spent the last seven years daydreaming about what motherhood
could look and feel like in a more enlightened society, so naturally
I’ve paid close attention to the so-called “Mommy Wars”—
you know, those caustic verbal beat-downs that pit “full time”
at-home moms against mothers who work for pay. I won’t try to tell you that such mother-on-mother viciousness is a figment
of your imagination, or suggest it’s the wholesale invention
of TV talk show hosts who want to boost their ratings. It really
happens, it’s really ugly, and you can find its scattered
shrapnel it in the most unexpected places (Amazon reader reviews of almost anything in the “mother lit”
genre are a surprisingly rich source).
on here? I wondered. If this is a war, who is in command? What
are the stakes, and who are its casualties? Why does this long-standing
cultural anomaly— by all accounts, the Mommy Wars have been
knocking around for at least 25 years— still have traction
as a red hot media topic, when it’s nearly impossible to find
serious press coverage of real motherhood issues? And what does
all this have to do with resistance to women’s progress and
half-changed ideas about women, work and family?
Being the perennial egghead,
I went in search of documentation. I compiled a thick dossier. I
spread out all my papers and tried to make sense of it. And I arrived
at the conclusion that: a) the media and marketing industries did
not create the “mom v. mom” phenomenon— at least
not entirely— although they definitely play a role in keeping it alive in the public mind; and b) the longevity of the
Mommy Wars— and the primal fear that keeps them going—
has almost nothing to do with disagreements between individual mothers
about the superiority of different work-life solutions, and almost
everything to do with the inevitable conflict between progressive
ideals— including feminist ideals— and the radically
conservative values of the nation’s power elite. In the Mommy
Wars, defending the status quo is the objective, women are the target,
and mothers and children are the biggest losers.
Recent books on the motherhood
problem have all, in one way or another, assessed the harmful fallout
from this ideological collision. Joan Williams’ Unbending
Gender illustrates how it plays out in the high-performance
workplace, and Ann Crittenden calculated the toll it takes on mothers’
economic security in The Price of Motherhood. Daphne
de Marneffe and Janna
Malamud Smith discuss how it invades the inner lives of mothers,
and Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels study how it bubbles up
in popular culture as “The
Mommy Myth.” In Dispatches
from A Not So Perfect Life and Mother
Shock, Faulkner Fox and Andrea Buchanan write evocatively
about their personal experience of the clash between new possibilities
for women and cultural and structural forces that press mothers
back into outmoded gender roles. In her vitally important new book, "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes
A Good Mother" (Seal Press, April 2005), Miriam
Peskowitz looks at what’s happening to mothers and
fathers at ground level— at work, at home, in neighborhoods—
and what they are doing, both individually and collectively, to
break through the impasse. “The truth behind Mommy Wars,”
she writes, “is that in real life mothers are casting about
for lives that feel sane and safe, and we need more help than we’re getting.”
a diverse cross-section of parents— white parents and parents
of color, middle-class and low-income mothers, at-home moms, mothers
working full or part-time in professional and service occupations,
single parent women, welfare mothers, activist mothers, young mothers
and mid-life moms, and many fathers. “What they all have in
common,” Peskowitz writes, “is that today’s mothers
and fathers are caught between cultural assumptions of an egalitarian
society and a cultural reality that is not exactly egalitarian.
This is the parent problem, the contradiction that is hard to name.
The parent problem is not a working-mom problem or a stay-at-home-mom
problem… The parent problem is a serious structural problem.
It’s a remnant of an economy that saw men as central and ideal
workers and relegated women to supporting roles at home.”
As the book’s title
suggests, Peskowitz offers a skillful dissection of the Mommy Wars
in past and present manifestations, and along the way she draws
attention to the fact that simplistic stereotypes of mothers always have a discreet cultural origin and, very often, a political purpose.
Peskowitz also describes the process of her own awakening to the
“parent problem” when she quit her job as a newly tenured
professor to be at home with her baby daughter. “As a feminist
daughter, I had just smashed into two limits: first, the end of
an identity built so thoroughly around work and public success,
and second, the limits of our society's toleration of our liberation:
we can be liberated as women but not yet, entirely, as mothers.”
Peskowitz applied her perspective as a feminist scholar to understanding
the broader social context of her personal dilemma— and happily
for the rest of us, she weaves these insights into her deeply intelligent
and exceptionally compassionate book, a book about how mothers and
fathers are managing in a society in which productive work of care
and caregiving is treated as a private concern rather than a collective
responsibility, and where we need to go from here to make a better
world for families, and a fairer world for mothers.
Peskowitz calls for a
“playground revolution,” a new movement for social change
that she believes will take place on both micro and macro levels. It begins when we acknowledge and address the disconnect between what is and what is possible for mothers, fathers
and families as a social issue— first in our own heads and
hearts, then in our neighborhoods and communities. And if we simply
continue moving outward, we will almost inevitably create a more
humane and just society. In The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, Peskowitz affirms that this revolution is already underway—
and that no matter who we are or what our lives look like, we can
each hold a piece of it: “Women, men, and groups of concerned
parents are getting together to make change for the better…
They’re taking their insights and skills and they’re
tending the home and looking outward, too, from their small corners
of the world to make things better for others… They talk openly
about what’s wrong, about specific ways to make family life
better and their own lives as mothers and fathers a bit better.
Small acts matter. They expand our consciousness; they create more
visible space for family life that’s integrated with work;
they acknowledge the work it takes to build and nurture a family.
They show other families what change is possible when people start
thinking about life with their kids in tow.”
In the following interview
with the MMO, author Miriam Peskowitz shares more of her thoughts
on motherhood, feminism, the parent problem and the value of small
acts of resistance.
MMO: You’ve devoted
most of your working life to formal scholarship— your previous
books examine the intersection between religion and gender—
when and why did you decide to write about motherhood as a social
issue? Do you feel there is any continuity between your earlier
works and The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars? And why did
you choose the framework of the Mommy Wars as a starting point?
Peskowitz: I worked as a professor until my daughter was born. In the book
I tell the story of leaving my job and leaving behind tenure. My
university was an eight-hour drive from where my husband and I lived.
It was all too much, so I ending up as a stay at home mom, at least
for those first few years. When my daughter was young, I taught
a few courses here and there. In those few moments I could scrounge
for writing, I would set out to draft a book I’d been working
on about religion in America. But what really happened is that I’d
open my journal and type in anecdotes and insights about motherhood.
It was all so new. Even though I had a graduate certificate in Women’s
Studies, I felt like I knew nothing about how gender really works
in our society. You have to see what becoming a mother does to you,
you have to walk into stores and see the pink clothes on one side
and the blue on the other, separated by an aisle in between, you
have to hear the silly stereotypes people tell you about boys and
girls to truly understand how deep gender goes in our society, and
the many ways that these divisions are ingrained in our children.
Once I became a mother,
motherhood was the social issue that vexed me the most. I loved
being with my daughter. I was thrilled by my new life as a mother.
And I couldn’t believe the social price I was being asked
to pay to incorporate her into my life. I had heard so many mothers
talk about motherhood and its frustrations, and their visions for
what would make life better. Mothers and fathers at the playground
often have very sophisticated answers for what will improve life
for women, men and families, but as I write in the book, CNN never
comes down to the playground. My daughter started pre-K, in a full
day program, and it was time for me to figure out a new phase of
mixing motherhood and paid work. It was clear to me what I wanted
to write, and once I had the time, I wrote with real urgency.
In one sense, The
Truth Behind the Mommy Wars is a jump into a new pond for me.
Even as a professor, I was interested in good writing, in audience,
and in melding personal interests and stories with ideas and research.
And my academic training and writing gave me solid explanatory frameworks
to make subtle points about women and work. That’s really
the big connection. I think professors get a bad rap these days.
People think they’re boring and dull and removed from real
life, and sometimes they are. They forget that what we bring to
the motherhood-and-feminism table is an ability to do research and
an ability to take different kinds of evidence and pull it together
into a new story.
Credit for the Mommy
Wars framework goes to Leslie Miller, my editor at Seal. Here’s
the backstory. Leslie’s son was sick, and she was home taking
care of him, and very uncharacteristically switched on the TV and
found the Dr. Phil episode “Mom vs. Mom” that I write
about it in the book. That’s the episode where Dr. Phil puts
the working moms on one side of the room, the at home moms on the
other, and despite the fact that the conversation that ensued more
cooperative and supportive, edited and cut to make it into a Mommy
Wars scene. The episode infuriated her. As an editor, her response
was that a book needed to be published that dismantled the Mommy
Wars. She was all fired up about it. Later that week she happened
to be traveling to NY. She met my agent for coffee, and learned
about my book, which was then in a very different form. Leslie and
I had several conversations, in which we really thought together
about all the pieces of a “big book” on the politics
of motherhood. To give credit where it’s due, it was Leslie’s
editorial suggestion to start with the mommy wars. We worked very
closely together on this book. Leslie’s a mother, and was
pregnant with her second child while I was writing the book. At
the beginning of our work together, Leslie was working part time,
but primarily identifying herself as a working mother. Just as I
was finishing, Leslie resigned her job at Seal, and was looking
ahead to some time as a stay at home mom. I was starting to work
much more. Together, we really had empathy with all the decisions
that parents make.
MMO: You place the media-driven “Mommy Wars” squarely
in a social and political context, and suggest that— like
other prevalent stereotypes of mothers— the “Wars”
serve to divert public attention from the wants and needs of real
mothers who have too much work, too little time and not enough support.
But there’s no denying that mother-on-mother judgment exists
and is widespread— it almost seems to be woven into the cultural
fabric of our society— and it tends to cause bad feelings
all around. Do you think there is a lens, other than the monolithic
“Mommy Wars,” through which we might view this kind
of harmful behavior and defuse some of its power?
Peskowitz: We mothers are supposed to be in control of our family life and
ourselves. In my family, I’m “Mom the fixer.”
When the pastel blue bow comes off the doll, I superglue it back
together. I keep food in our fridge. I watch that homework gets
done, make the doctor’s appointments, make sure new sneakers
are bought when the old ones are outgrown. It’s my role to
make our life as a family as seamless as possible. Many mothers
are in the same boat. When we move from being “the one who’s
in control” to situations in the workplace, where we can’t
fix things, we can’t make things work right for us, or in
our society more generally, where men are still the ones who create
law and policy, who control the flow of money, and who don’t
sacrifice as much when they become parents, it gets very confusing.
Why can’t Mom the fixer convince her employer to give her
health and retirement benefits? Why can’t Mom the fixer convince
the state government to provide paid parent leave?
I think the gap between
growing up and feeling like we’re in charge of our lives,
and the reality of becoming a mother right now in our society can
be debilitating, and depressing. It makes us feel ashamed, and it
makes us frustrated and angry, and these emotions are hard to give
voice to. So we take it out on other mothers, mothers we think are
doing it wrong. Mommy Wars judgments really say “You working
mom/stay at home mom, you think you have it made, you think you’re
doing the right thing, but you’re not and you’re wrong.”
That’s their message. You’re wrong and I’m right.
They pretend that the answers rest in the individual decisions we
make. We’re mad, and it’s hard to know who or what to
be mad at, so we take it out on other women, because we know they’re
as vulnerable as we are.
I know personally how
hard it is to “get” how the structural issues for motherhood
affect us. When my daughter was two, I had a part time job that
paid decently well, and also gave me health and retirement benefits.
I felt like I was on top of the world. I loved thinking of myself
as the mom who could make it all work out, the mom who could win.
For part of that year I thought less and less about other mothers,
and less and less about the big picture. Until, that is, my schedule
was changed mid year, and I found myself scrambling for a different
mixture of preschool hours and babysitting, up against the gap between
morning out programs on the one hand, and daycares that only provide
fulltime care on the other. I was still aghast that the structures
for hiring primary caretakers and caring for their young children
while they worked really, truly weren’t set up to help me.
I started really feeling the loss of privilege and status that accompanies
being a mom.
ask about other lenses to explain what’s going on. What’s
happening is that many women can’t believe things are as bad
they are. But it’s hard to be mad at “our society”
for these things. The motherhood problem is a hard one to gain traction
on, there are so many moving parts to it. And the magazine model
of motherhood constantly tells us that if we made the right choices
and followed the right coaching tips and domestic advice we would
be okay. There’s always another woman or mother held up to
tell us how someone else has figured out the answer. As Americans,
too, we imbibe competition— that’s our national culture,
so in a way it makes sense that mothers, too, are competitive with
each other; it would be weirder if we weren’t. When we’re
in that gap between thinking we should be in control, realizing
that we’re not, and we’re feeling anger, but we experience
it as shame that we can’t compete, that we can’t win—
the easy way out is to vent on other women, on those around us who
don’t have much power in the world. I understand this.
MMO: You conclude that the contemporary motherhood problem— which
you discovered is actually a “parent” problem—
is really a labor problem. Why? Isn’t it also a gender problem?
Peskowitz: I am so tired of seeing the media treat motherhood as a female style
issue that I really emphasize in The Truth Behind the ‘Mommy
Wars’ that motherhood is work, and that mothers are experiencing
a labor issue. I don’t want this point to get lost. When a
mom working fulltime still faces a 15 percent lower wage than other
women, that’s a labor issue. When a mom or dad wanting part
time work has to give up salary and benefits, that’s a labor
issue. When a mother or father at home can’t count their work
as such on the United States census, or when a mother on welfare
can’t count parenting her own children as “work,”
those are labor issues. In all cases, the labor of mothers is being
devalued, whether she’s being paid for it or not.
Second, what I found
is that fathers who want to be primary caretakers have similar experiences—
they’re not really counted, and they too have trouble finding
decent part-time work. The book includes several stories of stay-at-home
dads, of fathers who have chosen to work less-than-full time so
they can be more hands-on with their kids. I found their stories
fascinating, and important. One of the first at-home parents I met—
before I was even pregnant, was Tom, who had left several high-level
jobs to be with his older kids and support his wife’s work.
When fathers are part of families, they’re crucial. That’s
why I call it both a motherhood problem, and a parent problem. It’s
coming down more harshly on mothers because so many of us tend to
be the primary parent, yes. But we need to include the experiences
of fathers who parent; they’re very isolated, need friends,
and have important insights. (I’m very critical of books like Perfect
Madness that write off this generation of fathers and say
they don’t want to parent; they haven’t done their research.)
I’ve noticed that because men tend to feel anger as anger
(not like women, who tend to turn anger inward into shame), at-home
dads really notice the loss of prestige when they decide to parent,
and they are very vocal about it.
And to be clear, when
I say in the book that this is a labor problem, that’s not
to negate gender, it’s to make sure we think about all these
MMO: While doing research for The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars you discovered that it’s nearly impossible to find accurate
information about how many mothers of young children actually work
full-time, year round in the U.S. Why is this information—
or, to be more precise, the lack of it— so critical?
Peskowitz: Yes, I remember the summer
I tried to track down this information. I would be sitting in my
sunny home office, drinking iced tea, and on the phone and email.
And as soon as one lead dead-ended, I’d just dial another.
I write about this goose chase in the book because I think we need
to realize how our government’s ways of recording what people
do doesn’t incorporate mothers’ work, and that’s
a very political issue. I admit that at first it seemed technical,
along the lines of “my editor wants numbers, and I need to
find them to make her happy…”
This attitude changed,
though, after I interviewed policy experts. The worlds of policy
and journalism depend on numbers and statistics. This is the type
of information they rely on, the information that they deem authoritative
and real. They don’t care much about anecdotes, and about
emotions, and about mothers talking truth about their lives. Further,
when policy people get their issues in front of lawmakers, it’s
even more crucial to have numbers to illustrate the problem. It’s
a whole different way of talking about social problems than most
of us are aware. In order to translate the frustrations of motherhood
and parenting so that politicians can consider issues, and journalists
report them, national figures are crucial, and it’s a huge
problem for mothers that they’re so hard to find.
We must keep remembering
that the goal here is to share information, and to foster change,
and that though we tend to think about change in household and personal
terms— how can my family do it better. I hope we can move
out of our living rooms, so to speak, and see our issues in broader
terms, and to see solutions in the workplace and in policy change.
And second, the numbers
remind us that the problem is bigger than we are. When I was struggling
with the vagaries of part time work, I had no idea that 37 percent
of mothers work part time and have the same problems. I was shocked
when I found out. I had no way to understand this personally, nor
enough perspective to explain these issues to my boss. I want mothers
to know that when motherhood is difficult, the problem isn’t
just them; it’s often linked with some thing larger, some
way in which mothers and parent aren’t yet getting the support
MMO: While many recent books on motherhood as a social issue— such
as Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, Joan
Williams’ Unbending Gender and Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness— focus on the predicament of well-educated,
affluent mothers, you sought out parents from all walks of life—
including mothers on public assistance— for your interviews.
Why did you feel it was important to offer such a diverse perspective
on the motherhood problem? Are there any “one size fits all”
solutions that will support both middle-income and low-income parents?
Peskowitz: One afternoon I was at the playground in the Atlanta neighborhood
we lived in when my daughter was little. I loved the playground,
adored the moms I knew there, and had a great time. It was the place
that kept my daughter happy, and me sane. It was where my mother
wisdom came from— toilet training, weaning, pediatricians,
you name it, I learned it at the playground. One afternoon I was
pushing the stroller home, and I noticed that one street away, down
a hill and behind some houses, was another, smaller playground.
This one, though, was in a housing project, one of the last in the
city; the next year, in fact, it was torn down to make way for luxury
homes. We were middle class, mostly but not entirely white. They
were poor, and mostly African American. It struck me that their
families and kids never came to our playground, we never went to
theirs, and that we knew nothing about the other.
I was also increasingly
aware of a new media trend that used the needs of lower-income women
to undermine the needs of professional women. Caitlin
Flanagan’s particularly mean-spirited Nanny Wars article in the Atlantic Monthly was part of that trend. It was
Mommy Wars again, the class version. Professional women feel frustrated
by work-and-motherhood issues? Well, buck up, look how hard factory-working
women have it, and stop complaining. She played women against each
other. I feel strongly that the answers to mothers’ frustrations
can’t be zero-sum, that motherhood is motherhood, no matter
how much or little money you have. A few years later, as I researched
the book, it was just clear to me that I would try to write about
all of our lives as mothers, across class and community differences.
I started talking with women who had struggled with welfare, and
with finding their feet after.
That said, one of the
things I learned is that we each have our own needs as mothers.
I want job security, and fair wages and benefits for part time work.
My friend wants more balanced hours for fulltime work, the return
of the 40-hour week. Someone else wants high quality, subsidized
childcare, and dreams of childcare stipends for parents of young
children. Another wants social security and other tax benefits for
the unpaid labor of motherhood, another wants part time childcare.
And still another wants the childcare vouchers that welfare recipients
get to continue when you’re off welfare and back to work.
Someone else wants childcares with infirmaries, childcares that
serve dinner at 6 pm so the kids aren’t starving when you
pick them up. And someone else still wants a cultural shift that
makes it easier to move back to the workplace after time off to
parent, they want on-ramps, and soon. Another mom wants better schools,
and more realistically priced homes; she’s given up her job
to home school her kids because the only house they can afford is
in a neighborhood with terrible, unsafe schools. There’s no
one size fits all answer. But there are lots of solutions, that
must never be played off against each other.
MMO: What is the “Playground Revolution,” and how
do you think it can change the lives of mothers, fathers and families
in the U.S.?
Miriam Peskowitz: The
playground revolution is when we start seeing our individual troubles
as part of something larger, start taking seriously our roles as
citizens in our society, and we start figuring out how to make change.
MMO: You write that—
as a “daughter of feminism”— leaving your full-time
job for motherhood “went against everything I thought life
should be.” But you quickly add that feminism is not really
the problem. Even so, many mothers of our generation feel either
shortchanged by feminism or like they are “letting down the
team” when they discover it’s virtually impossible to
be an “ideal worker” and a hands-on mother at the same
time. What’s happening here, and does feminism have a place
in the “Playground Revolution”?
Miriam Peskowitz: In it’s biggest, broadest, most critical and most utopian
sense feminism still gives us the tools for understanding the plight
of mothers and fathers who parent. When mothers tell me that they
and their husbands had such a mutual relationship before children,
and now they feel they’ve sprung back to a mythic 1950s, feminism
is the only model we have for explaining the gender dynamics of
family life. When a mother tells me that she’s struggling
with a boss who tells her outright that he can’t promote her
because he knows her children are her first priority, feminism helps,
and feminist legal precedents will help if she has to take her workplace
issue to court (though feminism may not help explain why said boss
is stupid enough to be so blatant).
Feminism has many versions and forms. Some are more or less helpful.
Lots of bad-intentioned stereotypes have been slapped onto it; feminism
has been the whipping-girl of the right wing. I still think that
at core, and in the new feminism we are creating as we reflect on
our lives as mothers, feminism offers helpful explanations. And
it connects explanation with a history of activism, of many different
types, from personal resistance and creative ways to live a life,
to local activism, to writing, to large-scale policy and legal change.
And that’s important. Some of what has been missing is that
many of us who are now becoming mothers can barely remember the
decades when our society was more activist, and able to imagine
great shifts in what it meant to be a woman, or a man. I’m
40, I was born in 1964. My first political memory is in the early
seventies. I was in Cambridge, MA, visiting my aunt, when President
Nixon resigned, and we walked outside to see everyone out on the
street, marching. Political signs were everywhere. It made quite
an impression. But I think that the younger we are, paradoxically
the more entitled we feel as women, and the less able we are to
think about how we work to change society.
MMO: What would you
most like readers to take away from your book?
Miriam Perskowitz: I hope the book feels like a Mom’s Night Out where you drink
a few beers, talk honestly with your girlfriends, hear what they
have to say about their lives, and laugh. The moms at my Atlanta
playground used to try and go out once a month, and I treasured
these evenings. I went home feeling buoyed by camaraderie among
us, and felt supported by friends. It’s in this spirit that
I wrote the book, since personally, we need friends, and politically,
we can’t make change alone. I hope after reading the book
a reader wants to tell these stories to her friends, and wants to
track down my blog, www.playgroundrevolution.com and write a note about what she’s thinking about, or be so
inspired by the stories of how small groups of mothers successfully
accomplished small change, that they write and tell me similar stories.
I hope this book can help start a new, national conversation about
motherhood, and that readers will walk away feeling they have something
to contribute to that.
And here’s something even more specific. We need things to
change, and that means taking ourselves seriously as citizens. Sometimes
we mothers can’t take ourselves seriously, and we don’t
take our answers seriously. But who else will understand what we
need? We know that we women can vote, but we don’t always
act as if we are central to the national good. When we’re
talking with friends, or thinking to ourselves about solutions that
will make life better, these ideas deserve a voice. When you read
an offensive Mommy Wars newspaper article or op-ed, write to the
editor. I’m amazed that almost every time the New York Times
publishes a motherhood op-ed, and they don’t do this often,
and they’re rarely very good, many readers write back to criticize.
The letters are often smarter and more sophisticated than the original
piece. Mothers, fathers, parents should feel more empowered to speak
out loud and to see how their voices travel from the playground
Instead of seething at home, or judging other mothers, let yourself
feel the frustration. Then call your local statehouse representative,
tell them you’re a constituent, that you vote, and that you
wonder what they’re doing to help mothers. If this makes you
nervous, pretend you’re just calling to complain about a pothole
on your street. You don’t have to have the answers. Just ask
the question, and tell your story with detail. After all, they’re
paid to listen to us and make our lives better, right? Hear what
they have to say, and respond. If they have nothing to say, tell
them these issues matter to you. Then, the next day while the kids
are napping, take another five minutes and dial your representative
to the United States Congress, and do the same. And then dial your
states’ two senators, and ask their staff people, and see
what they have to say. When you’re done with them, call your
county commissioner, and your city council members, and your mayor.
And just ask them the question: What are you doing to help mothers?
Then, get all your friends to do the same. Take notes, and when
you’re done, write an op-ed piece describing this quest for
your local paper.
When our elected officials start hearing from their office staff
that mothers are calling in droves, they’ll start to show
some attention. If politicians start paying attention to more equity
and support for mothers, journalists will start to report it, and
bosses and workplace managers will feel some heat, and they’ll
become more amenable to creative work/family balance solutions that
make life better.
And if it’s
hard to pick up the phone, just remember what my friend Elizabeth
always says: when it comes down to political action, it’s
better to feel slightly ridiculous than totally passive. To quote
another friend, Liz, we must play to win.
mmo : april 2005