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The Mommy War Machine

By E.J. Graff
Sunday, April 29, 2007

You see the magazine illustration: two women glaring at each other, about to take a swing with their satchels -- one a briefcase, the other a diaper bag. And you know right away what's coming: another "Mommy Wars" story, a juicy tale of mothers who work and moms who stay home, dissing each other on playgrounds and in school parking lots with junior-high-level bile.

This trend story has been running for a generation. Just this month, the latest salvo -- Leslie Bennetts's book "The Feminine Mistake," a call-to-work warning women about the long-term costs of staying at home -- hit the shelves with a bang, setting off another round of news stories, talk shows and cyberspace debates about the progress on the battlefront.

But I've got news for you: This is a war that isn't.

The ballyhooed Mommy Wars exist mainly in the minds -- and the marketing machines -- of the media and publishing industry, which have been churning out mom vs. mom news flashes since, believe it or not, the 1950s. All while the number of working mothers has been rising.

Here are the facts: Since 2000, the percentage of working mothers with infants has held steady at 53.5 percent, according to a February report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When they can afford it, married women with infants take maternity leaves of a year or so, but then head steadily back to work: 75 percent of mothers with school-age children are on the job. Most work because they have to. And most of their stay-at-home peers don't hold it against them.

But that doesn't stop the media machine. Whether or not William Randolph Hearst ever really said "You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war," everyone knows that a war, any war, is good for the news business. The Mommy Wars sell newspapers, magazines, TV shows and radio broadcasts, as mothers everywhere seize on the subject and agonize, in spite of themselves. "Every other week there's an article saying that if you don't work, you're in trouble financially, and if you do work, your child is at risk," a single mother of three who works part time told me. An especially inflammatory article or episode can increase Web site hits, achieve "most e-mailed" status, drag more outraged viewers or listeners to the phone lines and burn a media brand more deeply into consumers' minds.

That's because middle- and upper-middle-class women are a demographic that responds well to anxiety, says Caryl Rivers, author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women." She sees the Mommy Wars as "the intellectual version of 'Thin Thighs in 30 Days.' " Tell women that working will damage their marriages, harm their health and ruin their children, and they will buy your magazine, click on your Web site, blog about your episode and write endless letters to the editor. They may do so out of fury, anxiety, scorn or an earnest desire to correct your statistical errors -- but if your goal is to increase your hit rate or impress your editor, producer or publisher with something that's widely discussed, where's the downside?

All the above was accomplished by some of the most notorious Mommy Wars articles, which, in recent years, have appeared in the elite triumvirate of the New York Times, the Atlantic and the New Yorker. That list includes "The Opt-Out Revolution" by Lisa Belkin, a 2003 Times Magazine cover story that looked at a handful of Princeton grads who (unlike most of their peers) left demanding jobs to stay at home with their children; Caitlin Flanagan's gloating potshots at working moms, especially "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement" in the Atlantic in March 2004 and "To Hell with All That" in the New Yorker in July 2004; and an article on the New York Times's front page on Sept. 20, 2005, that repeated that many women at elite colleges were opting for motherhood over careers.

Each of these garnered enormous buzz, as we say in the media biz. Belkin's piece was the most e-mailed Times article of the year. It drew so many outraged and laudatory letters that the Times ran them for four weeks. The article was critiqued on almost every prominent media Web site and online opinion magazine and was debated on countless e-mail discussion groups. Google "The Opt-Out Revolution," and you'll get more than 42,000 hits. The article was clearly a resounding marketing success.

The New York Times is tugging at the guilt of the privileged -- and has been for more than half a century, with "career women go home" articles dating to 1953. But the less affluent are just as heavily targeted by the Mommy Wars marketing machine. In a "Dr. Phil" show that aired in November 2003, working moms and stay-at-home moms were seated on opposite sides of the aisle and encouraged to hurl insults across the divide. The show's Web site drew 152 pages of comments, a joint statement of disapproval from its two featured experts (who insisted that their thoughtful discussion was misleadingly edited to look like a fight), and an "Apple Pie in the Face" award from the organization Mothers and More -- and the show is still being talked about today.

Or consider a recent "Oprah" show, aired on Jan. 23, called "My Baby or My Job: Why Elizabeth Vargas Stepped Down." The show attracted nearly 1,500 messages on its Web site despite its flatly false premise, as Vargas still has an impressive job, even if it's anchoring "20/20" instead of the ABC evening news.

Book publishers can impose this false division as well. Take Leslie Morgan Steiner's 2006 book of essays by mothers, a volume she edited explicitly to bridge misunderstandings between mothers at home and those at work. Her own essays were titled "Our Inner Catfight" and "Ending the Mommy Wars." And yet, over her objections, Random House titled the book "Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families." Can you say "inflammatory"?

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.

journalist1@brandeis.edu

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

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