Moms at War: Attacking Each Other, and Themselves

By Leslie Morgan Steiner
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 6, 2006

I stood chatting with a neighbor, a stay-at-home mom whose kids go to the local public school with my children. I was writing a book exploring the tension and confusion between working and stay-at-home moms and so I asked what my neighbor thought of moms who work outside the home.

Her immediate response: "Oh, I feel so sorry for them."

My cheeks flushed like a child with a fever. This woman felt sorry for me? For all the moms at our school who work to support their families, to show their kids that women can work, who work to change the world, who work to keep their sanity? I turned away.

All moms -- paid and unpaid -- work. We all know that, but still, there's a lot I haven't understood about other moms since I became one myself. I can't fathom why some working moms stay stuck in too-demanding jobs or careers that they openly resent because of the quality (and quantity) of time they miss with their kids. What I know for certain, because I see it almost every day, is that working and at-home moms misunderstand and envy each other in the corrosive, fake-smiling way we women have perfected over the eons.

* * *

Nothing was going to stop me, an optimistic college student in the 1980s, from cherry-picking the best of my mom's and dad's worlds -- hands-on motherhood and a fulfilling career. I worked hard. I put myself through business school. I married at 30 and had my first child two years later. By then, I was a marketing executive at Johnson & Johnson and I'd launched a new product, Splenda sweetener, throughout South America, the Mideast and Australia. The chairman knew my first name.

As much as I loved my work, rocking our newborn son felt like mainlining Valium. I thought I might stay home. My OB-GYN, a mom with three kids, tried to stop me. "You don't want to make such an important decision during maternity leave," she said as I lay on the examining table for my six-week postpartum checkup. "You've got hormones and exhaustion clouding your judgment. Life is long. You can always quit after six months, a year."

I went back to my job the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Max's 3-month birthday. I was amazed to be paying another woman to do what I craved most in the world, to stay home with my little bird. While I drove out of the driveway, dressed in a black coatdress and full makeup for the first time in weeks, my heart lay beating on the changing table.

I got through the day with a single vow: Don't cry.

Soon enough, Max came to work with me, spending his days at the company day-care center. I could see his nursery window from the boardroom window, and I breast-fed him during lunch. My boss said yes when I asked to work at home two days a week, granting me a gift more priceless than a briefcase of stock options: time with my child.

I've worked a variety of part-time and full-time jobs since then and am on a year-long sabbatical from my job as an advertising executive with The Washington Post. My career has progressed and I have had two more children. I've combined the best of my mother's and father's worlds, largely through years of education and careful career choices that have afforded a handsome prize: rewarding, lucrative part-time work that leaves time for my family. I have no doubt that my life, as well as my family's, is immeasurably richer due to my decision to combine work and motherhood.

Of course, it's rarely easy. I don't often have ironed clothes and blow-dried hair on the same day. I could store my three kids' winter clothes in the bags under my eyes. Despite my ambitions and MBA, it's not likely that I'm going to be president of any company anytime in my life.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company