Mothers: The Feminine Mistakes

For her new book, "Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself," writer Amy Richards takes on what could be called the mommy-industrial complex: the scores of books, blogs, articles and TV shows devoted to issues of contemporary mothering. (In addition to "Opting In," the past few months have brought "Parenting, Inc.," "Making Up With Mom" and "Mommy Wars." "Opting Out?"—not to be confused with "Opting In"—comes out in June.) In the book, Richards takes a nonjudgmental approach to the question of whether to work or stay home, telling women to ignore all the advice about how to be a "good" mother and just do whatever feels right for them. As the author of two books on feminism and the mother of two toddlers, Richards considers herself well qualified to add to the conversation about motherhood, but there's one critic whose opinion she's dreading when "Opting In" comes out next month. "My mother hasn't read the book yet," Richards admits. "And I'm terrified."

Surely by now we're all sick of the mommy wars, with stay-at-home mothers and working mothers mercilessly attacking each other's career decisions as if the survival of the human race hangs in the balance. But so far, one factor has been largely ignored in much of the debate: their own moms. Talk to some of these mothers for a while, and the conversation circles back to their own childhoods. As Richards writes, "Many of the mothers groups I attended as research for this book had 'our mothers' as a subtext. The topic was unavoidable." So is our endless fascination with mom as much to do with the mothers we had as the mothers we are?

Thanks to rising life-expectancy rates, we have our mothers in our lives for longer than ever before. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, baby-boomer moms, who had kids in their early 20s and may live into their 80s, will be in their children's lives for more than 50 years, almost 10 years longer than they had with their own mothers. And many of these women's daughters delay having children until they are in their 30s, which can lead to a sense of extended childhood. "Because we took so long to grow up, we're still shocked by the fact that we're the mothers," says Meg Wolitzer, author of the new novel "The Ten-Year Nap," about a group of New York mothers. Paradoxically, some women contend that the feminist movement that gave their mothers the choice to work or stay at home may be dividing them from their daughters. "We had the opportunity to do anything because we grew up post women's rights," says Deborah Carr, co-author with Julie Halpert of the new book "Making Up With Mom: Why Mothers and Daughters Disagree About Kids, Careers, and Casseroles." But, she says, "The pressure to do it all and do it well is a new phenomenon. My own mother often doesn't get what the pressures are like." Scratch a mommy warrior, it seems, and you'll probably find a woman with issues about her own mother.

Of course, mothers have exerted influence on our collective psyche since long before Freud delved into why Oedipus had the hots for Jocasta. But until recently, "mothers were a slim segment of society that was adored on Mother's Day and ignored the rest of the year," says Nancy Friday, author of 1973's influential "Our Mothers, Ourselves." "Now the halo effect is gone." Motherhood came under increased scrutiny with the post-World War II rise of "experts" such as Dr. Spock and British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. A decade later, Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" addressed women's dissatisfaction with housework and child rearing, predicating a debate about returning to the workplace by a new generation of moms and even more focus on (and experts' opining about) the best way to parent. Some of these women's children may equate their mothers' career decisions with what type of mother they were, says sociologist Deirdre Johnston, coauthor of a forthcoming study on women's attitudes toward their own mothers and work. Many of the women she studied conflated their mothers' approach to being moms—involved or removed, supportive or critical—with whether they worked or stayed home. "Many mothers could not separate mothering ideology and work status," she says of the women she studied. "They saw rejecting their mothers' employment decisions as rejecting what kind of mother they were." In Wolitzer's novel, stay-at-home mom Amy remembers feeling abandoned as a child when her mother began a career as a writer. (Wolitzer's mother is the novelist Hilma Wolitzer.)

While Deborah Carr says her mother, who stayed at home, has a hard time relating to her daughter's career, others say a professionally successful mother can create an unrealistic standard for her daughter. "A young woman with a new baby and a professional life is under much greater pressure than her mother ever was," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," who says she and her mother have "a very affectionate, dutiful relationship, but not a whole lot in common." She says longer workweeks and global competition have changed the professional landscape. "Women have these templates of superaccomplished moms, and it's very hard for them to measure up."

For this generation of mothers, who have grown up analyzing themselves and their children, the self-reflection of the mommy wars can seem a bit misdirected. They may have internalized the contradictory messages of the culture (work and you're selfish; stay home and you're spoiled) not just about themselves but also about their moms. But it seems that until we work out our issues with our mothers, the mommy wars will continue to rage. As Wolitzer says, somewhat pessimistically, "When the country works out its conflicting feelings about mothers, maybe we'll be ready for a female president."