There's a story I like to share whenever one of my mom friends, whether she heads off to work every day or commands the home front, expresses doubts about the road she's taken since having kids.
When I was at home, working as a freelance writer, one of the perks of my flexible schedule was picking up my 4-year-old from preschool every afternoon. One day, as my spirited red-haired daughter and I left the building hand in hand, she noticed a classmate who didn't have her mother picking her up -- this particular girl had a babysitter.
"Why?" my daughter wanted to know. I told her some kids' parents go to work, and so they have sitters.
"Why can't I have a babysitter?" she asked.
"Because I'm here to pick you up," I said, a tad defensively.
Maybe she was tired, or hungry, or...something. But my girl's eyes welled up and she dropped my hand. I could see an outburst coming, though I could never have imagined what it would be about, certainly not back when I'd left a full-time job to spend more time at home with my children.
"I don't want you!" she whined. "I want a babysitter!"
With gritted teeth, I didn't walk my child, who was wailing and had gone boneless, so much as march her to our car, hoping not too many other moms were watching. I somehow got her flailing body inside, slammed the door shut, slid into my own crumb-covered seat and paused, forehead against the steering wheel, as the sobs from the backseat reverberated through me. It was one of what seemed like a million such moments in my years as an at-home mom, in sharp contrast to the many treasured ones that warm your memory like framed pictures on the walls. But in that second I wondered the thing that all mothers, if they're being honest, secretly wonder at times: "Am I doing the right thing?" This is followed by that more deeply disturbing thought: "I'm not screwing this whole parenting thing up, am I?"
File that story under "you just can't win." It holds fresh meaning to me now that I have returned to an office full-time and have since had another child, my third -- my kids are 11, 8, and 2 -- who won't know anything but a babysitter taking her to and from school every day. I feel good about working and recognize how lucky I am to have had the time I did at home too, as many women do not. I love my job, and the satisfaction of getting a regular paycheck to keep our kids in Crocs and college funds. This morning my middle child, who now has the babysitter she once coveted, tells me she misses all the time that we used to share together. Before I can feel the sting, though, she adds that she's happy I'm happy and that she's proud (tissues, please).
All of this is to say I'm keenly aware that no one has a perfect setup. No mother is certain she is doing it absolutely right. And that's why, when we're fed yet another news story about working mothers vs. stay-at-home mothers, and who's doing it better, even the most self-assured among us can suddenly feel a little fragile. If such comparisons create animosity among moms, well, who would be surprised?
Here's the interesting thing: While a majority of stay-at-home moms and working moms believe that "mommy wars" are real, few see them in their own community and even fewer report having been criticized for their choices. According to a Parents poll of more than 500 mothers nationwide by Quester, a research company in Des Moines, 63 percent of mothers believe that a mommy war exists. Yet as you'll see in the results that appear throughout this story, when we asked moms whether they saw evidence of such hostility in their own social circle, the number who said yes dropped dramatically -- to just 29 percent. How to explain the disparity between the large number of moms who believe there's a war "out there" and the smaller number who experience one close to home? We don't know, but a Google search of "mommy wars" yielded nearly 25 million results. If you read anything enough times, you start to believe it.
To be sure, even if we aren't engaged in battle with the moms we know, many of us can still identify with some of the noise. "I think it comes from a lack of understanding on both sides," says my working-mom friend Melanie. Another friend, Valerie, who used to have a three-hour round-trip commute five days a week, agrees: "I have to admit, being totally honest here, that when I was working full-time I didn't know what stay-at-home moms did all day. But now I'm working part-time from home, and I've never been busier. Now I understand." Perhaps we're all at least a little guilty of having our blinders on because we're so preoccupied just trying to manage our days: Most of us -- 68 percent -- believe mothers simply don't have time to think much about what other moms are doing.
For most women, the stay-at-home-mom vs. work-outside-the-home-mom debate is an unproductive distraction, one that we can expect to resurface -- as it did when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published her book earlier this year encouraging women to lean in to their career, or when first-time mom Marissa Mayer set the media afire by revoking work-from-home privileges at Yahoo. While such news events provoke some thoughtful discussion, it can be difficult to hear that above the din. Fifty-nine percent of our respondents said mommy wars divert us from the real issues that affect mothers' lives, like adequate maternity-leave policies, better child-care options, and more support in the workplace for mothers of young children.
Considering the findings from our survey, there's hope for moms to move forward together. If only we can embrace a better understanding of each other's path and recognize the common ground we share. Then maybe we can finally call a truce.
-- Gail O'Connor