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Moms at War: Attacking Each Other, and Themselves

I am always pulled in two equally compelling, mutually exclusive directions. I once left my daughter crying in her highchair during a conference call, shutting the kitchen door to block out her wails. More times than I can count, colleagues have wrapped up jobs for me so I could get to the day-care center before my kids were turned over to foster care. I rush along deliriously busy, in love with some project. Until-- bam! -- I miss my children so much it's as though a large block of ice has suddenly replaced my stomach.

Finding one's balance between work and family can be a torturous task for any mom. Complicating every mom's personal dilemma is the societal tension between working mothers and stay-at-home ones. Motherhood in America is fraught with defensiveness, infighting, ignorance and judgment about what's best for kids, families and women. Wouldn't we be far better off if we accepted and supported all good, if disparate, mothering choices? Aren't moms ultimately united in our quest to stay sane, raise good kids, provide each other with succor and support, and protect humankind from the overly aggressive, overly logical male half of the species?

The evidence, unfortunately, does not support a united sisterhood. I remember a morning when, dressed for the office at 8 a.m., I (somewhat) frantically dropped my kids off at school while my husband sat on a plane to somewhere. In the space of 20 minutes on the playground, three stay-at-home moms lobbed greetings that felt like sly, wholly unwarranted commentary on my life. Jabs about wearing pantyhose, the rush I was always in, and the ultimate: "I don't know how you do it." (Accompanied by patronizing smile.) But at least the stay-at-home moms talked to me.

Later that day I was dressed in sweats, sitting on the floor at the kids' weekly computer class. A working mom rushed in, clad in child-unfriendly leather skirt and high-heel boots (quite similar to the ones I had recently peeled off), impatient for her child to finish. She glanced at me on the floor as if I were an oversize rodent. In lieu of a greeting, she rapped on the glass door to get her child's attention. Maybe she didn't remember her kid's name. In one day, I rocketed from damning the holier-than-thou stay-at-home moms to damning those snotty working ones.

There is no good reason for working moms to treat stay-at-home mothers like dirt (invisible dirt but dirt nonetheless). Working moms might conceivably be grateful to moms who stay home and run our schools, our communities, a good chunk of our kids' worlds. At-home moms might arguably appreciate the working moms staying late to get the big promotions, fighting to increase women's presence on company boards and the front page of the Wall Street Journal and campaigning to win elections. Without the money, the power and the loudspeaker that successful careers bring, women will never have the collective bargaining power to make the world better for ourselves, our children and all the women who can't leave abusive husbands, the ones who wear veils, the moms who earn less than minimum wage cleaning houses and don't have choices about birth control or prenatal care or any other kind of care.

That same morning on the playground, right after the stay-at-home moms had had their verbal way with me and I was scurrying out of the schoolyard, my daughter's pre-K teacher beckoned me with one finger.

I don't have time to talk to her, I thought.

She had on one of her 33-year-old son's Redskins T-shirts, pulled down over a faded purple Indian batik skirt. Her long white hair hung to her elbows. Her red lipstick was on crooked. If you put a crown and shimmery dress on her, she'd look just like an aged Glinda the Good Witch, headed for the Oz nursing home. The other parents and I call her the Goddess of Pre-K.

She gently but firmly grabbed my elbow, exactly as I'd seen her do to my daughter on Morgan's bossiest days. She'd overheard those stay-at-home-mom comments. Wisdom radiated from her green eyes.

"Did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?" Mrs. Rahim whispered so that the swirling crowd of stay-at-home moms, lingering by the school door, couldn't hear. "You are a happy mom. Your face glows with it. That's what matters most to your kids. I think you should have 10 more children. Now go to work." I could tell she wanted to pat my Liz Claiborne-clad tush as I walked away, smiling as if she'd tied a pink balloon to my wrist.

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