"The world is soon to be divided into two enemy camps, and one day they may not be civil toward each other."
"I feel a tremendous anger toward them -- they want to have it all and give up nothing."
Cold war rhetoric between major world powers? Actually, these snatches of heated debate come much closer to home: The subject is motherhood. The "they" and "them" are employed and at-home mothers describing each other -- sometimes with envy, often with misunderstanding, and, increasingly, with rancor.
With more than half the mothers of children under 6 employed outside the home, a dramatic rift has appeared among women. As recently as 15 years ago, most mothers shared a sense of concern and interest, no matter what their status as breadwinners.
But new employment opportunities for women and the resulting exodus from the home have unwittingly promoted a division among women that stresses different interests and imperatives. And that has incited a growing animosity centering on a single question: Who makes the better mother, the one who stays home or the one who works?
When 35-year-old Susan S. returned to her job soon after the birth of her son, she began to have difficulty with women friends at her firm. "And I thought you were a good mother," one of her colleagues said to her. "Well, maybe I am. Why don't we wait and see?" replied Susan, who confided: "I resent the assumption that mothers at home are doing a good job, and those who are not at home aren't."
The rift has been deepened, in part, by the current political climate: The ideological split between old liberalism and new conservatism has drawn hard-fought lines over issues such as comparable worth, abortion and traditional gender roles. The fundamentalist movement continues to wage its campaign for social retrenchment, pledging to strengthen the moral and spiritual foundation of the family and home. And the press has also entered the fray. Women leaving the boardroom for the nursery are a minority of working mothers, but they attract a disproportionate amount of attention. Magazines and television programs that once spotlighted the "superwoman" now run features on "Getting Off the Fast Track."
All of this filters down to the local level, where both employed and at-home mothers feel the reverberations.
Working mothers often say they feel discriminated against. High on their list of complaints are insensitive school policies. Barbara K. Docs, an administrative assistant at C.M. Offray and Son, a New Jersey ribbon manufacturer, finds it impossible to attend all her child's art shows and concerts -- which are usually held during the day. When professional women cannot come to these events, said Docs, "the 'at-home' mothers twist it around and condemn them for not 'being there' for their children."
Most working mothers say arbitrarily assigned parent-teacher conferences and little advance notice for schedule changes, such as early dismissals and alterations in bus routes, wreak havoc with their routines. Attempts to communicate with school personnel about the difficulties these policies impose do not necessarily bring about a change.
When Susan S., a resource planner at one of the Big Eight accounting firms, called her son's teacher to discuss a lengthy homework assignment that required parental assistance during afternoon hours, the teacher said, "Oh, I didn't realize that you had a problem -- that you worked." Susan tried to point out to the teacher that a career was not a problem.
Professional women also complain about "innuendoes" and "subtle criticisms" from homemakers, designed, they claim, to make them feel guilty about being away from their children. Before 29-year-old Nancy Spice of Albuquerque, N.M., returned to her job as an investment assistant at a trust company, she tried to get her 3-month-old son on a convenient eating schedule, only to have a neighbor tell her that "he really should be fed on demand." Teresa Hernandez, a 32-year-old office manager for Design Gifts International, a West Coast company, told of friends who always ask her, "Don't your children miss you?" or "Isn't it too bad that you didn't get to see their first steps?"
Common among many working mothers is the feeling that they are being "pushed from their communities." When 33-year-old Marjorie Richter, a systems analyst from Plainview, N.Y., asked to join two of her neighbors who were taking a walk with their children, she was told, "There's no room next to us for you." When Marjorie mentioned that she was returning to work, they asked her why she bothered to have a child at all. Other women say they are made to feel unwelcome at school or community events. They tell of icy receptions and snide comments, such as, "I never expected to see you here."
Nonworking mothers counter by saying that they often end up being baby sitters for their working friends' children. "Every time one of their kids has a half day at school, they call me up," says 34-year-old Beth Finkel of Manhattan, a mother of three. "It's not fair. I'm not a baby-sitting service." They complain that they do not want to be the community suppliers of after-school milk and cookies and do not like being called by the school to pick up the sick child of a mother who is "too busy" at the office to come. "I'm always feeling like I'm the one left holding the bag," protests Beth L., a former sales manager for a lingerie company. Whether it's running a school book fair, organizing a church bazaar, or helping out with a class trip, homemakers are inevitably the ones who shoulder the burden.
As the war between mothers escalates, community organizations find themselves drawn into the fray. At the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, a popular preschool program -- Park Bench -- became a focus of dispute. "Park Bench used to be attended mostly by children and their mothers," said Fretta Reitzes, director of the Parenting Center at the Y. Over the last two years, however, as the numbers of paid "caregivers" -- housekeepers, baby sitters, and others hired by working women to look after their children -- increased, so did the ire of the full-time mothers.
To try to appease everyone, the Parenting Center started a Park Bench class for working mothers in the evening, one just for caregivers in the morning, and limited the number of caregivers in other classes. Although the complaints against the presence of caregivers usually focused on how they treated the children in their charge, Reitzes believes there is a hidden grievance -- the full-time mothers feel devalued when they have to consort with the hired help.
"I know what people pay their housekeepers," says Finkel, the New York mother of three. When she attends a class where most of the adults are caregivers, she says, "It galls me."
The suspicion that working mothers devalue the homemaker -- her intellect, her interests, her involvement -- is what most irritates the at-home mothers. Luuk Oleson from Clifton, Va., told of a legislative assistant, a new mother, who came up to her at a cocktail party and asked her what she did. When Oleson, a former financial analyst, replied that she was raising her three children, the "woman did a 180-degree turn in mid-sentence and went off to find someone she obviously found more interesting," Oleson recalls, adding, "People seem to think I have nothing to discuss."
Because of the animosity and hurt feelings on both sides, many women tell of losing good friends over the issue, and some speak of feeling personally betrayed by those who make the other decision.
The reason the issue elicits such powerful and judgmental responses seems to stem from insecurity, explains New York clinical psychologist Rosemary Jennings. "Women are constantly looking for validation and confirmation of their choices, because they are insecure in those choices."
Many homemakers voice concern that they have sacrificed self-development and economic independence. Those who left jobs early in their careers wonder if they would have been successful had they remained. They admit to feeling envious of the glamorous lives they imagine professionals leading and feel a diminished sense of confidence. Some also worry about the role model they are offering their children. One woman said she burst into tears as she listened to her 5-year-old telling her doll that when she grew up she would buy her clothing with the money she got from her husband.
Working mothers also have feelings of anxiety. They are concerned about having so little time to develop strong community ties or close friendships. Above all, they worry about not enough time with their children.
"Some of the uneasiness on both sides is natural to parenting," explains Ellen Galinsky, project director of the Work and Family Life Studies at the Bank Street College of Education in New York. All parents begin with expectations of perfection for their children. When reality doesn't meet these expectations, they pin the blame on the specifics of their lives: "My child has problems because I work" or "My child is spoiled because I'm home all day." And then the mother begins to question her choice.
That uncertainty, Galinsky says, is more profound in the present generation. Living through a time of cultural transition, with no antecedents for guidance, women do not have the comfort of knowing the long-term implications of their choices. If they choose one way, there's always the discomforting possibility of having chosen the other. That can cause anger and resentment toward those women who have taken a different path, because it leads to heightened ambivalence about one's own choices.
That the self-righteousness of each group springs from a need somehow to validate each choice is borne out by the fact that many women admit to changing sides in the argument as their roles change. As one professional quipped, "Now that I'm on maternity leave, I hate working mothers."
Yet, women do not have to remain so intensely at odds, says Bank Street's Galinsky. "Women will respect one another more when they realize that their lives are actually similar in many ways." Whether employed or full-time mothers, both want the same for their children: A warm, nurturing environment and quality care. And staying at home or going to work each has its drawbacks. Neither mother has as much time to accomplish all that she thinks important, and one is as likely as the other to be doing laundry in the middle of the night.
Most ironic, however, is that women must cope with living in a society that accepts, but does not completely support, either choice. The homemaker knows how easily she can be "displaced" and how difficult it might be for her to find a job if she is. The professional must deal with inadequate maternity leaves and the problems of finding child care. It is in that respect that, perhaps, they will eventually accept one another as allies instead of as adversaries.
Barbara J. Berg is the author of "The Crisis of the Working Mother," to be published in April.
Reprinted and condensed with permission from SAVVY Magazine; (c) 1985 by Family Media Inc.