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My Inner Mommy War, Part 2

Adapted from Mommy Wars by Leslie Morgan Steiner—Afterword

I tuck my three children into their own beds, in their own rooms, every night. A few hours later Max, Morgan or Tallie usually make their way to my side of the mattress, each solemnly poking me to announce his or her arrival. The last thing I need is to have my sleep interrupted by kicks and squirms. But to be so close to my children, at the one time of day when they are too bleary to fight with each other, is priceless to me.

My husband is always on the far side of the bed, lying still as a corpse, hoping the children will not notice he is there.

In the dark of night (and many times during the day) it makes no difference whether I’m a working or stay-at-home mom. Like all mothers, I have undergone a spiritual metamorphosis as powerful as adolescence and menopause. The Velveteen Rabbit gets me every time with that paragraph about becoming Real. “Here she goes!” my son laughs as I start to sniff and tear up.

    “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. It takes a long, long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to toys that break easily, or who have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. When a child REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

This is the beautiful side of motherhood, whether one works or not.

Unfortunately motherhood is not always so pretty.

Talking with hundreds of women about the tension between working and stay-at-home mothers during the three years I worked on this book taught me quite a lot about myself and the struggles between moms today.

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First and most undeniable: the Mommy Wars are not really between different cliques of women over what kind of motherhood is superior. The real battles rage inside each mother’s head as she struggles to make peace with her choices.

Second: whether you work or not has no bearing on whether you are a good mom.

Period.

Is Dawn Drzal, author of “Guilty,” a better mom than her New York City neighbor Ann Sarnoff, COO of the WNBA, because Dawn gave up her career as an editor while Ann kept on working? Do Terri Minsky’s string of hit tv shows make her a better (or worse) mother than Inda Schaenen, the radical feminist stay-at-home mom? Each woman has high standards, impossible standards, for what kind of mother she strives to be. Our fanatical, soul-changing love for our children makes us all want to be the best mothers we can be. We have this much in common.

Third, I found that some women don’t experience tension between working and stay-at-home moms—or at least nothing they’d call a “war.” But even these moms agree that we all struggle to feel good about our own unique brand of motherhood.

An innocent desire, but one that makes us vulnerable. Politicians and the media exploit stereotyped images of “soccer moms” and “welfare moms,” because they know women want to be classified as “good” and “bad” on some level. Worst of all, this need to feel good makes us very, very critical of each other and ourselves.

Positive messages for mothers in 21st century American society are harder to find than swim diapers at Target in August. When was the last time you told another woman, “You’re a good mom”? How about the last newspaper or magazine article that said: relax, you’re not perfect but since you love your kid deeply, it’s all going to turn out okay in the long run? Even if you don’t breastfeed for at least six months, don’t devote 24 hours a day to developing your kid’s IQ, and occasionally down a glass of wine before 6 pm because the kids are driving you crazy.

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Love for our children, and the immense task of caring for them, burns up large portions of our pre-mom selves. Think of Leslie Lehr, Monica Buckley-Price and Catherine Clifford, who gave up work they cherished to stay home with their children. Some of us pay dearly with our careers, our bodies, our marriages, our relationships with friends, our closeness with our parents and siblings, our very selves. Then, after years spent diapering babies and fixing school lunches, we look up and find little to no sincere affirmation from our friends, our families, or greater society that we’ve done an admirable job rearing our children. The only moms who do feel genuinely proud are women with rock solid self-esteem in this area. All two of them. So how then can the rest of us feel like good moms?

When you want to feel good about yourself, and cannot despite repeated attempts, the next best thing is to feel better than others. Ask any seventh grade girl. Starting when I was 11 or 12, the goddesses in my life—older girls—trained me in the ancient art of comparing and ranking females endlessly on the traits that mattered then: fat in wrong places, hair color, breast size, butt shape, nose prominence, stomach flatness, appeal to the opposite sex, and so on. Most of this indoctrination took place in locker rooms, girls’ bathrooms, classrooms and hallways emptied of boys and teachers.

I’ve never been happy plying this trade. This competitiveness of the female tribe led me to a teenage bout with anorexia, endless hours wasted trying to get a 360° view of my butt in the mirror, and four years at Harvard proving that I was smart even if I’d failed in my quest to be physically perfect. It’s not the kind of interior monologue that makes one feel particularly fine about the fairer sex. But I’ve never been able to rid myself of this need to judge women, including—perhaps most of all—myself.

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When I became a mother, this ability to classify myself vis-à-vis other women slammed me headfirst into a stone-and-mortar wall. Who ranks as best mom? How can I win the potty-training round? The talking-first round? The I’d-do-anything-for-my-kids round? On my most insecure days, I’d trade my diamond stud earrings to know on an absolute and indisputable scale who is a better or worse mother than I am, to line up every mom in the world from best to worst, myself somewhere in the front-to-middle.

I want to know. I need to know. I will never know.

There’s no divining who’s best when it comes to motherhood. We are all completely unprepared for the job; our mothers lived in such a different world they seem as baffled by motherhood today as we are. We do the best we can with our decisions on work and family. As Beth Brophy wrote, we are all trying to convince ourselves we are good enough.

Whether to work or not after having kids is a profound choice; it splits women into two groups with publicly distinct theories about motherhood. Our internal monologue about whether we are good mothers morphs into an external catfight disparaging other mothers. We’re talking age old “us. vs. them” rivalries: the Capulets vs. the Montagues, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm…Working vs. Stay-at-Home moms.

Not coincidentally, all of these rivalries end badly.

* * *

When I lived in New York after college, I interviewed a female Freudian psychiatrist for an article on eating disorders. During the interview I asked why people came to see her. She paused to gather her thoughts.

“They come to change the past,” she told me.

Long after the article was published, I remembered her words.

It’s no coincidence that so many women in this book wrote about their mothers and their childhoods. As mothers, we all, to various extents, carry the baggage of our pasts; we all try to recreate the good facets of our childhoods and to compensate for the painful ones. The memory of what we did and did not receive as children shapes—some would say warps–our approach to motherhood. We try to give our children (and by proxy, to give ourselves) what we lacked as children. For some, it’s financial security, a nice house, an unending supply of beautiful clothes and toys. Others give guidance and boundaries, a focus on goals and achievement. Still others want to give laxity and permissiveness and unconditional love.

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What I most want to give my children is the one thing I didn’t have in a childhood filled with pets, books, barefoot summers in New Hampshire and a pony when I turned 13. I want to—I need to—give my children a happy mom. And for me, being happy means working.

Before tackling this book, I had no idea why some moms stayed home. I had no clue what they were doing there. I didn’t know if they were faking happiness or were truly content without work and a paycheck in their lives. And I had no inkling why I raged against them so bitterly at times. I know these women now—and I see that their decisions differ only slightly from my own.

I never hated other mothers. My anger came from years of competitiveness with other women, and my own internal agony of seeing, in stay-at-home moms, what I was missing at home when I was at work; and in ambitious working moms, the career sacrifices I was making by working part-time. It’s clear to me now that comparing myself to other moms is pointless. It’s also clear that other moms’ choices suit them and my choices are (mostly) right for me and my kids, which is not the same as perfect. But I’m not out to be perfect. I’m out to be better than perfect, as Anne Feld writes. I’m out to be happy. And that’s a personal quest no one but I can judge, fulfill, imitate or envy.

We all need other moms regardless of our personal decisions about working or staying home. That’s why I needed this book. The stories I pored over that you’ve read on these pages made me laugh, and cry, and regret a few things, and analyze—yet again—my decisions about how much of my life to devote to my work and my children and myself.

There are no easy answers. But I no longer feel alone in my struggle to balance work and family. There are millions of women in America keeping me company as I fight my internal mommy war, and very good company you are.

—Leslie

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