Working Vs. Stay-at-Home Mom War Rages On

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The opt-out revolution.  The mommy war.  Mommy war prisoners.  The mommy brain.  The working-mom quandary.  The soccer-mom movement.  Choice feminism.  The right to choose.

No, we are not talking about abortion or adoption.  We are talking about a new era of happy homemakers encouraging other mommies to raise their own kids if they can afford it.

The term “opt-out revolution” was coined in October 2003, when The New York Times published Lisa Belkin’s article “The Opt-Out Revolution.”   Belkin reported that nearly 40 years after the start of the women’s movement, women with prestigious degrees from Ivy-League universities were abandoning their careers in favor of becoming stay-at-home moms. The subject of the article has been one of the hottest topics of public debate, especially among mommy bloggers.

If you are not one of the insiders, it can be hard to get a good sense of what the mommy bloggers actually think about this issue.  So, I pulled some real (yes, real!) claims and opinions from websites featuring the most frequent contributors and media personalities in the debate and organized them in the form of an imaginary debate.  Here is the result (see disclaimer below).

Disclaimer: This is a fictitious debate.  While the individuals are real and some dialogue may be direct quotes the scenario is purely fictional.  The persons quoted below were not involved in an actual debate or interview conducted by Flaimahmy Magazine.  Their contributions have been edited for style to maintain flow.  As the remarks were taken out of their original context, the debate is best read as a semi-documentary.  All original remarks are linked to from the name preceding it.  Where there is no link, the comment is purely fictive and is added for the sake of conversational flow.

Our Contributors

Lisa Belkin is a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine, where she writes frequently about family life.  She is the author of “Life’s Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom” and the mother to two teenage sons.

Leslie Bennetts is a veteran journalist and the author of the national best-seller “The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?”.  She is a long time Vanity Fair Magazine writer and the mother to two teenagers.

Jessica Gottlieb is mother, wife, controversial mommy blogger and media personality.  She has two kids, Jane and Alexander and a devoted husband.

Nataly is a co-founder of “Work It, Mom!”, to which she contributes daily posts about issues affecting working moms.  She also shares her own juggle between work and family.

Ph.D in Parenting is an entrepreneur, a mother of two children, a boy born in 2004 and a girl born in 2007.  Her husband is a stay-at-home dad.

Romi Lassally was a successful Hollywood film producer and then made the difficult decision to stay home with her kids after the birth of her second child.  She now has three children and is the author of “True Mom Confessions”.  Prior to this, she was founding editor for the Lifestyles section of The Huffington Post.

Leslie Morgan Steiner is an American author, blogger and businesswoman.  Her first published work was an autobiographical account of her teenage struggle with anorexia nervosa, published in “Seventeen” in September 1986.  She is married with three children.

Mommy Gathering

Jessica Gottlieb: … OK OK, enough small-talk.  ”What it really comes down to is this.  If a woman is so selfish she can’t stay at home with her kids, then maybe she just shouldn’t have them!”

Leslie Morgan Steiner: Wow, that’s some claim, Jessica!   “I have often thought I shouldn’t have had kids.  In fact, once or twice I’ve been tempted to rip out my uterus with my own hands.  But it’s never, ever because I don’t have time for my children.  Quite the contrary.  My worst moments are always when I’m spending TOO MUCH time with them.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  How bizarre.  ”I don’t feel that way at all.  I can’t comprehend not wanting to be with my kids.  I can’t understand not aching to be with them.”

Leslie Morgan Steiner:  If you want to “swing by my house to give my kids some of that nurturing you think they’re missing, honey, come on down!  Just get here quick before the neighbors’ windows shatter from my decibel levels.”

Nataly:  Is this really an issue?  ”Don’t we have enough studies showing that working and stay-at-home moms give their kids the same amount of hugs, that they spend as much time with their kids as stay-at-home moms, that kids who go to daycare benefit from it, that neither working nor staying at home is better for the mom or the kids? We all make our personal choices.  Period.”  Now, let’s have a drink.

Lisa Belkin:  I agree.  It’s not really an issue.  The study you mention, Nataly, shows that “the babies of mothers who work outside the home get just as many cuddles as of mothers who stay home, an average of 138 minutes a day, to be exact.”   There isn’t an issue here.

Nataly: ” A ridiculous thing to study,” by the way …

Jessica Gottlieb:  No kidding!   And besides, cuddling isn’t everything.

Lisa Belkin:  Of course not.  But the studies also showed that “the amount of time that babies were held, read to and talked to during the day” was the same regardless of whether both parents worked.

Ph.D in Parenting:  How did they measure that?

Lisa Belkin:  The parents kept a diary.

Jessica Gottlieb:  I wonder how working parents manage to put in the same amount of time.

Lisa Belkin:   I think they said that “working mothers who spend much of the weekday away from their infants become more efficient about creating time with the kids when they are home, and also the fathers are probably stepping up to prevent a gap.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  OK, so let’s assume the kids get the same number of hugs.  I still don’t get it.  ”I wouldn’t outsource loving my husband, why would I outsource loving my kids?”

Romi Lassally:  So, you equate “the hiring of a babysitter, or use of a daycare facility for the kids with the hiring of a surrogate — a hooker perhaps? — for [your] husband?”

Jessica Gottlieb:  Of course not.  ”I [just] can’t make sense of women who want to work outside the home, because by noon I’m pretty much ready to get my kids out of school or camp or wherever they are so that I can hug and kiss them and play with them.”

Romi Lassally:   But “working or staying home full time is not the litmus test by which we evaluate the quality of love a mother has for her kids.  There are plenty of full time moms who aren’t that loving and probably just as many working moms who love with a vengeance.”

Ph.D. in Parenting:  ”Shouldn’t there have been just as many men defending their decision to go back to work or their decision to stay home?  I think it’s ridiculous that it is still a novelty for men to stay home and that our society still assumes that a working mom = kids in daycare.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  But men usually don’t have the desire to stay at home.

Ph.D. in Parenting:  Well, “my husband is a stay-at-home dad currently.  He stayed at home with our oldest between when I went back to work and when he started preschool and he is now staying at home with our youngest and will stay with her until she goes to preschool.   But I admit it’s unusual.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  I still think that “if a woman can’t stay at home with her kids, then maybe she just shouldn’t have them!”  Why would she?

Leslie Morgan Steiner:  Jessica, if you “can judge me, I can judge [you] too.  My vote is that anyone who degrades other mothers’ choices automatically loses her parenting license.”  Hand it over, Jessica!

Jessica Gotlieb:  ”I will unapologetically say [this]; I’m staying home, and that is where I belong.”

Romi Lassally:  Jessica, the problem is that you “come out swinging against working moms and sing the praises and benefits of moms like [you] who choose to stay home.”

Leslie Morgan Steiner:  ”I sure don’t want the children of the future to have those sanctimonious mamacitas as role models.  Or, to paraphrase, if you can’t raise your kids to be tolerant of others’ different lifestyle choices, Jessica, then maybe you shouldn’t have had kids!”

Jessica Gottlieb:  My kids are very open-minded, thank you very much.  And Romi, I don’t come out swinging against working moms.  The other day “I said very specifically that we needed to support women who have to work.  My mother was one of them, my stepmother too.  The reality is that many women have the need to go back to work right now because of this horrendous economy.”  I am only talking about those who can afford it.

Lisa Belkin:  But most women can’t afford it.

Jessica Gottlieb:  It depends on how you look at it. “I was able to stay at home when my husband earned $11 an hour and we live in Los Angeles.  Clipping coupons and shopping at thrift stores were de rigeur.  It can be done.”

Romi Lassally:   Look, Jessica, not all of us want to stay at home.  Once my kids were in school full-time, “I really wanted to jump back into the work force . . . so I did.  And I love it!  And now that I’ve figured out a new rhythm for my life, I love it more and more every day.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  Is it bad that I don’t want it all?  ”What is “it all” anyway, and why do you even want it?”

Leslie Bennett:  Well, “working mothers are, in most cases, doing the best possible thing for their children by contributing to the family income and maintaining their own financial viability.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  Hmmm, “I don’t know how a marriage withstands two careers.  I’d like to know.”

Romi Lassally:  ”I work at least 40 hours week, but because The Huffington Post is a virtual company, I steal these hours whenever I can.  5:30-7:00 before the kids are awake; 8-10 after they are asleep, and so on.  I work both at the office and at home.  I love the flexibility my job offers but it’s often hard to maintain boundaries . . . as I do most of my work from my computer . . . it is always beckoning me — from my desktop to my Blackberry!  I need to keep up with cyberspace.”

Leslie Bennett:  You as well as I know “it’s not easy to be a working mom, Jessica.  All too often, mothers who work outside the home feel conflicted and apologetic about their choice, even when it’s dictated by financial necessity.  All too rarely do they receive the kind of validation and support they deserve.”  Even so, working women tend to be happier …

Nataly:  That’s right, Leslie!  And being a stay-at-home mom can be a lonely affair.  ”I had an interesting conversation recently with a mom I met through networking for Work It, Mom!  She is a successful marketing professional and her husband is a high-powered attorney.  They have two kids, ages 3 and 7.  Very early into our conversation this mom said something that made me stop and think: “I relate really well to single moms.  Yes, I have a husband, but he is never here.  He works from 7am until 9-10pm every night, and when he gets home, he is exhausted and is asleep within an hour.  On weekends he has client dinner or golf outings, and when he doesn’t, he tries to catch up on sleep.  I know he loves the kids but he works so much that he is not there for them.”

Leslie Bennett:  Sure …

Nataly [laughs]: A single married mom, that’s what she is. ” Now there’s a term I’ve not seen much in the media.  Wait, we’ll have a new mommy war soon, Single Moms vs. Single Married Moms or some other silliness.”

Leslie Bennett [smiles]: Well, “contrary to popular mythology, decades of social science research have consistently shown that working mothers are happier and less anxious than stay-at-home moms; those cliches about desperate housewives fighting depression and substance abuse turn out to contain a good deal of truth. Moreover, when full-time homemakers return to paid work outside the home, their mental and emotional health improves significantly.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  Well, “here’s what I do for a living.  I take care of my kids and my husband, I play tennis and go to lunch, I tell you my stories on Whrrl, I blog about my family and sometimes overshare, I use twitter and I’ve got an app waiting for approval in the iPhone store.”

Leslie Bennett:  Of course!  It’s a full-time job to be a stay-at-home mom.  I am not saying it’s not.  ”I am talking about the boredom and lack of satisfaction” many stay-at-home mothers experience.

[Leslie takes a sip of her coffee]

Leslie Bennett:  And it’s “troubling enough when their children are young … the problem becomes acute as the kids get older … Teenagers assert their independence; husbands are busy with their careers.  At this stage in life, stay-at-home moms may find the empty nest traumatic, whereas working mothers with rewarding careers have ample opportunities for positive reinforcement outside the home.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  Right, “those first five years when my kids learned how to separate themselves from me, were intense.  There was never a moment when I thought I should have been working.  Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of moments when I wished I was working outside the home, but never did I waver in my decision to be Their Mother.  Never in those early years.”

Leslie Bennett:  And now?

Jessica Gottlieb:  ”Now that the kids are bigger, they need me a little less.  Everyone can tie their own shoes and wipe their own bottoms.  My daughter can make herself lunch and my son is on his way.  Jane crosses the street herself and, soon, will be crossing Sepulveda Boulevard without me to hold her hand.  Truth be told, from 9 to 3, I play a lot of tennis, fuss around the house and prepare elaborate dinners.:

Leslie Bennett:  So, does your family need a stay-at-home mother anymore?

Jessica Gottlieb:  ”You might say, “no”.  With the economy today, one could argue that women like me belong in the workplace.  I should be supporting our household’s bottom line”.  But I ….

Romi Lassally: … maybe you would feel guilty.  It’s only now that “I am truly comfortable with my dual role of career woman/mother.  The first time around I was tortured . . . I was wracked with guilt and couldn’t balance my roles as worker/wife/mother . . . it was a disaster.”

Leslie Bennett:  Right, “between the stress, the guilt and the sheer physical demands of juggling family and job, most of us have days when we wonder why our lives have to be so complicated.”

Jessica Gotlieb:  No, it’s not that I would feel guilty.  Maybe I would.  But that’s irrelevant.  As I said before, I’m staying home because that is where I belong.

Leslie Bennett:  If you worked, you would be healthier.

Jessica Gotlieb:  How so?  I don’t have to deal with stress. I have time to work out.  As I said, I play a lot of tennis.

Leslie Bennett:  I see.  You probably see it this way then.  ”As a working mother, you never have enough time, you often feel as if you can’t do your best at home or on the job, and you have so many other responsibilities that taking care of yourself often gets relegated to the bottom of the to-do list.  It’s hard not to envy those stay-at-home moms who seem to have time to work out and take a regular yoga class … and it seems logical to assume that full-time homemakers, having unloaded the demands of the labor force, would be healthier than all of us frazzled working moms.”

Jessica Gotlieb: Exactly!

Leslie Bennett:  ”Surprisingly, however, the opposite turns out to be the case.  Studies show that working women have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and lower weight — health benefits that prove long-lasting.  A longitudinal survey conducted over 28 years found that by age 54, women who combine multiple roles as employees, parents, and partners were significantly less likely to report ill health than women whose lives did not include all three roles.  Homemakers were the most likely to say that their health was poor.”

Ph.D in Parenting:  That is, indeed, surprising.   “My children don’t need my undivided attention 24/7, and if they did, I would never survive.  They sleep.  They spend time with other loved ones.  They occasionally even entertain themselves.  I know, I should probably be knitting them sweaters, ironing their underwear, and baking fresh bread every evening.  But I’m not.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  OK, but all this happiness and health talk is not really relevant.  What matters is what’s best for the children and the family.

Leslie Morgan Steiner:  If this debate is really about what’s best for kids, let’s ask our kids.  Not a slew of judgmental other moms.

Ph.D. in Parenting:  It’s best for kids if they get a sense of balance.  ”I want to be a role model for my children.  I want them to observe how I balance family, work, volunteering, and me time.  I want them to be proud of my accomplishments and also to learn about the importance of balance in life.”

Leslie Morgan Steiner:  ”Over the past 12 years, I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, a fulltime working mom, a part-time working mom, and a work-at-home-crazy-hours mom.  Do my three kids care?  Can they even articulate my status in these terms?  Nope.  Not a chance.  Whether I work or not has never made my children’s top ten list. My kids care that I’m available for them, I’m happy, and my family is stable.  Sometime that means working overtime.  Sometimes it means not working at all.  Sometimes it means changing my schedule to meet their needs.  And vice versa.”

Jessica Gottlieb:  You kids wouldn’t know what’s best for them.  Just because they don’t complain …

Leslie Morgan Steiner:   Jessica, “sometimes moms’ intense need to feel good about ourselves means we stoop to denigrating other women who’ve made different choices or face harsh financial realities.  But the truth is, I haven’t found too many other people who deep down can justify condemning other moms’ parenting approaches.”

Romi Lassally:   Well, “I am in an interesting position.  I was a working mom very young, had my first child at 27, I left the work force when I was 35, and now, at 43, the mother of 3, I’m back in the saddle again.  With this unique perspective, I now see how the battle lines are drawn, and frankly see how I’ve contributed to both sides.  The biggest problem as I see it is judgment.  I admit that when first a working mom, and then a stay at home mom, I definitely harbored a mixture of feelings toward the group I WASN’T in.”

Leslie Bennett:  Yeah,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the grass is greener on the soccer mom’s side of the fence, where stay-at-home mothers are free to devote all their time to children and home.”  But, as I already said, working women who give up the hassles of balancing job and family in favor of baking cookies and planting daffodils aren’t happier.

Nataly:  Was it easy to quit your job, Romi?

Romi Lassally:  No, “it was one of the hardest things I’ve done.  I think much of the pain I endured when deciding to quit was due to both separation and mourning.”

Nataly:  Uh-huh.

Romi Lassally:  ”I think this is something very few people openly discuss because they aren’t aware of what is going on emotionally.  Leaving my professional life at 35 — to me — although I didn’t know it at the time — felt like leaving the person I had worked so hard to become.  I couldn’t even give up the many suits hanging in my closet, despite the fact that they were WAY out of style — can you say shoulder pads? — and after 3 kids there was no way I was going to fit into them either!  I think I felt that if I gave away the suits, I was giving away the chance of ever being the working girl who would wear them again.”

Lisa Belkin:  So, was that what made you return?

Romi Lassally:  Not quite.  ”I threw myself into my full-time motherhood with a vengeance, I even became president of the PTA.  And part of me really enjoyed this time of my life.  But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to a constant undercurrent of anxiety, I felt adrift without a professional identity and really worried about the future when my kids didn’t need me as much.  I was also unfulfilled creatively.  I couldn’t live completely in the moment.”

Leslie Bennett:  Sure, “working women derive a wide range of intellectual, creative and social as well as monetary benefits from their jobs. You’d never know it from all the cultural propaganda that encourages women to sacrifice their careers, but the truth is that multiple roles in life are good for women’s psychological health.”

Romi Lassally:   Just my words.  ”I LOVE my job.  But I also LOVE my kids.  The balancing act can be hard.  I just do my best.  Arianna Huffington recently reminded me that doing what we do — as women and professionals — we will never feel caught up.  You get to the top priorities on your list BUT you will never get through the whole list.  Never. Very sound advice.”

Leslie Morgan Steiner:  Right!  I guess “the bottom line is that as long as I’m not abusing or neglecting my children, it’s not up to [you Jessica] or other parents or our government to judge how much I work.”

Romi Lassally:  Ah, the mommy wars …”No doubt, working motherhood is a complicated gig … and I think it’s the guilt and the second guessing that keeps us divided rather than united” …  Anyone want a drink?


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