The mummy wars – or mommy wars – are, yawn, big news again lately I notice. This shit is running all over my internet like a naked toddler with diarrhoea. And, like the aforementioned offensively leaky child, I regard it with a look of disgust and irritation in equal measure.
There’s this piece in Salon which is particularly interesting. Sub-headed, ‘Behind sound bites and media hype, there’s the real conflict real mothers face every day‘ the article details the author’s journey from believing the mummy wars to be media hype to the sad realisation that they are – in fact – real.
‘We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and it’s real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices” – and talk smack behind each other’s backs.’
Who in god’s name is this woman hanging out with? And, seriously, why doesn’t she hang out with someone else?
Now, I’ve been a SAHM and a working mum so, like the author, I’ve had a foot in both ‘camps’ and I have never, not once, heard a mother ‘talk smack’ about the other group. Oh, sure, I’ve heard mothers time aplenty diss other mothers’ style of child-rearing – that mother never disciplines her child, that mother feeds her child crap, that mother pushes her child too much – and that sucks as it is because of the emphasis on mothers being the sole ones responsible for that kind of crap despite everything; even if the mother works full-time and the dad stays at home, somehow deficiencies in a child fall to the mother. Yes, sucky.
But I have never, not once, heard that followed through to a conclusion of: that’s because she works so much, or that’s because she stays at home.
Now I’m willing to accept that, nowadays at least, the kind of mothers I interact with are privileged ones. They are, to a large extent, women whose family income allows them an actual choice as to whether to work or not. If they don’t work, their partner brings in more than enough to cover costs and if they do work, the kind of work they do will more than cover the (exorbitant) costs of childcare. [Let's ignore for now the very real effects on that 'choice' by things such as societal expectations that if either parent quits work, it will be the mother, that expectation in itself being reinforced by the fact that, being generally paid less than their male equivalents, it will make 'sense' for it to be her because she's not earning as much as a male partner by the time they have children.]
I have to acknowledge this privilege because it makes a huge difference in terms of ‘mummy wars’.
Firstly, it makes a difference because this ‘working v. SAHM’ thing is, by and large, a dilemma of privileged women. You can bet your life, for example, that the debate isn’t taking rural India by storm. You can equally bet that it isn’t much of a hot topic even among working class mothers in the UK. For the vast majority of mothers worldwide, their ‘choices’ are by and large so manifestly not choices at all that the whole issue doesn’t merit attention. It’s fair to say, therefore, that as well as straddling both camps, I am surrounded by the actual ‘mummy warriors’.
Secondly, it makes a difference because I have heard, on many occasions, mothers express their own personal preferences. I have heard mothers say, ‘I need to work, otherwise I’d go crazy being at home with the kids all day’, and I have heard mothers say, ‘I want to stay at home with my kids, I think it’s important in their early years.’ As far as I can gather, these sorts of statements are largely held to be evidence of THE MUMMY WARS! which strikes me as a bit odd. I hear mothers express opinions all the frickin’ time that I think are completely loopy juice, but I don’t put on a breastplate and start running them through with a sword. I take them for what they are – personal opinions that I don’t happen to share, but ho hum, tomayto, tomahto and all that.
Because statements such as those above will only be considered to be affronts to the listener if the listener has some issue with their own personal choices in that area.
If I work and a mother says ‘I think it’s important to stay at home’ that opinion per se isn’t offensive to me. If I simply happen to believe that a happy mother is more important than constant physical presence and working makes me happy, then I just chalk her opinion down to the fact that we all have, well, different opinions and go about my (working) day. If I’m a happy SAHM and another mother wonders how I can be with the kids all day and manage not to foam at the mouth, I can only reply, ‘Well, we’re all different, aren’t we?’ Simples, as that annoying rat says.
If I’m not happy with my choice – if my choice, whilst appearing more ‘choice-like’ than most mothers’, isn’t really a choice at all, if in other words, my privilege isn’t quite enough to fully insulate me from those limited choices (and what mother’s is, really?) - then my response will be a loud Fuck you! followed by the breastplate donning and a healthy dose of righteous indignation and a bit of Braveheart yodelling.
If I work because financially I have to but do in fact believe that by doing so I am actually damaging my children, or if I stay at home and am in fact starting to foam at the mouth on a daily basis but can’t find a job which covers the cost of childcare, then I will find that mother offensive in the extreme. And she will become my enemy and I will hate her frickin’ guts.
And this, of course, is the real key to the mummy wars. The fact that real choice is so very limited for mothers and the societal trope that, whichever choice we make, it will be wrong. The author of the Salon article gets to this conclusion, too, but then, for me, falls down by exhorting mothers to be the ones to reset the rules of engagement:
‘…damn near all of us are fiercely, ferociously devoted to our families. When we can get past being scared somebody’s going to call us out as whopping female failures, we can see that, though our days are structured differently, most of us are working our guts out. That we love our children. That we are not enemies. When we remember that, when we talk to each other instead of merely about each other, we can reach across the playground to raise a generation of future men and women who respect each other as workers and parents. More than that — we can, finally, be comrades.’
As if we don’t have enough to do already what with the carping and the suspicious glances, now we’re supposed to solve problems rooted in the gross inequality inherent in a patriarchal capitalist system. I could maybe pencil that in for Friday afternoon, if L’il Boo naps that day.
It is not mothers who limit their own choices. And it is not mothers who can expand those choices by just being a bit nicer to each other.
The real battle lies not between working or SAH mothers. It lies between mothers of all stripes and a patriarchal system that stabs us in the back as it raises us up for admiration. Motherhood, they tell us, is the most important job in the world, but you lot, being women and all, are invariably fucking it up NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO! HA HA! Which presumably is why, in a society that judges unpaid labour to be economically worthless, we don’t get paid for this most important job. Because we’re shit at it, remember?
[And if you want a deeper and way more amusing exploration of the unavoidable insanity that this shit causes, take a look at this sublime article from Katha Pollitt, via blue milk]
Real actual mothers may not fully appreciate the real forces at work against them and they may indeed look with envy at a mother sitting on the opposite side of the no-choice fence. But real, actual mothers don’t, in my experience at least, have the energy to judge other mothers’ choices; they are too busy trying not to judge their own. They are – even the privileged ones, especially the privileged ones – too busy trying to navigate a path between their children’s care and happiness, their own personal needs and society’s expectations to have time to judge others.
So if you want ammunition to wage this particular war, you won’t find it here. Here in Boogieville, we respect and support all kinds of mothers, from the SAHM to the part-timer to the full-blown careerist. We respect all mothers, from those who are truly happy to define their motherhood as merely a small part of who they are to those who define themselves entirely as mothers.
Because here in Boogieville we understand, a la Andrea Dworkin, that until we are all free, none of us are free.