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Deciphering the 'mommy wars'

By Manav Tanneeru
CNN

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Modern motherhood seems defined by the push and pull between the workplace and home.

SPECIAL REPORT

MOTHERS BY THE NUMBERS

55 percent
Proportion of women with infants in the workforce in 2002, down from record 59 percent in 1998

63 percent
Proportion of college-educated women with infants in the workforce

5.4 million
Number of stay-at-home moms in 2003

687,000
Number of childcare centers nationwide in 2002

2 million
Number of preschoolers in childcare centers for the bulk of their mothers' working hours, of a total of 10 million preschoolers

10 million
Number of single mothers living with children under 18

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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Parenting
Lifestyle (House and Home)
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Population

(CNN) -- The media have examined the so-called mommy wars over the past few years, pitting stay-at-home moms against working moms, the upper class against the working class and conservative values against liberal values.

How much of this debate is valid, and how much of it is simply a media phenomenon? Can perceptions and attitudes toward motherhood in contemporary society be so easily categorized?

Or is this debate simply the latest twist in a conversation that began in the 1960s about the role of women and, by extension, mothers in society? If so, it poses the question of whether the advances women have made during the past 40 years have undermined the very character of what it means to be a mother.

"All mothers feel defensive because there is nothing we can do that is right," says Joanne Brundage, the founder of Mothers and More, a nonprofit organization that works to help mothers who are balancing roles at home and the workplace.

Brundage worked for 10 years as a mail carrier in Chicago, and for six of those of years she was a working mom. She quit her job and became a full-time stay-at-home mother after the birth of her second child. She founded Mothers and More in 1987 and returned to work as a part-time executive director of the organization in 1998.

"No matter what you happen to be doing, it depends on how you're perceived," she says. "If you're in the paid workplace, you're a selfish, uncaring mother. If you're not working in a meaningful way, you're stupid, you're boring."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 55 percent of mothers with infants were in the workforce in 2002, down from a record high of 59 percent in 1998. Meanwhile, there were 5.4 million stay-at-home moms in 2003, the bureau said.

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, believes the view of mother as primary caregiver is responsible for much of the dissonance over the issue.

"I think we've made progress in expanding the role of men in the family life, and there are many wonderful examples of men co-parenting and fathers being the primary parent," she says. "But I think, and this is unfortunate, society still clings to the stereotype, even when it's not true.

"I suppose there will always be some amount of tension in trying to find the right balance between work and family. But I look forward to a time that that's a challenge that's faced equally by women and men, not merely by women."

What the debate sometimes neglects are the many mothers who have to work for economic reasons, whether it is a middle-class two-parent household that needs to make ends meet or a single-parent household where the mother is the breadwinner, says Carol Evans, CEO and president of Working Mother magazine.

"When you talk about women who are making these choices to stay home, you are talking about, a lot of times, just the very thin upper crust, and that upper crust shouldn't be used as a bellwether for the rest of the country because it's not the way the rest of the country lives," she says.

Author and journalist Caitlin Flanagan notes many mothers don't have to work, but do so either to maintain social cachet or because they find staying at home devaluing. That some of these mothers are now choosing to stay at home, without feeling any sense of loss for their workplace identity, is contributing to the tension, Flanagan says.

"Ultimately, you're always going to have a situation where some women are going to choose, if they have the financial ability, to not take part in the work world and want to be with their kids," she says.

"They're going to think that's important and that's always going to make the working mom -- who loves her kids just as much as the at-home mom -- feel guilty."

Flanagan, who recently wrote the book "To Hell With That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife," is something of a lightning rod in the debate.

A line from an article she penned for The Atlantic Monthly -- "When a woman works, something is lost" -- is often cited as evidence of her supposed antifeminist tendencies.

A mother herself, she is often criticized for the contradictions her life poses to her argument. She argues for the benefits of staying at home, yet she is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She writes eloquently of the importance of cooking and housekeeping, yet she hires a housekeeper.

Flanagan, who describes herself as a social conservative, readily admits to the contradictions and points to the competing emotions in the title of the book as evidence of her self-awareness.

"I'd be easier to dismiss by the left if I said women ought to stay at home. I don't. I'm simply saying that we need to be adults, we need to admit the truth," she says.

"We need to admit that if we are not working for economic reasons, we have chosen to not put our children first in our lives, but to, perhaps, put them and our career on a co-equal level. And that the women who choose to stay at home have put their children ahead of their career."

So, does Flanagan have a point? Was something truly "lost" as women gained more prominence in the working world? Has the maternal instinct been diminished as a result?

Flanagan's critics believe arguments posited in her books and magazine articles are a nostalgic yearning for a romanticized notion of the post-World War II suburban mother. At the very worst, they find the argument to be elitist and misguided.

"Our professions are part of our identities; we define ourselves more and more by our work as well as our families. We are living in a moment where all kinds of relationships are in flux -- those between men and women, women and women, parents and their children," book editor Hillary Frey wrote in Ms. magazine two years ago in reaction to Flanagan's work.

"Reinforcing rigid, antiquated stereotypes to dictate how we should behave is pointless, not to mention wrong."

On a more conciliatory note, Brundage of Mothers and More says these days, mothers encompass all sides of the debate at one point or another.

"You will not a find a woman, once she becomes a mother and if you look at her active parenting years, ... who is not in and out, up and down and all over the place," she says. "You're a stay-at-home mom today, you're working part time tomorrow, you're full time and back again."

Despite the philosophical differences, there are practical similarities among mothers, such as love for their children, parental concerns over schooling and, fundamentally, the desire for their children to grow up healthy and happy.

"We're all in the same boat," Brundage says.

Working Mother's Evans, author of the forthcoming book, "This is How We Do It: The Working Mothers' Manifesto," believes the opposing pulls of modern motherhood are only natural in a cultural and societal shift that is still very much ongoing.

"The tension is there because this is still a very new lifestyle. ... The magazine is 26 years old, and so much has changed in that time, and 26 years is a blip of time in the world as a whole," Evans says.

"This is very new stuff, these are very new lifestyles. You've only got a couple of generations of people who have lived this lifestyle in any significant numbers."

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