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The Missing Voices in The Mommy Wars

I’ve just about had it with the “Mommy Wars,” pitting working moms against stay at home moms.

I’ve had it with the high-profile, un-nuanced discussions being had on the airwaves and even the more thoughtful discussions being had on other major media — including The New York Times discussion on attachment parenting vs. feminism and even right here on Babble Voices. (Although, to be fair, that discussion is more about why the debate has become such a big freakin’ deal in the first place. And I suspect many of those bloggers — whom I love! — would agree with what I’m about to say.)

The reason I’m fed up? It’s probably not what you think.

It’s not just because the discussion feels like a war on women and their choices rather than anything else. Or because, for God’s sake, can’t we just agree that every woman and every family has the right to make their own choices based on what works for them — and what their economic and personal needs dictate — and let it go? And, for double God’s sake, parenting is hard work REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU WORK OUTSIDE THE HOME OR STAY HOME. Argggh!

No. That’s not what really makes me angry. What truly pisses me off is that this discussion is pretty much exclusively the domain of educated, relatively well-off (and mostly white, while we’re at it) women.

There’s a voice — an important one — being completely overlooked and excluded from the conversation: that of disadvantaged women — including disadvantaged (corrected for clarity) single moms — who HAVE to work, and who are getting next to NO support when it comes to things like nursing, nutritional education, child-rearing information, healthcare, daycare, and other things that we more privileged and savvy moms (and I include myself) take for granted.

Alastair and I were in contact, on and off, with a student he worked with and mentored back when he was an after-school teacher at an innercity school. She was a smart kid, but had a rough upbringing — single mom with drug problems, foster homes, then living with her elderly grandmother in a dangerous neighborhood. She managed to do well in school and was mentored by a couple of her teachers. But she was effectively abandoned by the system once she was 18. She went from low-wage job to low-wage job, while various family issues roiled in the background.

She made some dumb choices along the way, probably. And she was also loathe to accept the help that well-meaning, more well-off people offered. We actually offered to let her stay with us until she got housing and be a part-time nanny to the girls while she looked for a job after her latest layoff. But she didn’t want to do that. Probably in part because our world was so foreign to her.

And then she got (unexpectedly and unintentionally, probably) pregnant. By this point, she was basically homeless — on a wait list for subsidized housing — and sleeping on the couches of friends and family.We had her over for meals, and I talked with her about pregnancy and nursing. I gave her baby gear and clothes, my copy of What to Expect, and urged her to nurse instead of using formula, if she could swing it. We went to her baby shower at her sister’s apartment (it was squalid and reeking of cigarette smoke and pot).

Shortly after her baby was born, we met with her for lunch near her step-sister’s house. We met her adorable baby boy; he smelled unwashed. We talked about some of the challenges she was facing — including nursing. I answered her questions and told her about LaLeche and how they could give her free nursing advice. (I later gave her the number of the local chapter. But I doubt she ever called.)

Then, she asked if I would come to the bathroom with her; she had a “woman-to-woman” question. She lifted up her shirt and showed me her breasts: They were covered in plastic wrap, to catch the leaking. And when she took off the wrap, I could see that her nipples were swollen and cracked and clearly infected. I told her she needed to see a doctor; I was pretty sure she had mastitis. Her doctor was all the way on the other side of Boston; I said I’d give her a ride if she needed it. But she never called.

And then we lost contact. She didn’t reply to our emails or return our calls. Next we heard from her, she was living in a shelter — in a single room, with her baby — awaiting a subsidized apartment. She’d given up on nursing — she was going to job interviews on the bus with her baby in tow, and navigating paperwork and visits with her case worker; she also knew she’d probably end up working in a big chain store with no facilities or support for nursing on the job. It was just too hard. WIC paid for formula (not a breast pump), so that’s what she used. And once she got a job (which would, most likely, be a minimum-wage one), she’d qualify for subsidized daycare, too.

Stay at home with her baby because it was the “right” thing to do?

HA!! HA HA HA!!

Look, this is an extreme case. And whether or not the system failed her or she failed herself or both is a whole debate in itself. But when I think of women like her, and then I listen to a bunch of women who have, by contrast, all the choices in the world, bickering about who’s the better mom because she wears her baby in a sling and nurses or because she is a self-actualized career woman who has the means to provide her kids with the best possible education and has the emotional reserves to be a more engaged parent, I want to scream: What about this homeless girl with Saran wrap on her infected breasts because in spite of all odds, she’s trying to nurse?? This girl with NO CHOICES at all?

Seriously, I want to scream. (I have, at Alastair, a couple of times in talking about all this. He looks at me blankly and says, “What mommy wars? This is an actual conversation people are having?”)

But I also want to scream when I think about the more average working mom in this country. The one whose husband is working a job that doesn’t pay enough for the family to pay for daycare, but not so much that they can go without the mom working too — not, that is, if they want to save for retirement, afford health insurance, or pay off their college debt. (Let alone pay for soccer uniforms for their kids. Help their elderly parents out. Insure their car and pay for new tires or repairs.) And what if one of them gets laid off?

Honestly. Can we please all take a step back from this debate and look at the bigger picture? Think about people besides our educated, advantaged selves? Stop talking to ourselves about organic baby food and co-sleeping and nannies and high-powered corporate jobs and who is more feminist than whom long enough to pause and think about all the women who AREN’T part of the discussion? Because it’s completely out of touch with their lives? And because — most likely — they don’t even know it’s going on?

While the mom-erati and talk show radio hosts chatter on, I’m going to keep donating to organizations that help poor women get their lives on track and keep doing pro-bono writing for organizations like this that help families in need. (And I’m putting my vote where my mouth is, too.)

* * *

Check out DOUBLE TIME, my memoir of parenting twins, battling depression and chasing that ever-elusive work/home balance.

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Photo: Skeddy in NYC (Flickr)

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