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My Inner Mommy War, Part 1

Adapted from Mommy Wars by Leslie Morgan Steiner—Introduction

When I was 32, three years into my blessedly peaceful second marriage, 16 months into the motherhood gig, five months pregnant with our second child, I sat on the floor of our New York apartment in stunned silence. My husband had just come home from work. He stood in the middle of the living room explaining that he’d been offered the presidency of a hot Internet start-up. For context, this was amid the late 1990s dotcom frenzy—20-year-old Internet millionaires, triple-digit stock price increases, companies with funny names like Google and iVillage and paymybills.com springing up like mushrooms. One teeny problem: the company offering Perry the job was in Minneapolis. Since we’d been married he’d changed jobs frequently. In less than four years I’d moved four times for him.

Soon I was lying on the parquet floor of our two-bedroom, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment, trying not to weep. Within a ten minute walk lay my son’s favorite playground, my sister’s apartment, my in-laws’ condo, Gymboree, a pediatrician as kindly as Sesame Street’s Big Bird, five or six Starbucks, the Reebok gym and at least a dozen museums. I pounded the floor with my fists, arguing that we couldn’t possibly move again, even for his dream job.

My husband calmly explained we were very lucky and really had to go. Millions of dollars in stock options, he said. Besides the money, I heard in his voice that he wanted this job more than he’d ever wanted anything—except perhaps how much he’d wanted me. This job will make my career, he said. It was going to cost us, big time, in terms of my career and quality of life for our kids. But I knew we had to go.

Johnson & Johnson, bless them, let me work long-distance, part-time, from our Minneapolis apartment overlooking Lake Calhoun, which seemed frozen 10 months of the year. My salary barely covered the kids’ daycare. I worked and tried to build a temporary life for us while my husband stayed at his office until the darkness of the Midwestern winter threatened to swallow me whole.

I’d promised to go to the arctic tundra for two years. Day after day of working at home, alone, bundling two toddlers into and out of snowsuits four times a day, calling frantically in from business trips to remind Perry not to miss the 6 pm daycare pickup, convincing the kids that Omi, Pop-Pop, Aunt Perri and Grams were human people, not just voices on the telephone. After a year and a half, I resigned from J&J—long distance, part-time work with no benefits and a miniscule hourly salary weren’t worth it any longer. For the next six months, I was kind of okay. I volunteered at the kids’ school. I started writing a book about my first marriage. I brought up moving back East.

“Oh no,” said the man with whom I’d borne two children, given up my job and the Upper West Side, abandoned my kids’ world class daycare center, walked away from a big salary and stock options of my own. “I earn more money than you, and I think we should stay a few more years,” he told me.

More money than me? A few more years? Every single day in Minnesota had felt like exile, a sacrifice for his happiness. I thought of the mornings I cried in the shower so that the kids wouldn’t hear me. The evenings I’d begged my husband to come home in time to read the kids a bedtime story and he’d replied he couldn’t because of a meeting with “someone really important” (as if we weren’t). The time, just a few weeks before, I had been in a terrifying head-on collision with our daughter in the back seat; when I called to tell my husband we were okay he asked if he could finish up some paperwork before he came to get us. It was suddenly, horribly clear that he was oblivious to the reality of my life and what I’d given up for him. And I’d helped create this monster, by moving for him, by keeping quiet when he worked late month after month, by playing the role of supportive wife just like…my mother.

I was so furious that for the first time in our marriage I was speechless. I didn’t sleep that night. I lay stiff as a board next to him, listening to the wind howl off Lake Calhoun.

The next morning, my friend Jodi met me for breakfast during our kids’ swim lesson. A few years older with an MBA from the University of Chicago, Jodi started out when women MBAs wore floppy white ties and bulky suits like armor. Happily married for several years, Jodi was an institutional saleswoman at a large Minneapolis investment bank. She’d paid for her mother’s breast cancer treatments, bought her a mink coat when she recovered, and taught her three daughters to water ski barefoot on a Wisconsin lake where she’d bought a cabin—all with money she’d earned herself.

“This is what you do,” she began with a Mona Lisa smile, cradling a mug of steaming coffee.

I knew something dreadful was coming. Something along the lines of what I imagined wives told each other at moments of marital stress: time to accept the worldly art of feminine subservience. Visit a therapist. Start going to church once a week. Charge a piece of jewelry to his credit card. I wasn’t sure I could stomach this kind of retro advice, especially from her.

“Move back,” Jodi told me instead. “Tell him – – nicely—that you understand he may need to stay longer. Tell him you and the kids will welcome him back East whenever he’s ready.”

Later that day I checked my Johnson & Johnson stock fund. If I sold all the shares I’d earned over eight years I’d have enough to move, rent an apartment large enough for the kids, pay for daycare. Barely enough. What if I hadn’t saved that money?

During our talks (and fights) about where to settle longterm, Perry and I had decided on my hometown of Washington, DC, so I sent my resume to the paper I grew up with, The Washington Post. Three weeks later, the publisher called to tell me of an opening at the Sunday magazine. My dream job this time, a chance to combine what I’d learned at business school and J&J with my passion for publishing.

I didn’t break all our china or stage a three-hour fight. I told my husband it was his turn to move for me. And then I shut up.

I think few things frighten a man as much as an opinionated wife who suddenly falls quiet. One morning at breakfast Perry cleared his throat and said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said about moving back home. I guess you’re right. I’ll start looking in DC right away.”

We left Minnesota in February.

* * *

Washington welcomed us with pink and yellow springtime fireworks—sunshine that made us lift our faces skyward, daffodils and cherry blossoms lining the streets like our own tickertape parade. Perry and I bought a house less than two miles from my childhood home, settled into our new jobs, decided to have a third baby and got pregnant on the first try. He had moved for me. I carried that fact around like a kid with a new puppy at the end of a leash. Perry also promised we’d never have to move again. I tried to believe him.

A happy ending.

But those white-knuckled weeks of fury in Minnesota had hacked a new pathway in my working mom psyche. The job at the Post required full-time work, at least at first. The hours away from my kids were worth the leverage my job would bring. Not just worth it to me, but worth it for the kids. Repeated moves for a parent’s career do not make an idyllic childhood. Max had never had two consecutive birthdays in the same state. In four years he and Morgan had been in five different nursery schools, had been terrified by shots and exams by four different pediatricians, had gotten attached to and detached from countless different babysitters. The tradeoff I faced as a mother was crystal clear: work, earn money, have a voice in where and how my family lived; or depend on Perry 100% financially and give up our right to protest his career choices despite the short and long-term emotional costs. Going back to full-time work was the road I had to take.

But along the way to renewing this commitment to working motherhood, ironically I also learned to swim in an ocean of sympathy for stay-at-home moms who feel they can’t object when told they have to move to (or stay in) places they or their children hate. However, I still didn’t understand these moms and their lives. We all started out kind of the same. School. Work. Marriage. Babies. (Not always in that order.) How—and why—do some moms know to stay home? How do others decide not to?

I’ve struggled to find my own balance. One crisp October morning, my car key wouldn’t turn in the ignition. My reaction was to sob for four hours, which made it difficult to go to the office. Once I stopped crying, I thought hard about my life. I’d been working full-time running The Washington Post Magazine for nearly two years, clocking long (and admittedly thrilling) hours and sleeping even less than usual. I’d moved into an old house that we were renovating, cared for our two toddlers, and gotten pregnant. I was moving so fast I could hardly slow down to snuggle my children in bed.

No wonder I couldn’t stop crying. That day I resolved to cut back at work, and a few months later, I reduced my hours (and my salary) by 50%, although I’m happy to say I kept the parts of my job that continue to thrill me.

But finding your own balance between work and family can be a torturous task. The easy divining rod—financial need—only explains a portion of working mom choices. On my block there’s a family who cannot afford for the mom to stay home. But they rent a small apartment, go without a car, and send their children to a mediocre public high school so she can. Two houses up the hill lives one of DC’s most successful realtors, a mom with two small kids, a cell phone permanently attached to her ear, and a very rich husband who could easily support a stay-at-home wife. Both women (and their kids) seem happy to me. The fundamental question remains: why are some moms still ardently working and some so happily not?

The far more troubling query: why is there this catfight between working mothers and stay-at-home ones? Despite the snarls most of us witness at times (and can display ourselves), aren’t moms ultimately united in our quest to stay sane, raise good kids, provide each other with succor and support, and protect humankind from the overly aggressive, overly logical male half of the species?

The evidence, unfortunately, does not support a united sisterhood among women. Just a week or so ago, dressed for the office at 8 am, I (somewhat) frantically dropped my kids off at their schools while my husband sat on a plane to Atlanta (I think—could have been Chicago or Vegas or anywhere not here). In the space of twenty minutes on the playground, three different stay-at-home moms lobbed greetings that felt like sly, wholly unwarranted commentary on my life:

    Mom #1: Oooh, pantyhose! I’ve forgotten what those feel like!

    What I heard: I haven’t had to work in so long. Aren’t you jealous?

    Mom #2: Oh, don’t bother slowing down! You are always rushing somewhere!

What I felt like retorting: Yes I’m in a rush! My husband is out of town—again. I’ve been up since 5am feeding, dressing and cajoling three savage small people. I didn’t even have time to brush my hair. Now I’ve got to go to the office when I already feel I’ve worked a whole day! And you expect me to chat?!

    Mom #3: I don’t know how you do it. (Accompanied by patronizing smile.)

    Translation: I don’t know why you do it. You must be in really desperate need of money or self esteem that you are willing to neglect your children in order to work. Not me—I love my children more and am clearly the superior mother.

But at least the stay-at-home moms talked to me.

Later that day I was dressed in sweats, sitting on the floor at the kids’ weekly computer enrichment class, trying desperately to a) stay awake and b) amuse our toddler for an entire hour with props from my purse. A slew of working moms rushed in to pick up their kids, clad in child-unfriendly leather skirts and high heel boots (quite similar to the ones I had recently peeled off), impatient for their children to finish up. They glanced at me on the floor as if I were an oversized rodent. In lieu of a greeting to their children each spit out a version of “Hurry up—We’ve got to be…” One just rapped on the glass door to get her kid’s attention.

Maybe she didn’t remember her kid’s name. (Strike that: way too bitchy.) In one day, I rocketed from damning the holier than thou stay-at-home moms (no one loves their children more than I love mine!) to damning those snotty working moms (what makes them think their contributions to the world are more valuable than mine?).

There is no good reason for working moms to treat stay-at-home mothers like dirt (invisible dirt, but dirt nonetheless). Working moms might conceivably be grateful to moms who stay home and run our schools, our communities, a good chunk of our kids’ worlds. And stay-at-homes might arguably appreciate the working moms staying late to get the big promotions, fighting to increase women’s presence on company boards and the front page of The Wall Street Journal, campaigning to win elections. Without the money, the power and the loudspeaker successful careers bring, women will never have the collective bargaining power to make the world better for ourselves, our children, and all the women who can’t leave abusive husbands, the ones who wear veils, the moms who earn less than minimum wage cleaning houses and don’t have choices about birth control or prenatal care or any other kind of care.

That same morning on the playground, right after the stay-at-home moms had had their verbal way with me on the blacktop and I was scurrying out of the schoolyard, my daughter’s pre-k teacher beckoned me with one finger.

“Shit,” I thought. “I don’t have time to talk to her.” But my inner mom voice prevailed—she must have something important to say about my daughter. So I went to her.

She had on one of her 33-year-old son’s old Redskins t-shirts, pulled down over a faded purple Indian batik skirt. Her long white hair hung to her elbows. Her red lipstick was on crooked. If you put a pink crown and shimmery dress on her, she’d look just like an aged Good Witch Glenda headed for the Wizard of Oz nursing home. The other parents and I call her the Goddess of Pre-K. In a city renown for its expensive, elite private preschool programs, this public school teacher, who’s been in the same classroom for 26 years, rules with an imaginary golden wand, turning a crop of tearful, terrified four-year-olds into calm, well-behaved, curious five-year-olds who love going to school each day.

She gently but firmed grabbed my elbow, exactly as I’d seen her do to my daughter on Morgan’s bossiest days. She’d overheard those stay-at-home mom comments. Wisdom radiated from her green eyes.

“Did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?” Mrs. Rahim whispered so that the swirling crowd of stay-at-home moms, lingering by the school door, couldn’t hear. “You are a happy mom. Your face glows with it. That’s what matters most to your kids. I think you should have ten more children. Now go to work.” I could tell she wanted to pat my Liz Claiborne-clad tush as I walked away, smiling as if she’d tied a pink balloon to my wrist.

—Leslie

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