The To Work or Stay-at-Home Debate

by Kim Masters

The To Work or Stay-at-Home Debate

I’m listening to the other moms talk as we wait to pick up our kids from preschool. The topic is husbands, and the moms have plenty to say. Their men, they agree, have a good deal. They’re at work all day –which in this context sounds like they’re making a getaway to Tahiti. When they come home, they want some time to relax before they take on the kids. “My husband even leaves early for breakfast meetings,” one woman complains.

Heads are nodding all around. But for once, I have nothing to say. I’m the only working mom in the group, and I hardly want to confess that sometimes I, too, go to breakfast meetings. How can I open my mouth when I deserve to be lumped in with the slacker daddies, whose primary contribution is bringing home the money?

When the topic of work comes up, in fact, I usually have a slinking tendency to say that I have to work to support our family. That’s true, but I know that even if the mortgage weren’t a concern, I’d want to work, at least part-time, because it’s interesting and stimulating and a part of my identity –and because it makes me, I devoutly hope, a better mother. Lucky for me, I’m a writer with flexible hours, so I get to slip off and pick up my 4-year-old daughter most days. That provides me with a kind of camouflage, so I don’t have the nerve to say a word.

But how disheartening that in the years since women started fighting for their place in the job force, I still feel this need to fib a little about my reasons for working. I’m hardly alone in my fear that some of the mothers who have chosen to stop working view me with suspicion. The tension between moms who work and those who stay home is still smoldering a decade or so after the term “mommy war” was first coined, and even as the number of working mothers climbs.

Acceptance As a Working Mom

Statistics seem to show that society is slowly becoming more accepting of moms who work. A national study in 1997 showed that about 50 percent of adults polled said it was better for moms to stay home, down from the 70 percent who said this in 1977. The gradual change, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, is due to the fact that almost every extended family these days includes at least one working mother. “Experience does make a difference in whether you feel it’s okay,” she says. But clearly, these statistics also indicate that many people are still uncomfortable with the whole idea of combining work and motherhood.

Years ago, when I was single and knew everything about how I was going to raise a child, I never expected I’d find myself feeling so alienated from another group of moms. But perhaps the divide remains deep because the reality is so powerful: Being a mother is much more demanding and rewarding than anyone can really anticipate. When I had a baby and fantasy time ended, I felt simultaneously that I was dying to get back to the comparative serenity of work and that I couldn’t bear to be away from my child for more than an hour.

It’s gotten a little easier as my daughter has ventured into preschool. But when I come face to face with moms who have chosen not to work, the guilt and anxiety I feel are reflexive. I worry that they think I’m selfish and a bad mother. I worry that maybe I think I am too. (In brighter moments, I consider that they may just resent the idea that while they’re warming up fish sticks, I’m enjoying an expense-account lunch –or even simply a meal with a grown-up.)

Of course, some of this self-doubt is a part of parenthood that will never go away. “When it comes to being the mother of a very young child, there’s the fear that what you’re doing is wrong when it comes to feeding, sleeping, or bathing,” says Galinsky. “The stakes are so high.” When another mom does something differently, those anxieties are stirred and there’s often, perhaps as a defense, an impulse to put down anyone who makes a different choice.

Mommy Rivalry

Not all of the mommy rivalry is inborn, however. We’ve been handed a set of impossible standards to meet as mothers, and those ideals are difficult to reconcile with our concept of what a woman should be in the 21st century. “Almost all women in today’s society feel this pressure to be some kind of perfect mother, and they also feel some pressure to be independent and working,” says Sharon Hays, Ph.D., a sociologist who teaches at the University of Virginia.

“We receive so many mixed messages about what we’re supposed to want, what we’re supposed to be,” says Deborah Graham, mom of a 15-, 11-, and 6-year-old in Evanston, Illinois, who was a marketing executive at a major law firm for several years before quitting to work at home as a writer and marketing consultant. “No matter what choice you make, it feels like the wrong one.” When she worked outside the home, says Graham, “I felt like I was being judged all the time  — by myself, by other moms, by society  — as to whether I was a good enough mother.” Her own guilt was over whether she was depriving her children of valuable mommy time, and that’s why she eventually quit.

But Jen Hartigan, a stay-at-home mother of two in Foster City, California, admits she’s equally susceptible to feeling ambivalent about her choice. “I want to think that I’m doing the right thing, but I’m always questioning whether I am,” she admits. She hopes that her daughter, who’s 7, won’t question herself when she’s grown the way Hartigan does. “But I worry that my example is closing a door for her,” she says.

Many nonworking moms share this concern about the kind of role model they’re offering their children, says Anita Garey, Ph.D., a sociologist and the author of Weaving Work and Motherhood. They also worry about how their family would fare if they had to return to the workforce  — not an unreasonable fear, given the current economy. “If anything should happen to their partner, they might really be in bad shape financially, and they’re aware of that,” she says. “They may not have a labor-force history. They feel vulnerable.”

Hartigan, who holds a doctorate in biology, acknowledges, “I’m very afraid to go back to work  — and that’s appalling to me.” But after ten years at home, she says, she isn’t sure that she could handle the rigors of a structured work environment.

Self-Righteousness and Resentment

With so many complicated feelings about such a high-stakes issue, there’s plenty of room for self-righteousness and resentment. Catch almost any mom in a candid moment, and she talks emotionally about women on a different path. Wendy Neri, a stay-at-home mom of an 11- and 8-year-old in La Jolla, California, says plainly, “I have felt superior to the moms who aren’t there with their kids. I feel like I’m doing the right thing.”

Mary Kay Masters (not related to me), mom of a 3-year-old and stepmother of two grown girls, who works for a utility company in Rochester, New York, says that she and her sister-in-law simply try not to discuss the subject of work anymore because it’s become so combustible between them: “It’s like I’m the bad mom because I put my son in daycare. She’d say, ‘You mean you drop him off at seven-thirty and you don’t pick him up until five? How can you do that to him?’ I’d say, ‘People have to do what they have to do.’ I have to work –my family depends on my income for the mortgage. But my son is doing wonderfully in daycare –he’s my reflection of how it’s working out. And that gives me peace of mind.”

Despite my own insecurities, I admit that I’m judgmental as well. I’m proud that at 3, my daughter said that when she grows up she’s going to have a job like Mommy. And I’m glad for myself that I earn money and do work that makes me proud.

Sometimes there’s an almost shocking lack of sensitivity between moms. Neri says a friend of her mother’s rails about “stay-at-home moms who are a drag on society and who talk about getting their next manicure,” without considering who’s listening. And Masters has a friend who thoughtlessly disparaged working mothers in front of her. “She says, ‘Mothers who have to work –that’s terrible.’ I look at her and think, ‘Do you have a clue what you’re saying?’ We’re still friends, though –I try not to take it personally.”

Each camp, it seems, brings out the insecurity in the other. And often, these alienated groups simply avoid each other. “There are two different clubs in the nursery school,” says a woman who worked as a publicist in New York City before taking a yearlong break from her career to spend more time with her toddler. “The working moms don’t want to hang with the nonworking moms because they feel guilty. The non-working moms feel inferior because they’re coming to school in jeans.”

Neri, who says she’s entirely comfortable with her decision not to work, admits that appearance can be a touchy issue. “There are a lot of issues about self-esteem involved with staying home,” she says. “You feel dowdy because you’re not getting up and putting on makeup.”

The Grass Is Always Greener

And there are issues far more painful than fashion. Neri says the stay-at-home mothers often feel “dumb” because they’re not in the working world. “Talking to kids all day, I don’t feel challenged  — it’s like you’re not using all the parts of your brain.” But for those who do work, there are equally painful bouts of self-doubt. “If you work full-time, your kid ends up paying the price  — not getting invited to playdates because the other moms don’t know you,” says Graham. “It doesn’t matter how the kids get along with one another. You think, ‘This is because I’m not around, making those connections.'”

Stay-at-home mom Hartigan says that she no longer has friends who work because it’s too difficult to accommodate their schedules. “We’re at the playground during work time,” she says. “I don’t want to schedule a one-hour playdate on Saturday. There are enough people out there who don’t have those complications.”

From the other perspective, Masters has a stay-at-home friend who seems bored and has little understanding of the demands on her time. “She’ll call me three or four times a day and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m working. I have a job. Or she’ll say, ‘Do you want to take Friday off and do something?’ No, I can’t take off whenever I want.”

Despite such resentments, many working mothers admit they rely on their nonworking friends to take their kids to after-school activities and help out in emergencies. My own working mom leaned heavily on a neighbor up the street, who ferried me to the doctor after childhood mishaps. Sometimes, however, the apparent cooperation only fans the flames. “We pick up the slack for working moms,” Neri says. “What bothers me is when they have a superior attitude that it’s expected I’ll do it for them.”

And working mothers are painfully aware of that potential for resentment. Karen Spar, a legislative analyst in Washington, DC, says, “When my son was younger, I bent over backward never to ask for those favors, when I probably could have without really offending anyone.” Even now that her son is 17, she says, “I cultivate my relationships with stay-at-home moms because they know more about what’s going on in school, who the best teachers are.” But she’s careful not to take advantage of their availability: “I always try to return favors  — for instance, I carpool in the evenings or on weekends.”

Bridging The Chasm

So how can the chasm between mothers finally be bridged? It’s a complicated question. Garey says the mom wars arise in part because “work and motherhood have been constructed as being in opposition to each other.” Even the names we have for each group can raise hackles: When they hear “working mom,” many stay-at-home mothers say, “What, I don’t work?” And, says Garey, “there’s that phrase ‘She’s a full-time mother,’ and working moms have to say, ‘So what am I?'”

A good step toward d[E233]tente, then, would be to start by expanding the definition of motherhood to include more than just the image of someone who feeds and cuddles. It should encompass, for example, being a provider. It would be ideal, says Garey, if we could all get over the notion that “mothers provide nurturing every second and that everything they do outside of that isn’t motherhood.”

Of course, some of the pressure could be lifted if there were more social supports for women who work, such as improved childcare programs and more flexible working hours  — as well as a higher standard of involvement for fathers. “What concerns me most about this is not some image of women fighting each other,” says Hays. “Most moms, when pressed, can empathize with the other group. The problem is that society hasn’t done anything about the fact that the majority of moms are now in the paid labor force.”

Looking at the problem from the other side of the fence, Galinsky says the divide can be narrowed when society actually starts to value the nurturing tasks of mothers. Despite all the worshipful talk about that role, she argues, “society doesn’t really value mothering. Anyone who’s stayed at home can tell you that.”

Broad societal reforms still seem far away to those in the trenches now. But mother to mother, we can help bring about mutual understanding: The feelings of being judged often dissipate when moms take the time to talk to one another. Then they realize that their resentment has less to do with condemning moms who’ve made different choices than with ambivalence about their own choices. Spar agrees: “In my book group, we have a mix of moms  — some working, some not. We talk about this issue a lot, and when someone’s work situation isn’t ideal, we try to problem-solve together.”

As for me, I still struggle with my own mixed feelings, but I recognize that I have the kind of deal that society should offer more working mothers: a flexible schedule. That means I’m available on short notice, and I can go to pediatrician’s and dentist’s appointments without asking permission. And I get to pick up my daughter from preschool  — and keep my mouth shut when the other mothers complain about all the fun their husbands are having at work.