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“Retro Wives” vs. CEOs: Why are the “mommy wars” so black and white?

retro wife

The cover story of the latest issue of New York Magazine features a so-called “Retro Wife”

When I was a young mom, I stayed home with my kids: first my son Jacob, born when I was 20, and 22 months later, his brother Isaac.

At the time, staying home made the most possible financial and practical sense for us. I had no education and limited earning potential. My husband made decent money  traveling the country working on broadband construction projects, and any wages I might have earned waitressing or working as a receptionist would barely have covered the cost of daycare.

When my husband and I separated and divorced (we later reconciled and remarried), I went to work out of necessity. Later, I launched a freelance writing career. And as I moved in and out of and around the paid workforce, I came to realize that very few choices in motherhood are permanent.

Today’s at-home mom will very likely, statistically speaking, be tomorrow’s working mom. On the other hand, today’s pregnant career woman, insisting she’d NEVER stay home with her kids, could easily be the one pushing a baby stroller at 1 PM on a Tuesday in just a few short months. And increasingly there’s a good chance Dad will be juggling and bouncing around, too – cutting back his hours to be more hands-on with the family, taking a flex-time job, or dropping out entirely and staying home with the kids.

But the all-or-nothing, black-or-white world of the media, tends to promote only two possible options: June Cleaver, or, well, Sheryl Sandberg.

I admire Sheryl Sandberg, to be clear, but in the way you admire somebody who juggles flaming swords or climbs to the top of Mount Everest: a person who did something amazing that I probably never will and don’t want to do. She’s an outlier. And so, in this day and age, are permanent at-home moms, like the so-called “retro wife” from the New York Magazine article.

Pitting those two sides against one another is a conveniently polarizing way to angle a magazine article, sure, but neither extreme has much in common with the average woman.

I know lots of at-home moms, but very few who plan to be out of the workforce for eighteen years per child. Even Kelly Makino, the “retro mom” featured in the New York Magazine story, hints at a possible eventual return to the workforce.

I also know lots of ambitious, smart working women, but not too many who are ready to sign on for a 100-hour workweek. (It’s not just women, either. How many men do you know who really want to be the C.O.O. of a publicly-traded company?)

Don’t get me wrong. I think there need to be more women in leadership, and for those women, perhaps an extreme go-getter like Sandberg is an excellent role model.

But most people I know – female and male – just want reasonable, sustainable lives that allow them to do work they feel good about, have time for outside interests and family, and retire comfortably. For many of us, that’s a hard enough goal to attain. So I’m wearying of the message that it is somehow not enough.

I now work full-time from home and my husband and I share child-care, big-kid-chauffeuring, and housework duties pretty equally. My four-year-old daughter, the only of our five children not yet in school, is cared for outside of the home two days a week. By who? Well, my brother, who is an at-home dad with three kids and a part-time freelance job.

When I look around, I see a lot of parents finding flexible, creative solutions to work-life issues. Parents working reasonable jobs that have them home by 5:30 and allow them time off for volunteering and vacations. Parents who stay home, scrimping and saving, for a few years with the intention of returning to work when youngest starts preschool or kindergarten. Moms and dads trading off, with one person taking on the role of the main breadwinner for a while, then switching off. Parents who consult or freelance when their kids are small and move into more demanding jobs when they get older.

These are not particularly affluent or privileged people, by the way. Just ordinary folks I know. Why shouldn’t we look to these people as role models; as examples of success? What might the Sandbergs and Mayers of the world be able to learn from them?

There will always be loud voices telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. Those loud voices start to seem even louder, and more important, when amplified by a thousand magazine articles or blog posts.

But those voices are usually not the ones that matter.

Look at your community. Are the people you spend time with smart, strong, and inspiring? Do they understand you? Are their goals similar to yours? What about your family and friends? Do they appreciate you for who you are and the contributions you make? What about your own inner voice? Does it know how to write its own definition of success?

Those are the voices we need to listen to most. It’s not about wars or battles, or her versus she. It’s about figuring out who you really want to be in this world and not wasting time worrying about what anyone else wants you to be.

It’s also about seeing the value in another person’s path, no matter how far removed it might be from your reality. And about recognizing that while, yes, the world needs to change, we can all change it in different ways that make sense for our families.

If you’re the next female CEO to make the news circuit, I applaud you for helping to raise the tide for all of us. If you are planning to stay at home for the duration, I appreciate the effort you’re putting into raising good kids, and the influence you will have on the sense of safety and community in your neighborhood. If you’re working a regular old 9-5 that gets you a steady, reasonable paycheck, regular vacation and 401K and plan on riding it out until retirement, I think you’re smart and probably a lot more disciplined than I am. If you are trying to cobble together some dynamic and flexible hybrid of work and domestic life, I want to pick your brain.

But what I really want is for all of us to feel good about the path we’re on. Because as Liz puts it, the only way to end the ‘mommy wars’ is to feel secure in our own choices. And that also means the choices that we make out of necessity.

I know there are a lot of things that need to change before the playing field can really level out (Liz’s post lists a few to start.) What can I say: I’m an optimist, and I believe we’re on our way there. I also believe our individual choices, when made consciously and with good intentions and an open mind, are helping to push the envelope.

We get a little closer every time we lift up a mom whose life is different from ours, instead of tearing her down. We “win” when we recognize that the mom who volunteers at the school and the mom who runs a company are both doing a necessary, important service and are equally worthy of respect. We “win” when we don’t treat dads like dummies or babysitters. We win when we recognize that career ambition and the drive to nurture can exist in the same person at the same time, and work together to come up with ways to scratch both itches.

Women: we’re smart. We’re driven. We’re connected. There’s so much we can accomplish together, whether we “lean in”, opt out, or something in between.

See more on this discussion here on HLN’s Raising America:

http://youtu.be/Qe3sp5KeVzE

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 Catherine’s kick-off post.) And 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 communityAnd maybe join the Lean In community. It’s a movement for all of us.

 mommy wars

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