THE MOMMY WARSLeslie Morgan SteinerRandom HouseHeather HoffmanMirror Book CriticFor the last few decades, working mothers and stay-at-home mothers have waged a covert, vicious war against each other. They are not fighting over resources, money or influence. They fight for things all women consistently strive for: pride, validation and a decent ten-minute bubble bath.In Leslie Morgan Steiner’s The Mommy Wars, twenty-seven moms, most of whom are successful East Coast writers, talk about one of the most important choices a new mother must make – to work or not to work. Their personal essays are revealing, at times harrowing and frequently hilarious. They are all well-written and about the length of a magazine article, the perfect reading material for busy, no-time-to-read mothers.Women, and mothers especially, will pick up this book seeking validation and shared experiences with other women. Therefore, stay-at-home mothers should start at the beginning of the book with Sandy Hingston’s “Neither Here Nor There” essay about how she suspects her choice to work outside of the home might have caused emotional damage to her two children. Working mothers should skip the first few essays and begin The Mommy Wars with Ann Misiaszek Sarnoff’s essay,“I do know how she does it.” Sarnoff’s decision to examine every detail of her motherly responsibilities and then divide them up into the Mommy, Mommy/Daddy and Nanny “buckets” is a powerful statement on the merits of shared parenting.The Mommy Wars, through these gifted, honest women, sheds light on one of the most slippery, secret conflicts in our modern society. In the past, women fought over men. Mothers of small children, however, fight other mothers, their husbands and the government for acceptance and recognition of their hard work. The Mommy Wars is a little like Chicken Soup for the Soul if all the chickens, rejecting their sacrificial role as warm, comforting, soup, broke out of their pens and made a loud noise everybody knew they were capable of but no one wanted to hear.Readers will want to hear these eloquent voices, however. Novelist Jane Smiley contributes a fascinating piece about how she divided her time writing novels and caring for her children (natch, a good daycare center). Like many of the working mothers in The Mommy Wars, Smiley also provides her own theories as to why the working world makes it difficult for women to both raise their children and work outside the home.“Feminists ‘made it’ one at a time rather than as a group,” explains Smiley. “Progressives in general should feel humiliated that we allowed the debate to shift away from the goal of a decent, humane society where both genders, all classes and all races have a sense of partnership in the larger whole. We allowed both government and business to be taken over by greed, selfishness, tribalism, hyper masculine exaltation of winning at all costs, ignorance and simplistic thinking.”On the stay-at-home mother side of the debate, women speak of growing more and more comfortable and surprisingly less bored with the million little details involved in raising children and managing a household. Unlike their 1950s counterparts, they do not keep their houses very clean, preferring to devote non-childcare hours to writing, yoga and volunteering. Anne Marie Feld, like many of the stay-at-home mothers in The Mommy Wars, was caught off guard after her baby was born. She had planned to return to work in a few months, but once she began caring for her infant daughter, she couldn’t imagine leaving her side. On frustrating days when the loneliness and boredom begin to drive her insane, she says, “I try to remember that accomplishments don’t mean happiness and they’re a fatal substitute for relationships.”Thus, the working and stay-at-home mothers continue to debate this topic, but Carolyn Hax, in her essay “Peace and Carrots,”provides a perfect litmus test for mothers who feel they are constantly torn between the monotony of home life versus the stimulation of the workplace. Hax, a stay-at-home mother with three children under nineteen months of age, manages to write a syndicated advice column while her children are asleep. Soon, they will be starting daycare. While she doesn’t bother to explain how she convinces three small children all to nap at the same time, she does take a confrontational, Dr. Laura-like tone with both working and stay-at-home mothers. “I hear people agonizing or passionately debating about the ways they ‘should’ raise kids,” she says, “and I feel bad for them…any arrangement can work as long as the parent is selfless (and then lucky) enough to make it work.” Hax has one important question for all mothers, one which may yet help unite women so they can learn from each other rather than judge each other. “Would you want to be your kid?” she asks. “Own up. Then make peace with your choices from there.”
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