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It’s time for a ceasefire.

Apr13

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So perhaps you heard that Isabel and I were on Good Morning America the other day, talking about Alpha Mom. Or rather, the “Alpha Mom,” whomever that is. According to GMA, she’s a hard-driving, take-no-prisoners mama barracuda. She’ll eat you alive! Run, regular low-key moms!

Reading the blogging community’s reaction to the segment, which ranged anywhere from puzzlement to hostility, I got to thinking some more about the Mommy Wars. The GMA piece was, I thought, pretty transparently manufactured to create a dichotomy between the Super Moms and the Rest Of You Losers. So why is that so many of us interpret the enemy here as being the so-called “alpha moms,” and not the people creating the spin?

I think it’s fairly clear: there’s not a mother out there who doesn’t feel inadequate in some way. We’re already on the defensive, and we’re so primed to blame each other that it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of morning television to whip us all into a froth. How could the media-created image of the Alpha Mom, with all her privilege and superiority, not stir up resentment? She got a free Nintendo Wii, after all! (Um, we did?)

Today I re-read an article that I believe is required reading for, well, everyone: E.J. Graff’s The Opt-Out Myth, a sharp critique of how journalists cover the parenthood and work angle. The title is a play on “The Opt Out Revolution,” Lisa Belkin’s 2003 New York Times Magazine piece on how professional women are leaving the workplace, choosing family over career.

Only they’re not. In fact, according to Joan Williams’ Opt Out or Pushed Out? [link is to pdf], the Women Choosing Housewifery angle has been a popular one in media outlets for the past fifty years. But all along, the number of working mothers has steadily risen.

So why does this story continue to exert such a pull that it has to be trotted out on a regular basis? Graff points out that its roots lie deep in our public-policy flaws: our country doesn’t protect and support working parents. Because of this, parents feel a constant pull between work and family. Most parents are forced to sacrifice in one arena: either their careers, their families, or their relationships suffer. Some end up choosing (or being forced to choose) family over work. Full-time stay-at-home parenting is a privilege (if one can call it that) that only the relatively affluent can afford. The same circles that journalists live among: well-educated, mostly white, upper-middle-class. In other words, journalists are reporting on their friends.

Why does this matter? Writes Graff: “If journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then the folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution.” The media has turned a public crisis—lack of affordable daycare, the reality of professional women being placed on “mommy tracks,” absence of paid family leave–into a private affair. As a result, the spotlight (and the blame) is on mothers instead of the forces that put them between a rock and a hard place.

The same problem (stay with me, here) is what’s at play in pieces like the Alpha Mom segment and others. Only they’re more insidious. They take specific aim at our insecurities. They keep us focused inward, which is not where the problem is. They lead us to take aim, not at the powers that be, but at each other.

Take a look at this lengthy but illuminating hypothetical, quoted from “Opt Out or Pushed Out?”

A working couple in Sweden has a newborn child in January. Both parents stay home during the first two weeks of the child’s life because, since the 1970s, fathers have been granted 10 days of paid leave after childbirth (Crittenden, 2001). After that, the mother continues her paid leave and the father returns to work at 80% of his former schedule, taking advantage of the government’s policy that both parents can return to work on a reduced hours schedule until all their children are eight years old (Ibid.). In August, the father takes a full month off at 80% of his pay — Sweden has guaranteed fathers an extra month off at 80% of their pay during the first year of their children’s lives since 1984 (Ibid.). After much discussion of the Swedish policy that allows new parents to share eighteen months of paid leave as they choose (Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth and Family Politics at Columbia University [Clearinghouse], 2002; Crittenden, 2001; European Union Online, n.d.), they decide to switch roles the following January: The mother returns to work at 80% of her former schedule, while the father stays home with the child for the next six months. They decide not to use the additional leave available to them: three months at a flat rate and three months unpaid leave (Clearinghouse, 2002). Beginning in June, when the child turns one and one-half, both parents work an 80% schedule until their child turns eight. They stagger their schedules so each gets some one-on-one time with their child, and enroll the child in a child care center for the remaining hours. Public child care is available to children as young as one, and 64% of children aged one to five attend preschool; another 11% of children this age attend family day care homes (Skolverket, n.d.). While Sweden has not yet reached its goal of making quality day care available to every child in the country, it does ensure that lower-income families receive financial assistance for child care (Crittenden, 2001).

I don’t know about you, but I lost consciousness somewhere around “eighteen months of paid leave” and came to, reluctantly, at “public child care.” Can you even imagine enjoying anywhere near this kind of support? Because I can’t. And do you think that if we did, if we could spend enough time with our children and pursue our careers, knowing that we weren’t penalized for parenthood, that we’d be turning on each other? That we’d think twice about who’s an Alpha Mom and who’s only a Beta?

Things need to change. We need to change. So what’s next?

About the author

Alice Bradley

http://www.finslippy.com
Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


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23 Responses to “It’s time for a ceasefire.”

  1. Matt Apr 13 at 11:56 am Reply Reply

    While I agree with you that we need to do much more to support families and children, we also have to understand the cost. The combined Local & Federal Swedish tax rate for a family earning over $48K per year is app. 60%. On top of this they pay VAT of up to 25% onmajor purchases (12% on food).
    Their economy is doing pretty well, but it trails many other industrialized countries in job creation, primarily because a Swedish employee is a very expensive resource. Also, the economy is export-driven. Local purchasing power is not expanding. Don’t have time to debate the whole thing, but look forward to returning and reading the discussion.

  2. Valerie Apr 13 at 12:15 pm Reply Reply

    If I dare introduce a slogan from long ago in support of this essay…. “The personal is political.”
    As long as we think all our problems are the result of personal choices, we’ll never even start looking for institutional and structural solutions to widespread, shared problems.

  3. Zoot Apr 13 at 12:19 pm Reply Reply

    As a working-in-the-office Mom who was once a working-from-home Mom and another time a stay-at-home Mom, I can shout a hearty AMEN. I didn’t even watch the GMA piece, not because I don’t love Alpha Mom (because I do) but because I didn’t want to hear again about “THE ALPHA MOM” since I tend to be in the media’s “You Other Losers” category which I think is offensive for everyone.

  4. northern girl Apr 13 at 12:30 pm Reply Reply

    Frustrating. But we have the power – here, online – to enact some change for positive. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
    (I don’t know how to “link” in a comment box – I know the html tags for style and all…
    http://whalingseason.blogspot.com/2007/03/feminista.html)

  5. Vikki Apr 13 at 1:49 pm Reply Reply

    I guess “moving to Sweden” begs the question, huh?
    I sure wish I knew the real answer…

  6. Rootietoot Apr 13 at 2:35 pm Reply Reply

    Hi Alice (I’m not stalking you either…I’m…um..researching.)
    About the Swedish model- any numbers on the tax rate that pays for all that? I mean, yes, it sounds fabulous. My husband would have loved to have that kind of time off when our kids were born. But it’s not free.
    Part of the reason so many families have both parents working, is because we are constantly being told we must have Bigger and Better, and to do that we must have Money. I haven’t worked (for pay) since my first child was born 19 yrs ago.It was hard, my husband was making below poverty level wages, and it cost too much to put our baby in day care and buy the second car we’d need if I went to work. By the time #4 was born, we had our budget and our system in place, and we made it work. Much of our success was because we refused to buy into the myth that we had to have new this and bigger that. I blame the Media. I firmly believe more people could be stay-home parents, if they would just ditch the materialistic attitude. That’s hard to do when you’re fed the line constantly.
    Thanks for your words.

  7. Kellyim Apr 13 at 2:54 pm Reply Reply

    Wow. I think I need to move to Sweden before I have kids.
    Is there any way to change the public policy? In the US, family is so often put on the sidelines in the name of profit and working many hours. As an attorney, I see many of my colleagues so swamped with long days and making their billable hours that children aren’t even an option. And if one of the parents does have the luxury to stay home with the children, often the other parent hardly ever gets to spend time with the family.
    There are many, many things that I wish the government would change and this is right at the top of my list (along with heath care).

  8. Brandi Apr 13 at 3:24 pm Reply Reply

    I didn’t comment before because a lot of your previous commenter’s had already echoed what I was feeling.
    I watched the GMA piece and felt confused, cheap, and sad when it was over. They made you out exactly as you just wrote, to be barracudas. “Be intimidated people!”
    The confusion came because you DO NOT come across that way on your blog. Actually, you didn’t come that way on the piece either you seemed approachable and open, THEIR alliteration(is this applicable here?) however, was that “these women are freaks, avoid these mommies if you want to be normal”.
    I felt cheapened because I am college educated but am choosing to stay with my two young boys for the time being because, you can’t get that time back. But the way they made me feel after that piece is that I’m a sell-out, I need to be in the workplace, be a Beta mom and earn that bacon.
    I need to wrap this up. My overall feeling at the end was sad. Sad that the spin probably turned a lot of moms off of some potentially great help; a community that shares it’s mommy-pain out in the open for all to see and relate to. Not a bunch of snooty women who would say, “you’re giving your child what to eat?!” or some such nonsense.
    They were so transparently contemptuous of the whole Alpha Mom thing they changed it from a concept into a label.
    I hope I made sense.
    Aloha Alice! Aloha all moms.

  9. Lisa Milton Apr 13 at 5:16 pm Reply Reply

    Well, crap. I wish I had the answers. You are so right when you point out that there is something to be gained, politically, economically, by causing in-fighting – it’s a great strategy that just keeps blaming women at every turn. Too tired? It’s your fault. Worried about your kids? It’s your fault. Can’t find good child care? Say it with me ladies… The only concrete thing I know to do in my daily round is bite my tongue, real hard, when another Mom invites me to shred another Mom’s choices. I refuse to play the game. I’m tired of duking it out. And clearly I am rambling. Sorry.
    Keep the great posts coming Alice. Love it.

  10. cagey Apr 13 at 5:46 pm Reply Reply

    Hats off to Matt for writing the comment I wanted to write, but now don’t have to. I seriously doubt the American people would be willing to pay the taxes required to support such a system (France also has awesome bennies for mothers – and high taxes as well). Although, it could be argued that much of our taxes are being wasted on resources that would indeed be used better elsewhere, such as in more support for families.
    I’d also like to 2nd Rootietoot’s comment. I know lots of couples where one parent stays home and they are making huge sacrifices to do so. My skin always prickles when people say how “lucky” I am to get to stay home with my son. No, I am not lucky that I get to stay home, we always knew that I would stay home with our children and as such, made decisions towards that end (i.e. driving cars until they literally die, buying way, way LESS house than we could really afford, etc.) There’s a big difference. That said, my husband was the CEO and President of his last company, yet was tooling around DC in a 1995 beat up Honda. He’s started a new company and is still driving that jalopy – only,now it’s in Boston. And he doesn’t mind doing so, either. It makes me downright sad how much pressure there is these days for folks to live in the right neighborhood, wear the right clothes and drive the right cars.
    I’m not saying that every couple needs to think like we do! I do think there is a defeatist attitude at times.
    Overall, the whole Mommy Wars thing ties into women and rivalry – Susan Shapiro Barash has an excellent book that delves into this – Tripping the Prom Queen.
    For sure, you don’t see men arguing over this crap. Can we women just get along?

  11. Sara Apr 13 at 8:31 pm Reply Reply

    Right on, Alice!
    Just quickly, regarding taxes– at least they feel the real benefits of the taxes that they pay. I, for one, am horrified/ashamed at the use to which my taxes are put (e.g. Defense and little else after all the squandering). This country can afford to tax the wealthy a bit more and reallocate government spending, and neither would precipitate economic collapse. It’s also a long-accepted truth that a content worker is a more productive worker, so meeting a worker’s needs is just good sense.

  12. Julie Apr 14 at 9:04 am Reply Reply

    I got sidetracked by the Swedish stuff. I haven’t had coffee yet so I’ll reread that later. Someone on my blog posted that I should read this before bashing peope I don’t know.
    I “bash” the people I do know. I lived in Alpha (super mom/soccer mom) Hell for 25 years. I saw first hand the hyper competitiveness. The oneupmanship, the “my stuff is better than your stuff” “my parties are better than your parties” stuff. I got the “you get your son’s hair cut at the HAIRCUTTERY?!” Yep. “We use Fancy Highdollar Salon!” Cool. My son is six. I’m not wasting money on Fancy Highdollar Salon for a 6 year old. Or a 16 year old.
    You don’t go to “XYZ restaurant? EVERYONE goes there!” Not everyone. I dislike trendy. I dislike fads.
    I would see Alpha Mom surfing the ‘Net at Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, etc. on her laptop (when she just left her nice home with high speed Internet) while the kids ran around and pulled books from the shelves while she was probably researching how to be a better mom. Good parenting comes from the heart and gut. Good old fashioned common sense.
    Those who were on GMA may not be like the piece described, but I know many moms like that. That’s why I believed the piece. However, having worked with authors as assistants and their web managers (I know manage http://www.drdavestein.com), I know how the media can slant things. But the Alpha Mom piece just rang so true to what I know of these moms personally. In thinking back, I can’t remember any of those moms who had happy marriages. Most of them are now divorced.

  13. RLJ Apr 14 at 9:05 am Reply Reply

    Sweden – yes, nominally high taxes but that doesn’t tell you anything about people’s disposable incomes and what they can buy with them. The upper middle class Sweden has a lower nominal after tax income, but when you look at the US equivalent, once daycare fees, the mortgage and medical insurance is covered, there’s no real difference. Sweden (like all of the Nordic countries) has very low unemployment and it is short term (people “between jobs” rather than “on the scrap heap”). You don’t need to “create” jobs if you already have them!
    The other major difference between Sweden and the US is that in Sweden the general spread of earnings is very narrow – you don’t have many superrich but you don’t have a glut of folk in no-prospect, crap pay, crap conditions, no security jobs still having to go to the food bank to feed their kids.
    The best thing is that fathers actually get involved with their kids – including where the parents separate. And because men have the same rights to paid leave, there isn’t much point in employers discriminating against young women because “they’ll just go off and get pregnant anyhoos.”
    You can have it – but it means the top 10% making sacrifices and since the top 10% happen to fund the two US political parties I don’t expect to see it anytime soon.
    But it’s not perfect. Nordic countries have the same problems of domestic violence and alcohol abuse and a persistent 10% gender pay gap. We’re still working on it!
    RLJ (in Iceland)

  14. cce Apr 15 at 8:42 am Reply Reply

    The answer is…there is no answer. What works for one family may not work for another and so the danger of one size fits all parenting recommendations is that it presumes we are all alike. There’s too many women out there proselytizing about how we should all be handling this motherhood/work thing because they have discovered what makes them happy or at least sane. Nice of them to share but there should be some attempt to acknowledge that marriage, family and parenthood are complex arrangements with far too many variables to pretend that one solution should apply to all.

  15. Mauigirl52 Apr 15 at 12:53 pm Reply Reply

    RLJ, good perspective on the Swedish statistics. America is a very different place, and unfortunately, to me at least, isn’t a better place. Too much emphasis on “I’ve got mine” and not enough on how to take care of those less fortunate. Too much emphasis on cutting taxes but not enough emphasis on putting the money the government does get into programs that increase quality of life. Too much emphasis on the old work ethic and not enough on how to live a real and balanced life. Even those of us without children would prefer not to work 80 hour weeks. It’s not just about raising children, although that is a key issue since it impacts our lives for generations to come. But it’s about how to live a deep and satisfying life. And unless a person is lucky enough to work at a job that is also what they love, most of us don’t get that opportunity if we’re living here in the “land of plenty” where the rich get richer and the rest of us don’t get much of anywhere.

  16. Matt Apr 16 at 10:29 am Reply Reply

    I think RLJ and mauigirl make very valid points. On the one hand, per capita income and GDP tell one story, but what a family’s true disposable income is after child care and health care costs are deducted is another. The US is clearly not a leader in this category, although good data is hard to come by.
    I think the other (non-income) measure that is important is the % of the population not afforded regular access to quality health care without crippling the family’s budget.
    Changing our (the US) focus from “having it all” to “how to live a real and balanced life” will take decades, but it is probably the best path if we are to survive as any kind of reasonable society. So maybe, Alice, you can lead a discussion in how we achieve that politically and where do we start in 2008. This is a real challenge. We are not good at internalizing abstract concepts and developing long term plans around them.
    On the Mommy Wars (Alpha, Beta, Omega – haven’t seen so much Greek since I left college)- I’m not sure a fifty-something guy has a valid opnion. But I did view the video of your appearance and I have to agree with most of your other commenters – your discription and approach was reasonable and inclusive. I think the term “Alpha-Mom” itself is somewhat misleading given the modern conotation of the “Alpha-anything” as an agressive, lead-or-die, front running individual. I know Isabel would be loath to give up her brand, but it may be either that or initiating an expensive and lengthy attempt to redefine “Alpha”. We’re a “sound-bite” society with only short term memory. The word already comes pre-packaged with a lot of baggage.

  17. Isabel Kallman
    Isabel Kallman Apr 17 at 11:16 am Reply Reply

    Julie,
    You got “sidetracked by the Swedish stuff?” I hope you have had a chance to reread it by now because issues like the ones discussed here are the topics that parents ultimately care about: support for families.
    Yes here, on our website, we talk about fun things like pop culture and beauty and personal care. But, it’s all written in a humorous and self-deprecating fashion as we have taken great care to have wonderful women writers like Alice help develop the voice of Alpha Mom on the web. On the video side, our content is serious in nature, but non-judgmental in tone as we believe that parents are smart enough to make the best decisions for them and their families.
    Ultimately my message here is: Mothers are complex women and need the space to make choices without spectators (and other mothers) out there waiting to pounce and criticize them for those choices. I think the media plays an important part here. To a great extent, mainstream media has managed only to eek out unbalanced portrayals and outrageous stereotypes of moms. We at Alpha Mom aim to present a fuller, richer and more accurate picture of mothers.
    Julie, I hope that you agree once you start poking around and seeing what we are about. Thanks for visiting.
    Isabel Kallman
    Alpha Mom CEO

  18. G Apr 17 at 5:51 pm Reply Reply

    I thought the Swedish things was a hypothetical . . . ?
    As a non-mom HR Manager, the other side of all that support and time off is – how the heck do I keep your job open while you’re gone?
    I’m not heartless, I do agree we need more support from employers and also more expectation that fathers and mothers both get kid-raising opportunities. But you gotta make it a win-win for the business world if you want it to happen. Right now I’ve got two dads-to-be with babies ready to pop. If they both had ALL this job-protected leave, I just don’t know what I’d do. We would quite literally go under, and then 70 of us would lose our jobs – because we’re highly technically advanced I couldn’t bring in a temp, and I couldn’t find enough work for two people to do all the time (thus having one extra available to cover such leave).
    So, solve my problem! Help me keep my people happy and with priorities in the right place, while allowing my business to keep its head up. Any ideas?
    What if we went down to 35 hour work weeks? Then you’d have more time in the day to be at home . . .

  19. d Apr 18 at 1:36 pm Reply Reply

    You don’t have to go as far as Sweden to see a different model. In Canada parents get one year parental leave after birth or adoption with income support from the government. Most employers provide further top-up to the benefits resulting in 100% pay for the year. There are currently policy discussions underway about increasing the leave to 1 1/2 years because it has been such a success. Employers regularly hire new employees for the one year contract positions that open up enabling people to get experience and exposure they might never have gotten. The result is that parents are able to make a very well-informed and relaxed decision about whether or not they will be going back to work. The child is usually walking and talking and there are many child care options. I am amazed that the US provides its parents with such meagre parental leave and expects parents to be able to make the choice about working/not working when their children are six or twelve weeks old. I would guess that many of the American mothers who feel that they couldn’t possibly return to work at that early emotional moment might feel rather different after a full year to recover from birth and to enjoy their child at home.

  20. d Apr 18 at 1:36 pm Reply Reply

    You don’t have to go as far as Sweden to see a different model. In Canada parents get one year parental leave after birth or adoption with income support from the government. Most employers provide further top-up to the benefits resulting in 100% pay for the year. There are currently policy discussions underway about increasing the leave to 1 1/2 years because it has been such a success. Employers regularly hire new employees for the one year contract positions that open up enabling people to get experience and exposure they might never have gotten. The result is that parents are able to make a very well-informed and relaxed decision about whether or not they will be going back to work. The child is usually walking and talking and there are many child care options. I am amazed that the US provides its parents with such meagre parental leave and expects parents to be able to make the choice about working/not working when their children are six or twelve weeks old. I would guess that many of the American mothers who feel that they couldn’t possibly return to work at that early emotional moment might feel rather different after a full year to recover from birth and to enjoy their child at home.

  21. raine Apr 18 at 2:37 pm Reply Reply

    maybe we should all move to sweden.
    *sigh*

  22. Deliciously Naughty Apr 19 at 11:38 am Reply Reply

    Two thoughts…
    1–As a teacher in an urban district, I can tell you for a fact that my student’s moms aren’t playing alpha/beta mommy games. The only reason I can indulge is because of my income level.
    1–I think the biggest change we need to make is to reconceptualize “mommy” issues as “parent” issues. Only 1/2 of the population has the potential to be a mommy and therefore are on some level easier to ignore. All people have the potential to be a parent and that’s a much more powerful powerbase.

  23. Bad Hippie Apr 27 at 1:45 pm Reply Reply

    I went back to work when my son was 2 weeks old. I was a 19-year-old single mom working a dead-end job, and Clinton had just put the FMLA into place. The doctors got my due date wrong, so I spent a lot of my leave sans baby – and was forced to go back to work long before I was ready.
    I was lucky to find someone who would love and watch my son at odd hours of the day, and for reasonable pay. Still, I spent the first year of his life in a haze – working, barely sleeping, and missing most of his major milestones. It stunk.
    My baby is now 13 years old, and I’m finally married and thinking of having more. I spent last year unemployed and freelancing from home, which was financially horrible – but it allowed me to spent time with my son and do some of the parent-type volunteer things I couldn’t do when he was little. Now I’m back at work, and the goal is to save enough in our respective IRAs to be able to afford me staying home in the next go-round. I know from experience that that is cheaper than daycare, and better for baby if you can afford it.
    And therein lies the kicker – if you can afford it. I think I would gladly pay taxes if it meant that parents (especially single moms) could parent without worry while taking some time off from work. Or, if moms (or dads) could somehow be subsidized for those stay-at-home years. Parenting is work. We need to respect it as such.
    My taxes are used to support a war I don’t believe in, and to help fat cats grow even more obese. If they were going toward something I believed in, I would gladly pay double.

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