It’s time for a ceasefire.
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?