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The Mommy Wars: What They're Good For

We’ve spent this whole week talking about the dynamics that drive certain conversations about parenting you know, the difficult ones, the ones that bring out the worst in people, the ones that make non-parents roll their eyes at us and mutter to each other that we should STFU. We’ve been talking, specifically, about the so-called Mommy Wars, which is the mother (pun totally intended) of all difficult parent-facing conversations, hence the term ‘Wars’. And there’ve been so many wonderful contributions to the conversation (which we’ve undertaken in collaboration with HLN’s Raising America), including many about how we ‘leaned in’ to our choices around whether or not to stay at home or work at home or work out of home or do whatever it is that we’ve chosen to do with regard to shaping the structure of our family lives (to the extent that we do have a choice. We too easily forget that not everyone has a choice.) This has been fitting, since Sheryl Sandberg’s book was the inspiration for this conversation, and it shaped our objective here: getting to a place in the conversation about the differences in our motherhoods where we can validate and celebrate those differences.

But we’ve also been talking about this: whether or not there is such a thing as the Mommy Wars. Almost everyone recoils at the term (and I agree it’s an ugly term), but some went further and suggested that both the term and the phenomenon that it purports to describe are entirely manufactured by the media. Allana Harkin expressed weariness and confusion (“are we still talking about a mommy war?) Kelly Wickham was just amused. “LOL ROFL HaHAHAAA,” she wrote. “I don’t know about you, but none of my friends and I are fighting this or behaving sanctimonious enough to put on other women our own insecurities and strong beliefs on other moms.” This is an important part of the discussion – that some moms don’t experience this, and that for some the conversation doesn’t seem relevant. And I’m glad that there are moms out there who laugh in the face of judgment. But laughing at it doesn’t it make it not exist.

I’m on record with my disagreement with the broader argument here – that there’s no such thing as the Mommy Wars – but let me restate it: there is absolutely such a thing as the Mommy Wars. Maybe it needs a better name there’s a chapter in my doctoral dissertation that was, in an early draft, provisionally titled ‘Mother Against Mother: The Politics of Shaming In Discourses of Motherhood’, although I don’t think that it has the zing that CNN wants but the limitations of its name don’t mean that it doesn’t describe something very real, and very problematic. Mothers judge other mothers. A 2011 survey found that 87% of us do it. Which is, you know, a lot. But we don’t need a survey to tell us that mothers judge other mothers. We all know that we do it; we’ve all experienced it. Well, maybe you haven’t, but even if you’re lucky enough to not have have experienced it, and virtuous enough to not have done it, surely you recognize that it happens. A lot. You just need to watch the conversation on Facebook any time this topic comes up or have looked at the responses on Twitter this week to the Raising America discussions to see that many, many moms struggle with feeling judged for their choices, and have had to confront judgment. From other moms. Sheryl Sandberg devoted a section of Lean In to this topic for a reason: it’s real, and it hurts us.

All of which is to say, denying the Mommy Wars because you haven’t experienced open judgment and because you don’t like the name is like denying sexism just because you haven’t experienced it and because TIME magazine did a story once on the ‘Gender Wars’ that had a cover image of a man and woman aiming weapons at each other, which, ugh. Just because you haven’t had the experience of something and just because the mainstream media loves to cover it, and often does so sensationally doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, and that it’s not worth talking about. Again, I get why some of my friends and colleagues here recoil at the very conversation it’s exhausting and frustrating and, god, haven’t we been talking about this for years? But in my experience, the exhausting, frustrating topics are the ones most worth digging into. This is worth digging into.

Which is why, as EIC here, I insisted that we do have a conversation about it. Because we can. The so-called Mommy Wars used to just be private mom-on-mom judgment and shaming (worth noting that there is a very long history of it, stretching back millenia), and it mostly took place on front lawns and in schoolyards and around kitchen tables and in the quiet of our homes – that is, the spaces of the private sphere – because that’s where most moms were. And in those spaces, it remained contained. Toxic, but contained. Out here, in the cold light of the public day, it takes on an unprecedented vibrancy and intensity. It gets louder, because it’s taking place out in the open, where more voices can join in, and where voices carry. It takes on a life of its own.

And that is (mostly) a good thing. Mothers women have, for much of recorded human history, never had public fora in which to air their frustrations and grievances and judgments. Mothers – women – have had, for the most part, their conversations and stories and lives contained within the private sphere. But now, in this millennium, with the Internet, we’ve started to yank down the curtain that divides the public and private spheres and have our conversations and our stories and our lives out into the public sphere. We have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and blogs; we have YouTube channels and Tumblr feeds and maybe still the occasional MySpace account. We are living our motherhood in the public square, and that’s awesome that’s revolutionary, as I’ve said many, many times before but it’s also provocative, because now we’re really exposed to each other (and to many, many more others) to an extent that we’ve never been before. Our lives are on display. Our choices are on display. And we confront and challenge each other with these not intentionally, but just by having them out there. And in confronting and challenging, we hit these points of conflict. Which is bad, in the sense that it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but also good very, very good in that we’re now working this stuff publicly, in the clear light of the public day. That’s unprecedented. That’s an opportunity that we the global community of mothers have never had before.

But then we argue about whether we should even take it. We don’t need to, we say. Whatever our issues, they’re not important, they don’t matter, they don’t really exist, even. They’re private. And so we consign ourselves to continuing to quietly judge each other, as all our foremothers did, and to address our issues quietly, behind the scenes, behind the veil .setting our conversations aside, because, gosh, it’s messy.

Which, screw that. This shit is messy. We need to talk about it. Here’s a start: I judged the heck out of Marissa Mayer for taking what? a three-week maternity leave and being public about it. NOT POSSIBLE, I thought. NOT SMART. Also: SHE’LL NEVER MAKE IT. And – the kicker – SHE’S SETTING AN UNREALISTIC EXAMPLE FOR OTHER WOMEN. The only reason that I didn’t post about it was because I was too busy pursuing my own Marissa Mayer-like career track while my husband took care of our children. Which, I know: hypocrisy in its most elegant form. But here’s the thing: had I judged her publicly, I’d have been called on it, probably, and that would have been a good thing. Good, because the judgment (shared by many others) would have been challenged, and the ideas and the assumptions behind the judgment interrogated. Brought out into the open, and questioned. And then I could have been part of a conversation about what we can learn from the Marissa Mayer example, and why we can and should celebrate it alongside others. (This is, not incidentally, why John Stuart Mill so champions freedom of speech in his On Liberty. Not because there’s some inherent good to freedom of speech, but because it has a utility: it makes possible to airing of both good and bad ideas, and the interrogation of both is vital to the advancement of society.)

We might say: let’s keep those kinds of judgments quiet – let’s even deny that we make them – because they’re inflammatory, and they make us look bad. I say: let’s take advantage of this opportunity that we have, to air them and interrogate them and deal with them head on. It’s the only way, I think, that we’re going to get to the place where we have a robust and productive public discourse of motherhood, and one that empowers us to celebrate each other.

So. Let’s keep talking, even when – especially when – it threatens to get messy. Because we can.

Our last segment on HLN’s Raising America  is today at 12:30 EST, and wraps up our 5 day collaboration with Raising America toward 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.

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