If one more person says the words “Mommy Wars” to me I will clock them with a bottle of Enjoli. While I will not deny that there are women who judge other women’s choices and find them wanting (and these women, when they were girls, sauntered by your table in the lunchroom and said, “No offense, but those pants make you look really fat”), the very notion that huge numbers of mothers are seething with fury at the fact that other mothers are either working outside the home or not working outside the home is just lunacy. (And the term wars? Wars?! Wars involve blood and death and apparently prisoners being made to stand hooded on boxes believing that they’re about to be electrocuted. Do not trivialize war by calling this zeitgeist-y little tempest in a media teapot a war.)
But hey, the media love a catfight. Nothing’s more fun than contemplating a yummy mummy and a hot chick in a business suit rassling in a vat of creamed corn — even if their animosity is as faked as a bad actress’s orgasm in a creamed-corn porno. (And no, to my knowledge there is no such thing as creamed-corn porn. If there is, please don’t send me e-mail. I don’t want to know.) But the Mommy Wars stories keep coming. Reporters can always find someone with Issues to give them a bitchy quote that fits their thesis. And hey, you gotta move units. So even books that offer a nuanced look at women’s struggles to balance home and work life put that idiotic misleading titillating phrase in the title.
But back here in the annoyingly nuanced real world, which side of the battle am I supposed to be on? I’m self-employed and work at home. I took four months off after Josie’s birth and three months off after Maxine’s. I go on field trips and take the girls to doctor’s appointments, but I also recently went on a business trip for five days and left the kids with their father (who is so astonishingly competent, it is clear that he has not seen enough family-oriented sitcoms). Do you count me among the 70% of women with kids under 18 who are in the labor force, according to the 2004 census? Or wait — since I make my own hours, am I currently among the 36% of women who work part-time at some point in their careers, according to the research firm Catalyst? Do four out of five dentists surveyed think I am failing a) the feminist movement and/or b) the future of the Jewish people and/or c) Jack Wertheimer? Should I stop reading so many statistics, since they make me feel like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, all frightened and confused?
I will only say that when I did a story for a women’s magazine in 2004 about motherhood and ambivalence, and interviewed 70 women, not one spontaneously made a judgmental comment about other women’s choices. These women, who unaccountably were not all upper-middle-class Ivy-educated white lawyers, said they sometimes felt guilty, sometimes experienced self-doubt, sometimes worried that others were judging them and finding them wanting… but they were too concerned with their own problems to spend much time snarking at other women.
But hey, enough about women! In all these waves of words and oodles of op-eds, where are the dads? Why are parenting issues always presented as moms’ issues? When upper-middle-class women “opt out,” who’s paying for little Sophie’s pointe shoes? In families with two parents working outside the home, where’s the discussion of the juggling act that we real people know so well? (Who’s doing drop-off? Who stays home when the kid’s sick? Who’s making dinner, and why does Jonathan think I can eat a slab of red meat the size of my own head?)
One thing I’ve learned from my social-science-Ph.D. husband is that statistics are puppets; you can make them say anything you want. Nevertheless, I present to you 2002 poll data from the nonprofit Families and Work Institute that jibes with my family’s experience and the experiences of most folks we know: Generation X fathers spend significantly more time with their children than baby-boomer dads. The amount of time dads spend with their kids during the week has increased by 1.2 hours since 1977 — that’s a 50% bump — while the amount that women spend with their kids has remained
the same. A 2000 study by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center found that 82% of men ages 20-39 put family time at the top of their list of priorities, ahead of money, power or prestige, and 71% of them would be willing to give up some pay for more family time. (Men over 40 listed challenging work and good relationships with co-workers as more important than a family-friendly schedule.)
So younger dads really do want to do things differently. Yay. And fortunately, more and more companies are finding that being flexible does not make business go to hell in a diaper bag. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, Johnson & Johnson experienced a 50% decrease in absenteeism among employees who used flexible work options and family-leave policies. And IBM found that the highest performers in the company were those who were most focused on balancing work and family. The Families and Work Insitute reports that the availability of employee flextime nationwide rose to 43% in 2002 from 29% in 1992. Many other companies follow their lead.
As I’ve written here before, I think that framing discussions about child care and women working as “choices” or “wars” a) ignores the experiences of women who have to work, and b) lets our government and corporations off the hook in terms of making meaningful change that will help all families and our society as a whole. So rather than encouraging mothers to snipe at one another in sound bites, can we talk about how to create a more snazzily European system of paid family leave? Can we please have some decent health insurance, better public transportation and quality early childhood education, all of which will make family and work balance more easily? Can we applaud men who put in the face time, know their way around a Diaper Genie, aren’t embarrassed to dance around with a silk scarf in music class and don’t call it “babysitting” when they take care of their own kids?
I’m hyperventilating again, aren’t I? I’ve been thinking about these issues not only because I’m married to a guy who also works at home, administers Josie’s asthma meds every night, takes her to school most mornings and can run the Maxine-to-English translator as well as I can, but also because I’m a semi-obsessive reader of daddy blogs on the Internet. I don’t know why I find fathers’ online storytelling more interesting than mothers’ — maybe because their narratives are less familiar to me? Maybe because I talk to moms about their inner lives all the time, but reading daddy blogs is like getting to go undercover as a dude, like Joyce Hyser in the underappreciated 1985 teen movie “Just One of the Guys,” allowing me to find out how guys talk while standing at the urinal? (Wait, was that gross?)
Anyway, I chatted with a daddy blogger named Brian Reid, a 31-year-old journalist who lives outside of Washington, D.C., and is a former stay-at-home dad. “My company has a great paternity leave policy and I took four months off after my daughter was born and it was like heroin,” he explained. Now he freelances two-and-a-half days a week, shares child care responsibilities with a neighbor who also has a child and works part time, and blogs about issues relevant to involved dads (and moms!) everywhere. “There’s a big difference between our generation and our fathers’ generation,” he said. “We don’t come home and say, ‘Hey I’ll be in the den.’”
Brian’s site is called Rebel Dad, a term he coined because the acronym SAHD (Stay at Home Dad) is pretty vile. “It’s unwieldy as well as depressing,” he said. “And home is not often where you are, physically, when you’re a parent!” (Another blogger goes by Action Dad, another apt, non-SAHD moniker.) Anyway, Brian feels that the hands-on Gen X dad is “an outgrowth of 30 years of increasing gender equity. My parents gave me ‘Free To Be… You and Me’ on vinyl!” More seriously, he points out that today, so many jobs can be done remotely and at nontraditional hours; the workplace should evolve to match. Meanwhile, we’re all inventing our own stories, cobbling together our own balancing solutions, sharing the burdens and joys of work and raising kids. Dedicated parents of both genders struggle in what feminist writer Peggy Orenstein calls a half-changed world. It would be great if our country did more to support that juggling act; it would be equally great if we could applaud all the parents who are doing their best.
Write to Marjorie at email@example.com.