Over the last few days, it’s been interesting to witness the fallout from Hilary Rosen’s much-publicized comment that Ann Romney, wife of probable Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, “has never worked a day in her life.” Below is her actual, full comment:
“His wife has actually never worked a day in her life,” Rosen said on Anderson Cooper’s “AC360” show. “She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we — why we worry about their future.”
On the one hand, I find it sort of funny that this caused Ann Romney to immediately create a twitter account to defend herself (side note: must.get.on.twitter. all the good conversations are happening there!) but for the most part I’ve found myself spending a lot of time sighing deeply and shuddering as terms like “mommy wars” and “stay-at-home vs. working moms” are tossed around, doing absolutely nothing productive conversationally or argumentatively while allowing every man and woman with an opinion and a media outlet(yes, I know that’s exactly what I’m doing) to even more firmly dig his or her heels in and spout thoughts into the universe.
This subject…it’s just…it’s just so hard. Over the last few days I’ve read some blogs that I thought handled parts of the discussion well but I find I’m not fully comfortable linking to them here because all of them, at some level, in some way, carried the inescapable air of defensivness that this conversation forces among women. As terrible a term as it is, “mommy wars” isn’t entirely inaccurate – mothers will go to battle defending their choices because it is so deeply personal.
This is what I think: we are this defensive because the decisions we make – to work outside the home or not – lend us an incredible vulnerability that is almost too much to carry, no matter what decision that is. Choose to stay home and raise your kids, care for the home, support your partner in his or her career while slowly all the Yeats poetry you learned in college is replaced by Sandra Boyton rhymes? Well, then, you are doing it because it’s what’s best for the kids. After all, who can raise your kids better than you? And you wouldn’t lose out on those precious moments no matter how much money was thrown your way, because motherhood is the toughtest job you will ever love.
Choose to work, instead? Whether making this choice out of necessity or desire, or a combination of both, it’s equally fraught because you are leaving your kid (s) everyday, for hours and hours at a time, and if you are making that choice it had better be either because you *have* to – economic necessity being the only thing pressing enough to force the decision – or because you just couldn’t stand not working, because a need to work is so deeply a part of your identify.
Either path, whether by choice or circumstances outside of your realm of control, leaves you stripped bare emotionally, with defensiveness as the easiest go-to emotion when challenged.
Most of you know I’m a working mom, somewhat by choice and somewhat by necessity. Choice comes into play because while S. certainly earns a wonderful living, I actually contribute significantly to our family income , and even factoring in the cost of daycare we come out ahead, if I work. In addition, our health benefits are on my plan, which is a generous one. Switching to S.’s plan would cost us a bundle more. Could we afford for me to stay home with Evangeline? The answer was absolutely yes, if we wanted to sacrifice any sort of vacation, new clothing, nights out, cable, our cell phone plan, hair highlights for me, baseball tickets for S., and etcetera on down the line, including budgeting for groceries*. Every excess would need to be sacrificed, in order to make it work…not just one or three.
* And here, I need to take moment to explain. Have you ever had one of those *things* that you swore you would never, ever do again just as soon as you grew up or made enough money or moved away or whatever? S., after growing up with a mother always overly conscious and worried about the cost of everything, from green peppers to rental videos, promised himself that someday he wouldn’t have to budget for groceries. He grew more adamant about this throughout our twenties while we adhered to a strict food budget and now he finds freedom, serious freedom, in picking up a steak in the middle of the week if he wants to, or buying quinoa in bulk without asking first. It is one of those things.
So anyway, I work, and the vulnerability I feel in making that choice, day after day, is staggering. I’m prioritizing an emergency savings account over time with Evangeline – I’m prioritizing new shoes for the family and paying off our school loans and a retirement account and there are days where I hate myself for it. But then again…then again. The women I most admire in this world are actually working mothers – doctors and university presidents and secretaries of state and cancer researchers and they are all raising these amazing children who are obviously okay – no, better than okay – thriving, in fact. I cling to images of these women and their children during particularly rough periods, when all I want to do is quit my job, scoop my daughter up from daycare and go home to cuddle and play until life feels like it has a little more room to breathe.
Admittedly, I also like working. Not all the time, every hour of every day or anything but I’m lucky enough to have a profession that gives me a sense of accomplishment, a sense that in a small way I am making the world a better place, and a vision going forward of what I could achieve. Some mornings, when Evangeline has been up for hours and my hair is full of bananas and we’ve read the same two books ten times apiece and she is shrieking her little girl shriek that is so high pitched even the dog decides to hide I admit, I happily drop her off in the (truly loving) arms of Miss Kathy, pick up a coffee that I know I will be able to finish, and almost gleefully dive into my email in-box.
And that is what just kills me about the “mommy wars” and all the vitriol spewed between working mothers and stay-at-home-mothers and the many shades of us in between – neither decision is perfectly perfect, and the days spent within the realms of that decision have delightful highs and unbearble lows and to pretend that there is more honor or harder work found in one than the other is just absurd. If you stay at home joy will be found in sleepy, sun-lit mornings, in new skills mastered that were directed by you, in late afternoons at the park but there will also be despair when peas are smeared on your jeans and you can’t have one adult conversation all day long and you feel like your entire day is dependent on whether naptime is a success or not. And if you work, there will be successful days that will make you feel on top of the world, and the option to take a lunch break, and remaining spit-up free for eight whole hours but there will also be demanding bosses and passive-aggressive coworkers and weird workplace rules that crop up out of nowhere that will make you want to bang your head against your monitor until it (your head, not the monitor) goes numb.
All of which is to say, neither choice is right nor wrong but regardless you can bet a whole shit-ton of hair-pulling and crying and mathmatical spreadsheeting went into the decision and while, yes, there will always be the jerks who cluck their tongues in disapproval when your child eats goldfish crackers while theirs eats from-scratch whole grain brocolli muffins and never, ever, does anything not totally advanced developmentally, and there will also always be the jerks who come to the park in their Louis-Vuitton suits and constantly check their smart phones instead of actually playing with their kids, almost all of us are somewhere in between all of that and if we would just stop reacting all the time maybe we could chill out for half a minute and allow our vulnerabilities to heal, just a tiny bit, just enough to lower our defenses at the same time and open up to one another, instead of closing ourselves off in the shrouds of riteousness we so often wear. And then maybe, just maybe, when another someone comes out and attacks ann Romney for her life of privilege we can look at each other, shrug our shoulders, give girlfriend Romney a break by saying “Hey, she raised five kids and has battled MS and breast cancer – peace unto her” and move on to talk about whether we should raise our kids to be French or Chinese or whathave you. Because truly, that’s the important stuff.