For some reason more fuel keeps being added to the fire of a supposed “Mommy War.” It is not hard to see this as a “war” of media creation rather than one between mothers themselves. A new entry is from Forbes magazine and is titled, “Unhappy Homemakers: Which Moms Are Really Choosing to Stay Home?” Based on a recent Gallup poll, the main finding seems to be that stay-at-home mothers are more likely to experience depression, sadness, and anger than their counterparts who work for pay outside the home.
Apparently, the finding breaks down by income. The stay-at-home mothers are increasingly less educated, foreign-born women who may not have employment options that outweigh the cost of putting their children in childcare. They stay at home to take care of their children not because they necessarily think it’s the best way to raise a child, but because they can’t afford to do it any other way. Despite all the ifs, ands, or buts that go with statistical findings, the implication seems to be that staying at home to raise children may not be a choice freely entered into, but the only option available for lower-income women.
By some strange logic the issue here is apparently not that you have to be able to afford to stay home, but rather that you have to be able to afford to go to work. The other side is, that those women who have a choice, choose to work. None of this relates to what we know of the current need for two working parents in order to maintain a decent standard of living.
The so-called “Mommy Wars” used to refer to conflict or resentment between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. Such feelings reflected the idea that stay-at-home mothers were better mothers, while working mothers were not doing what was best for their children. Supposedly, stay-at-home mothers felt superior while working mothers felt guilty. Actually, there appear to be enough feelings of guilt for everyone. However, such ideas were given currency when some were afraid that the expanding opportunities for women were destroying motherhood.
Now, apparently, the fear seems to be that women’s investment in their children may jeopardize the advances women have made in the workplace and in their lives. The “war”, in the media at least, is reflected on the one hand in articles prescribing methods of child-rearing that seem to require a mother’s attention 24/7. On the other hand, reports such as this one suggest that working mothers are the happy mothers, while stay-at-home mothers are depressed.
What is so striking about this is the way in which women are polarized. It is as though either you are a “good” mother who stays home with her children, or a “happy” mother because you are working. In fact, it is our society that does the polarizing by failing to provide desirable child-care and by making outside work a necessity in many instances.
But beyond that, women are not one-dimensional. During one period of our history, women were told that their only road to fulfillment was through motherhood. That was not true then, and it is not true now. Many women want to be mothers, but they also have other abilities and interests they want to be able to pursue. The idea of “choice”, which at one time seemed very appealing, is not really what it is about. There are many realities that limit choice and most of us find that compromises have to be made. Those compromises affect both family life and work opportunities.
The developmental literature, and most child-rearing manuals, focus on the needs of children. This, too, is a historical shift since in an earlier period it was the parents who were predominant – children were to be seen but not heard. As we learned more about how children develop, however, and about their needs at different stages, the idea somehow took hold that those needs had to be met in particular ways in order for development to take place as it should. Unhappily, this has led to many parents worrying that they will somehow damage their children if they don’t meet their needs in the “right” way.
Finding ways to balance the needs of children with the needs of parents remains a major challenge in thinking about child-rearing today. Helping children learn that their own needs and desires are not always paramount is an important part of their growing ability to live cooperatively with others. They learn this first by living with their parents who at times talk on the phone, or need to make dinner, or even just to take a rest.
At the same time, as a society we must find ways to relieve some of the economic and work pressures on parents so that they can be available physically and emotionally to their children. The issue is not whether mothers stay home with their children or work outside the home. The issue remains finding a better balance between family and work life. “Mommy Wars” are only a distraction.