opportunities for leaning in in both. What matters is not what we do, what we choose, but that we choose it, and that we own the choice. This is why ‘leaning in‘ is such a powerful idea, and powerful directive. It demands that we be intentional, in whatever we do. And it’s entirely agnostic on the question of what it is that we choose to do, and the identity under which we make that choice. What matters is the posture, and the posture is leaning in.
So you would think that Sheryl Sandberg’s call to action here – stop worrying what everyone else thinks or says and just go for it, whatever the heck ‘it’ is – would lead to an armistice in the Mommy Wars. She does, in fact, call for that. She asks, very nicely, that we stop thinking in terms of ‘us vs. them’ and start validating one other. “Mothers who work outside the home should regard mothers who work inside the home as real workers,” she says, rightly. “And mothers who work inside the home should be equally respectful of those choosing another option.” (Or, I would add, not choosing. Many mothers have to work. And many mothers are constrained to stay at home.)
(For the record, I fist-bumped the air while reading these passages. I was reading the galley on a red-eye from Los Angeles to NYC and I might have woken people up with my hoots of ‘YES’ and ‘YES YES YES YES.’)
I wrote some years ago that I thought – I think – that the single greatest contribution of feminism to the lives of women in the West has been the propagation of the principle of choice, for women, as an ideal. “But,” I said, “the resolution of the Mommy Wars is not going to come about through a simple affirmation of the principle of choice. The Mommy Wars continue, I think, because we are reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace the idea that one side is as good as the other or to reject the idea that there may in fact be one right way.” We’re reluctant, to borrow Sheryl’s words, to validate each other, and we persist in this reluctance.
And we persist because, as she says, the notion that there may be one right way’ to live, to believe is a tremendously compelling one. It has fueled and sustained empires and religions and civilizations. It promises to simplify things, to make life clearer. And there is, I think, no condition that so provokes the desire for clarity for salvation through clarity than that of a mother (and perhaps that of parents more generally.) And there is no state of being (human being) that so stimulates the desire for truth as the state of being a parent. We want to know what is truly best for our children, what is right. And most of us believe, or at least suspect, that when it comes to parenting, to protecting and nurturing children, not all choices are equal. We know that there is such a thing as bad parenting. We know that there is such a thing as neglect. We know that some children many children turn into unkind, unpleasant, inconsiderate, nasty adults. There is a wrong way.
And because we love our children, we want to know what the wrong way is, so that we can avoid it. And if there is a clearly marked right way, we want to know that, too. And if someone with a degree or a publishing contract comes out and says publicly that the path we’ve chosen is the right one, we cheer. If they say it’s the wrong one, we get nervous. Or mad. And we fight. And we will continue to fight, I think, until we are prepared to admit two things. One: that there are right ways and wrong ways, good choices and bad choices, and that a simple affirmation of choice qua choice is not enough to allow us to identify the good and avoid the bad. Two: that the correct path is not going to look the same for every woman, mother, father and family.
Sheryl Sandberg asks that we start exactly there. She suggests that we interrogate our own lives – our dreams and hopes and ambitions and opportunities and challenges – towards discovering what choices best serve and accommodate those things, and that we lean into those choices. And then, having leaned into our own choices, we should celebrate the choices of others. We should celebrate the very principle of choice. We should celebrate stay-at-home motherhood and stay-at-home fatherhood and career-facing motherhood and also non-motherhood and non-fatherhood and all the wonderful forms that family and community and love can take.
And then, maybe, we’ll have a lasting peace — one that serves us all.
See what else Catherine had to say on HLN’s Raising America:
We’re continuing this conversation all this week, because we want that lasting peace, dammit. Read more posts on this subject in this section all week (you can start with Katherine Stone’s.) And starting today, tune in to HLN’s Raising America (12:30 EST) to watch The Mommy Wars: the Peace Talks, a 5 day collaboration with HLN’s Raising America aimed at wrestling this so-called ‘war’ into peaceful submission.
For more on ‘leaning in’, and for buckets of inspiration toward being intentional and empowered in our choices (motherhood-related or otherwise) and our lives (including inspiring stories from many Babble bloggers that you know and love), visit the Lean In community. And maybe join the Lean In community. It’s a movement for all of us.