Mommy Vs. Mommy

Tension between mothers is building as they increasingly choose divergent paths: going to work, or staying home to care for their kids

These are the Mommy Wars:

Elaine Cohen, an executive with a New York television company, moved to suburban Westchester County when her son was 3 years old. Although she had a full-time babysitter while she worked, she wanted to find a play group for him. It should have been easy, but it wasn't. "I called everywhere," she says. But the mothers she spoke with made it very clear that children with babysitters weren't welcome. "As soon as I said that I was a working mother, it was as if I had a disease."

Seven hundred miles away, near Chicago, Joanne Brundage ran into very different problems. Brundage quit her job as a letter carrier to take care of her two children. After a few weeks, a friend telephoned and, busy with the baby, Brundage didn't pick up the phone until the fourth ring. "Oh ... sorry," drawled her friend. "Did I interrupt a crucial moment in your soap opera?"

Every so often a feud erupts that helps to define an era. In the '60s, it was hippies vs. rednecks. In the '70s, the decade of the women's movement, it was women against men. By the mid-'80s, and now into the '90s, it's mothers against mothers--more precisely, mothers who stay at home against mothers who work. This conflict is played out against a backdrop of frustration, insecurity, jealousy and guilt. And because the enemies should be allies, the clash is poignant.

The tension has been building for some time, as women have chosen divergent paths--either devoting themselves to traditional homemaking roles or entering the work force and turning over the daily care of their kids to someone else. The breach was brought into sharp relief recently when Wellesley College students objected to inviting Barbara Bush to speak at their commencement, because they believed that as a stay-at-home wife and mother, who gained recognition through her husband's achievements, she was not a proper role model. And the skirmishes continue. Here are actual bulletins from the front:

"How nice that you can walk little Bobby to school every morning," gushes a stay-at-home mother to a harried working mom as she arrives at her son's school. "Otherwise, you'd never see him." (Opening salvo.)

"Listen, Sophie really needs some fake fur for her princess costume," wheedles a working mom talking to her next-door neighbor. "Since you're home with so much time, would you mind picking some up at the store for me?" (Direct hit.)

"Oh, you're a lawyer. How exciting It must be so much fun to get dressed up and go to an office all day. And I'm sure that Joey does just fine at the day-care center. (Heavy artillery.)

"It's just great that you can stay home with your kids all day. You know, you really have to be a special kind of person to be able to do that. I would go crazy just talking to kids all day." (Bombs away!)

How did things get so bad? In her recent book, "Women Together, Women Alone," women's issues writer Anita Shreve comments on confrontations she observed between working and stay-at-home moms. " It was impossible not to draw the conclusion that there exists in America today a deep and sharp division among women," Shreve writes. "And no small cause of that split is that one group feels exploited and/or dismissed by the other."

Picture the working mother. Like most mothers of her generation, she probably grew up in a family with an at-home mom, so she's vulnerable to criticism that she's not spending enough time with her children. She worries about how her kids will turn out. She reads psychological studies about "bonding," and fears she can't do it on a six-week maternity leave, which she's lucky if she gets and which usually comes without pay. She hears media reports--and follows them with self-punishing intensity--about day-care horror stories: sexual abuse, neglect, indifference.

She is anxious that her children are growing up without her, that she's missing the important landmarks in their lives, that someone else will record their first words and first steps. She is rent with conflicts. She wonders if she should exchange career advancement for flexible hours and resign herself to the famous "mommy track." But she chafes at being penalized for motherhood when fathers don't have to make such choices. She's angry because she hasn't many options: her family simply can't get by on one salary. Or, she believes she has a right to a career. Yet she can't help feeling guilty. Moreover, she feels surrounded by moms who are home with their kids. Sure, 56 percent of mothers with kids under 6 are working. But that still means 44 percent are at home.

Mutual attack: No wonder the working mom is jealous of her stay-at-home neighbors. A Boston doctor describes a birthday party her 4-year-old was invited to. "The mother made a pirate party, complete with maps with burnt edges stuck in little bottles she buried for a treasure hunt, " she says. "I thought, 'I could do that if I had nothing else to do all day too'." She's even jealous of her babysitter. "Sometimes, when I come home, the baby smiles at me, and then puts his arms out to her," says a Minneapolis saleswoman. "I want him to love her. I just want him to love me more." The at-home mothers don't make it any easier. A New York secretary leaves her 3-year-old son with another mother during working hours. "She complained that my son didn't like the sandwich I brought him," the secretary says. "I told her that he loves that sandwich. She asked me how I would know since I'm not with him all day. She made me feel like an outsider, like I wasn't part of his life."

The working mother doesn't need this. She is under so much stress trying to be both a good employee and a good mother that even just getting to work in the morning is a major accomplishment. Never mind remembering that she needs to bring 24 valentines for the other kids in the class, or find six yogurt containers for an art project; she also has to make sure her kid brushes her teeth and hair and eats something before the school bus comes.

In the middle of this maelstrom, it's hard for the working mom to feel empathy for her at-home neighbors, especially when she knows they are critical of her. Most working mothers have their particular neighborhood nemesis--the most disapproving at-home mom whom the working mother goes out of her way to avoid. June Lyndsay Hagman, a Minneapolis video producer, describes hers: "She even counted the number of times I went to my son's soccer practice," Hagman says. "She made sure she let me know that she couldn't imagine not being there when her child came home from school, as if that proves I love my kids less than she does."

Angry and defensive, the working mom strikes back. She complains that at-home mothers spend so much time doing volunteer work and taking aerobics classes that they don't see their kids much more than the working mother does. She argues that stay-at-home mothers are less interesting than working mothers, even spoiled. When a vice president of a Los Angeles film company--the mother of two young daughters--heard of a "stress workshop" given for the at-home wives of male executives, she laughed. "What stress?" she asks. "Like where to get their nails manicured?"

Now cross the battle lines for a look at the working-at-home mother.

She's usually there because she believes that's best for her children. Either she's lucky and her husband can support them easily, or they've agreed to sacrifice and economize so that they can live on one salary. Once ensconced, however, she is often isolated. She imagined that staying home would be like it was for her mother, with busy neighbors and friends. But she feels surrounded by moms who leave home every day, making her the only at-home mother on her street--her house the one at which the UPS man drops everyone's packages, her phone number the one working friends give to the schools for emergencies. She feels underappreciated by her husband, harried by the housework and the demands of her children.

She reads about "the empty-nest syndrome" and worries about what will happen to her when her kids grow up. She is afraid she will never be able to get back on track with her career. She wishes she could talk to more adults, wishes her husband would come home earlier and, sometimes, is afraid her brain is turning into mashed potatoes. But she disapproves of most of what she sees working mothers do. She thinks they don't spend enough time with their kids, bribe them with expensive presents and keep them up too late at night. She can't help thinking that most of them are selfish: Yuppies who never believe they have enough money. Yet she may still think of herself as a feminist, and she is concerned that by not working she is perpetuating the idea that women belong in the home. She worries that her children won't respect her when they grow up.

Women's movement: No wonder she envies the working mothers she sees getting on trains and buses every morning. They are dressed in clothes she can't afford and doesn't have any place to wear anyway. They look well groomed. She can't remember when she last had time to put makeup on during the day or didn't get something spilled on her blouse. She feels the working mom's children are getting neglected at home, and she is the one expected to pick up the slack. "I used to run the Brownie troop," says Judy Higby, a Connecticut mother. "Pickup time was 4:30, but there was this working mother who never arrived until at least 5. You kind of get fed up."

It's the stay-at-home moms who keep the schools going, the at-home mom grouses. They drive to soccer practice, chaperon class trips, act as class mothers. The children of working moms benefit from these services, but the working moms don't respect the mothers who perform them. "For the latchkey kids who are all over this neighborhood, where do they come when they're lonely, or scared?" asks Gae Bomier, a Burke, Va., mother. "To us."

Nowhere is the resentment more striking than at professional dinners where employees and their spouses "get to know" one another. Psychologist Jay Belsky says his wife, who stayed home to take care of their child, found faculty dinners a nightmare. "The professional women treated the at-home mothers as if they came from another planet," says Belsky. "They were treated like second-class citizens."

It's hard to believe it came to this. In 1960, three years before Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," only 19 percent of women with children under the age of 6 were in the labor force. By the 1970s, when women first started surging into the workplace, they felt the solidarity of fighting a common oppressor and were exhilarated by their new freedom and independence. They were setting new goals, proving that sex didn't dictate destiny, and they tended to downplay--even denigrate--the traditional roles of wives and mothers. "Families were seen as the problem, not the solution," says Sylvia Hewlett, author of the 1986 controversial book "A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America." The solution, for some, was not to have families.

But by the late '70s. many women began to find that strategy unfulfilling. Like every generation of women before them, they wanted kids. A few, like Deborah Fallows in The Washington Monthly, gave voice to a rationale for choosing motherhood without guilt. "The boardroom or the corner office, where men have traditionally gone to search for challenge and reward . . . are not the only places to find these rewards . . .," Fallows wrote in her book "A Mother's Work." "There is an honor and legitimacy about . . . raising children."

An economic necessity: But it wasn't as easy as that. Strong economic forces have been at work through the '80s, and as things have gotten tougher, for many families two salaries are not a luxury but a necesity. And many of the women who found fulfillment at work found they also wanted the satisfaction of having children. Why not? They began to speak of having it all. By 1988, 73 percent of mothers of school-age children were working outside the home, as were about half the mothers with infants a year old or younger. But they found the physical and emotional price higher than they expected. Some mothers had limited options: no nationally guaranteed maternity leave (in spite of years of attempts to pass a parental-leave bill, the United States remains the only industrialized nation besides South Africa to have none), few quality day-care centers and almost no part-time professional jobs. With full-time schedules, inflexible hours and only minimal help from their husbands, the exhilaration of having it all turned to exhaustion, and then to anger, a kind of postfeminist backlash among some of the women themselves.

A few dropped out and decided to stay home with their children. Feeling isolated, some joined support groups to encourage their members to feel good about themselves and their choice. One of them, Mothers-At-Home, publishes a monthly newsletter called Welcome Home, which has 13,000 subscribers. It doesn't shy away from gooey maternal aphorisms, such as "My favorite part of the day is . . . seeing my girl's smiling face first thing in the morning," or "If I ever wrote a book about being a mother at home, I would call it . . . 'How to Make Sure You Live a Valuable Life'."

Different solutions: Nostalgia for the days when men were men and women were at home is still strong among some men, perhaps not surprisingly. Esquire, in a June issue dedicated to the American wife, published a collection of articles glorifying life before liberation. Treating women as if they were creatures from a catalog, the magazine offers a section called "Your Wife: An Owner's Manual" (a phrase that would have been unprintable just five years ago). It contains helpful hints about those little female mysteries that bewilder the macho man-everything from the contents of a woman's pocketbook to "her plumbing." In a feature article in praise of a stay-at-home mom, which the magazine incorrectly calls "an endangered species," a male reporter describes her day: "She reaches for the laundry," he writes. "There is a smile on her face, and soon she begins to whistle. "

There's a lot more than whistling, however, going on in the trenches of the Mommy Wars. There is an increased sense of purpose, and a growing policy struggle. Both sides have explicit political agendas. Working moms are fighting for all day kindergarten, guaranteed leave for new parents, improved day care and better tax breaks to deflect the cost. At-home mothers argue against using their tax money for full-day kindergartens they don't need. They want tax breaks to help them stay home and raise their own kids. Some are even against federal aid for better day care, because they say it would encourage mothers to abandon their children for work. Mothers-At-Home published a position paper, "Mothers Speak Out on Child Care," arguing for other solutions for women who need to work and can work out temporary child care from family members: part-time work, flex time and home-based businesses.

In spite of all the tensions, however, there are signs of reconciliation. Recently, in Chicago, 30 mothers got together to discuss themselves and their children. About half of them were members of Women Employed, a working woman's advocacy group. The other half belonged to FEMALE (Formerly Employed Mothers At Loose Ends), an at-home mom's support group. It didn't take long for the mothers to discover their common ground. Most of the at-home moms said they would work if they could find decent part-time jobs, flexible schedules and acceptable child care. All the working moms said they would be home at least part time if they could afford it. Both groups agreed that they needed more options. "Let's face it, being a mother is hard no matter what you do," says June Lindsay Hagman. "We all want what's best for our children."

The problem is we don't all know what the best is. After years of research, most child-development experts agree that different families need to work out different child-care solutions. "I think the notion that one way is right is wrong," says psychologist Sandra Scarr, of the University of Virginia. The most widely accepted research finding also makes the most common sense: depressed mothers on either side tend to have unhappy children. Women who feel happy or satisfied with their role--whatever it is--usually have the healthiest, most self-confident children.

Making peace: Those women also have the most tolerance for the other side. Most mothers remember the special bond they felt with other pregnant women when they carried their own children. They are pained by the current hostilities. Many feel that feminism's first wave didn't give them the alternatives they need. Because of that, some gave up on feminism. But others are determined that the second wave will respond to their needs as workers and as mothers. "This time we're trying to figure it out again," says at-home suburban Chicago mother Michele Miller. "We need to get it right for those women who come after us." But perhaps the mothers can't "get it right" all on their own. It seems likely that a truce won't be possible until Congress passes legislation to give families more choices, without sacrificing either the children's welfare or the mother's individual needs. After all, isn't choice what feminism was supposed to be all about?

A good many of America's 33.1 million mothers work outside their homes. But that still leaves quite a few who do their work at home--caring for their families.

In the Labor Force At Home 50.8% of mothers with children 1 year old or under 49.2% 56.1% of mothers with children under age 6 43.9% 73.3% of mothers with children ages 6-17 26.7%