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The Mommy War Machine

Steiner, a Washington Post blogger and magazine executive, now says she accepts that the title (if not the subtitle) worked to get the book into the hands of those who most needed to read it. "In a market where 200,000 books are published a year, and 70,000 alone are pitched to the top three TV morning shows," she says, that hot-button title got her on television and snagged nationwide reviews.

Of course, even William Randolph Hearst couldn't have ginned up a war without some nasty facts on the ground. The Mommy Wars construct sells because, however distorted it is, it does touch a nerve. No matter what choice a working woman makes after she has a child, the grass always looks greener on the other side. Daniele Levy is a Massachusetts lawyer who stayed home for a couple of years when her two children were infants. Now she works a four-day week at a nearby law firm. "When I was home full-time, I thought, 'Wow, look at those women who can make it work,' " she said. " 'They have their children and their careers, it must be really great.' Now I'm working, and I just talked to a friend who's at home, I'm thinking, 'Wow, that's really fun, that must be really great.' "

"We don't live in a society that has a mindset that workers get pregnant and have babies," says Judith Stadtman Tucker, editor of the Web magazine Mothers Movement Online. She points out that mothers' march into the workforce started to plateau in the 1980s -- just as childcare costs started rising sharply. At the same time, the workplace has become steadily more demanding, with mandatory overtime for many who have jobs. Meanwhile, the United States notoriously lags behind all other developed nations on such policies as paid maternity leave, family sick leave or health care that's not tied to that one all-consuming job. Nor has the culture relinquished the idea that caring for children -- or for anyone in need -- is women's responsibility, with men "helping" occasionally, if asked.

So who can blame women for battling internally over how to give their all to both work and baby -- a battle the media blow up into a sandbox showdown?

But the conflict may be nearing its expiration date. In 2006, several prominent books on the subject were published -- and sold abysmally, according to figures from Nielsen BookScan. Only 9,000 copies sold of Caitlin Flanagan's widely reviewed "To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife," in which a woman wealthy enough to stay home and have a nanny insisted that mothering from home was the only right way. Only 4,000 copies sold of Linda Hirshman's "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," which argued the opposite position: that elite women were wasting an entire generation's human capital unless they stayed in ambitious jobs. Could it be that women don't want to shell out $25 to be told they're living in a war zone?

Or could it be that women and men today refuse these false choices? Carol Fassino, a mother of three who works part-time, reads all the Mommy Wars articles but shrugs them off. "Everybody lives a different life," she says. "I'm not gonna put down the newspaper and go slit my wrists. I know women who work or don't work or are like me, in the middle. But if people have felt judgmental, they kept it to themselves."

Most women today have to work: it's the only way their families are going to be fed, housed and educated. A new college-educated generation takes it for granted that women will both work and care for their families -- and that men must be an integral part of their children's lives. It's a generation that understands that stay-at-home moms and working mothers aren't firmly opposing philosophical stances but the same women in different life phases, moving in and out of the part-time and full-time workforce for the few years while their children are young.

"The mommy wars thing is a little simplistic," confirms Julie Huck, a 38-year-old working mom with two preschool children. "It's all hyped up and a little silly." Like Fassino and others, she longs for a cultural shift and family-friendly policies that allow everyone -- women and men -- to work more flexible hours, without career penalties.

Would that end the Mommy Wars? Let's hope.

E.J. Graff is a senior researcher at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

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