When The Mommy Wars Attack
I love your advice, I almost ALWAYS agree with it (in fact, can’t think of a time when I didn’t agree). My problem may not have an “answer” but I am hoping that you can perhaps shed some light on my relationship with my close friend, and why it’s causing me a lot of anxiety.
Ever since I had my first baby in 2010, I have been fascinated by the question of how to achieve work/life balance (or whether this is even possible). Very often, this question gets me into Mommy Wars territory, but I try to avoid judging anyone because I do not believe there is a right answer to the question of whether or not to work. (I currently work full-time but find it challenging, and often think about finding something with fewer hours, more flexibility, or just taking a year or so off.) I get into this conversation with friends and acquaintances all the time. I was recently at a birthday party where the SAHM’s were all sitting in a circle talking about how evil working moms are (I’m not exaggerating: one of them said “I think, to be able to leave their babies and go to work, those women are just evil”). You should have seen their faces when they realized I was one of “those women”–I was so embarrassed FOR them that I started talking about how I was planning to quit working soon anyway.
But that didn’t bother me as much as when an actual close friend said that children obviously benefit more from having a SAHM than a working mom–and this was a woman who used to be very successful in her career until the day she gave birth and decided to quit. I think it’s wonderful that she got off her intense career path to take some time to enjoy her baby! I was so proud of her, and have been very supportive every step of the way. She seems happier now and I am happy for her. I know that there is no one path for everyone. My mother worked and I was always so proud of her success–but I also liked it that she had a flexible job and could pick me up from school. We all make sacrifices in the quest to achieve something resembling “balance”–time with family, career goals, a clean house, whatever.
But I think my friend is convinced that she is making the better sacrifice. She says my practical side is keeping me from living the life I want, which is sort of true, but come on, sometimes we have to be practical. She even told me a story about her friend whose baby DIED at 18 months, and how guilty her friend felt for working while her child was alive (!!). Okay, I’m making my friend sound worse than she is. She used to be my favorite person to talk to about these issues because she really understands how HARD it all is to juggle everything (that’s why she quit working). We’ve been friends for so many years and have been through so much, but I’m sensing a shift in our relationship after so many disparaging comments recently about my choices, and I’m just not sure if I should wait and see if this is just a phase she’s going through, or if she really believes what she is saying. If she truly believes that she is the better mother because she’s at home all day, can she also be my friend??
She says that she doesn’t believe that at all, but then she will say things like “I could NEVER put my child in day care” (where do you think mine is?!) and “Of course working mothers are happier than SAHMs–being a SAHM is much harder work than sitting in an office all day! I am doing this for my child, not for myself.” The weird thing is, if I say something like “I want to spend more time with my child, but I also want to keep my foot in the door somehow,” she gets defensive. As though the fact that HER foot isn’t in the door is some sort of failure on her part.
I’ve always had friends with different religious and political beliefs, and I’ve just never had a problem with discussing those things because I like to hear different views–and I appreciate it when others make me question my own views. This whole Mommy Wars thing is just a different story for me. Every time we discuss it I feel like she is almost pressuring me to do the same thing she did.
How should I handle this? Should I say something to her? Am I just being overly sensitive because I somehow, deep-down, believe I’m really a bad mom because I work? Or: should I just ignore her comments and try to stay off the topic of working moms from now on?
Thanks for your advice,
Working Mom of the (Hopefully!) Non-Evil Variety
In my long, storied (but most Internet-based) experience with the Mommy Judgment Wars, I’d say a good 99.9% of the judgy comments stem from a place of insecurity about the commenters’ own choices. Even if they do believe they are making the absolute best, most obvious, universal good-mother-seal-of-approval choice, there’s usually some small part of them that worries that 1) it isn’t, or 2) it won’t turn out to be as important as they made it out to be, in the grand scheme of their child’s life.
Because seriously: Most of us will talk fondly about our own mother’s choices but can always add a caveat. “I was proud of her success at work and she was a good role model…but I sometimes wished she had more freedom to come to class parties and recitals or meet me at the bus stop.” OR: “I loved how close I was to my SAHM…but I hate how she was always so financially dependent on my father and doesn’t have any other options now.” OR: “It was so great that my mom was able to work from home…except for the memories of getting yelled at for the time I spilled juice on those Really Important Papers. Also, I watched way too much TV.”
As for your friend:
“The weird thing is, if I say something like “I want to spend more time with my child, but I also want to keep my foot in the door somehow,” she gets defensive. As though the fact that HER foot isn’t in the door is some sort of failure on her part.”
Seriously, Mommy Warriors: By preschool no one cares how long you breastfed, or if at all. Least of all, your kid. And there’s no stamp on anybody’s backpack indicating who did baby-led weaning and who ate Beech Nut out of a jar. Everybody potty trains and by elementary school you’re happy if you manage to remember that other mom’s NAME, much less give a crap what her work situation is. I can’t chaperone every field trip and I can’t bake cupcakes for every class party, even with all the work flexibility in the world, because I’m juggling multiple field trip/class party schedules and a baby and gaaaaaahhhlifebalancefail. I’m there at the bus stop every day when Noah gets home from school (while he asks endless questions about the mysterious, awesome-looking “aftercare” place that a bunch of his friends go to instead), but a couple mornings a week I outsource the morning drop-off to a babysitter (who then watches the baby for a few hours) so I can get a head start on THIS VERY COLUMN OH THE IRONY.
(And funny story: Every single morning, the bus stop is fully populated with a ton of work-outside-the-home moms and dads…and my babysitter. At the afternoon pickup, I’m usually the only one there, save for one other family where the parents work flexible hours. All the other kids go to aftercare or friends’ houses on other bus routes. So no one even sees what an “awesome” mom I am for figuring out a way to be there for all my kids right after school because THERE ARE NO MEDALS FOR ANY OF THIS, FOR ANY OF US.)
I’ve pretty much done every arrangement out there, save for working part-time outside of the home: I worked full-time in an office, been essentially a full-time SAHM (with just a couple tiny blogging things that I could do during naptime), worked part-time at home with one kid, then two kids, and now work alllllmost full-time (but not quite) at home with three. Every. Single. Arrangement. Has pros and cons. Every single one was hard, in its own way. And not just for me, for the kids too. Yes, even the SAHM one. (I seriously still wonder if staying in daycare — with the structure and peer interaction and regular exposure to new things — would have been better for Noah’s development and delays rather than those aimless, structureless, playgroup-lite years with me. But whatever. I did the best I could at the time. Still am. It’s not perfect — I hate missing those mornings with my baby! — but we’re all pretty happy most of the time. I’ll take it.)
Point is, I could not IMAGINE sitting around at a party disparaging mothers who made a different choice than me. That’s just something so out of a badly written sitcom about What People Without Kids Think Close-Minded Mothers Are Like I cannot even roll my eyes enough. It’s GOOD that they were embarrassed. They DESERVED to be embarrassed, and there was no reason for you to try to ease their social discomfort with “oh, but I’m thinking about quitting!” Even if it’s true. They called moms who work EVIL? Whatever. Screw that. And them!
(The baby kept me up from midnight to 2:30 am last night and I’ve since had a LOT of coffee. Forgive me for not being at my most nicey-nice diplomatic this morning.)
And I’m wondering if maybe that’s the reason your close friend feels entitled to make all these ridiculous comments to you as well? She knows you are self-doubting a little and sees an opportunity to convince you that SAHMing is a self-doubt-free zone? (Which: HAHAHAHAHA! No.)
I presume you’ve talked with her about how you aren’t actually 100% satisfied with your situation and so she feels like the door has been opened for her to play this part of the 100% satisfied and fulfilled SAHM to “win” you over to her way of thinking? If that’s the case, she might be — like many SAHMs, including me! — struggling with the social isolation of staying home and kind of hoping you’ll just quit and have playdates with her or something. Though I still say her disparaging comments are coming from at least some insecurity about her choice to quit her job and stay home. Or even a little jealousy at your life beyond the childcare grind. Because if you’re secure in your decision, you don’t need to vilify someone else’s (i.e. you can breastfeed without being an ass to formula feeders, cloth diaper without tsk-tsking people in the Pampers aisle). Even if that person isn’t entirely sure they’ve made the right decision, you are able to respond with true empathy, not propaganda.
It’s possible that, while she seemed happier for awhile, she may be now realizing the long-term financial consequences of her decision, or how it changes the dynamics of a marriage relationship, or how lonely and monotonous being home all day, every day can be. These are all things that SAHM/WAHMs have to work through to differing degrees. Most of us, however, manage to do it without using their WOHM friends as a Why My Life Choices Are The Best Ones Ever sounding board. And most of us can ALSO listen to a working mom lament the downsides of THAT arrangement without thinking that hey! This is a great time to bring up dead toddlers.
If your friend really is a wonderful, important part of your support network and you’d like to get over this rift, I would just call her on these comments the next time she makes one. Use one of the responses you typed to me. “Oh, I could never put my child in daycare, that’s just so X, Y and Z!” “Dude. Where do you think mine is? You realize that’s hurtful for me to hear, because it sounds like you think I’m a bad mom, right? Can we please make our get-togethers a Mommy Wars-free zone, because I get it enough from other people. I’m so glad you’re so happy with your decision, but you’ve got to be more sensitive to the way you talk about mine.”
If she gets bent out of shape and tries to turn it around on you, like “oh that’s only hurtful because YOU think, deep-down, that you’re making the wrong choice,” tell her that there are no wrong choices, full stop. And then stop letting yourself get drawn into these conversations “all the time.” You say you’re fascinated by the topic, but it sounds like most of the time you’re walking into a social minefield where it’s your confidence that’s getting blown to smithereens by people who sense WEAKNESS! WORKING MOMMY GUILT AND WEAKNESS! LET’S GET HER! You don’t owe anybody outside of your own little household any explanation as to why you work or why you don’t, other than a smile and a “I’m doing the best I can and my child is happy and safe and thriving, just like yours. Isn’t that great? Now where’s that birthday cake already?”
Published January 4, 2012. Last updated May 6, 2016.