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Playground Revolution

An interview with Miriam Peskowitz, author of “The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars”

Introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

April 2005

I’ve 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).

What’s going 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.”

Peskowitz interviewed 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?

Miriam 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?

Miriam 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.

You 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?

Miriam 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 things together.

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?

Miriam 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 they need.

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?

Miriam 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, 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 into public.

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

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