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Do Mommy Wars Exist?

Families in boats

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

The Mommy Wars Are Overblown
2 mothers pushing kids in swings

63% of all respondents believe the mommy wars exist, but only 29% of them have seen evidence of these wars in their own community.

The majority of moms in Parents' poll said they'd never been personally criticized for their status as a work-outside-the-home mom (WOHM) or a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) -- though 28 percent had. Interestingly, a higher percentage of SAHMs (31) than WOHMs (23) felt criticized for their choice -- reasons varied from insinuations of laziness to not supporting their husband or family financially. "It's ridiculous -- but very real," said one mother. "Both sides wish they could be in the other's shoes. Each side tends to feel that they work harder than the other or are worse off because of their choice."

Will women ever be able to do what's "best" for their family -- working or not working -- free of judgment? Probably not, and moms seem to feel it's wasted energy. "We all judge each other and naturally feel guilt regardless of our situation," said one mother. "People are particular about 'the right way' to raise children, and they spend too much time judging each other's decisions." What busy mom has precious minutes to waste on that?

92% of all mothers agreed with the following statement: "There's no tougher job than being a mom."

Working or Staying Home Isn't Always a "Choice"

Another myth our poll busted: Working or being at home is a "choice." Sixty-three percent of working moms and 43 percent of stay-at-home moms said it isn't. Who does believe it's a choice?

Part-time work-at-home moms: Two thirds of them believe women make the decision to work or not. The bottom line for most moms? They do what's best for their -- and their family's -- needs.

WOHMs Say...

"I needed to continue to work full-time since we had to work harder at having kids -- we had additional expenses with fertility treatments and adoption."

"I enjoy being able to take my daughter on vacations and having a second car so that we can get around. If I didn't work, then we wouldn't be able to afford anything."

"I had no choice but to work. The cost of everything has skyrocketed and then we were having a tough time paying the bills, and for all that the kids need for school -- it was too much for one income."

"I'm the breadwinner in the family, but I couldn't be a SAHM. As much as I love my son, I need some time to myself and I treasure the independence."

"I'm a single parent. Teaching allows me to be home at a decent hour, off on weekends, and home two months in the summer."

SAHMs Say...

"My husband makes good money, which enables me to choose to work or not. I've chosen to stay home with my daughter until she starts kindergarten."

"When I was working in retail, I cried when I had to miss school events or family gatherings because I had to work."

"I wanted to stay at home with my children because my mother couldn't. I love being able to do it. We have to do without some luxuries, but it?s worth it."

"I was employed outside the home until I had our third child. With one child having ADD, it was time to become a stay-at-home-mom to help him stay focused."

"The cost of child care made a big difference. If I put my younger son in day care it would cost about the same as I would have made working. I didn't see the point."

Moms (Mostly) Have One Another's Back

Happily, 62 percent of our respondents said that the moms they know "are mostly supportive of one another," regardless of whether they work outside the house or stay home with the kids -- nearly exactly the same percentage who believed mommy wars exist. (Take that, mommy war flame-fanners!)

One exception: The small number of full-time work-at-home moms we polled -- those who are home day-care providers, therapists, or run other businesses from home -- felt less optimistic on both fronts, perhaps because they lack the community of coworkers or SAHMs. "People tell me that I don't really work because I do it from home," said a day-care provider.

And according to the mothers we surveyed, mom-to-mom tension does still exist in small doses. The same number of full-time WOHMs and SAHMs -- just 14 percent -- said the moms they know are too critical of the other "side." But only 8 percent of WOHMs and 6 percent of SAHMs have felt excluded because of their choice or employment status.

"At the end of the day, though our closets and calendars may look different, we are moms and we need to support each other."

More SAHMs Would Work If They Had Better Options

Here's a fascinating finding: More than half of all moms -- 55 percent -- would change their current situation, whether they're employed or at home, if they could.

And perhaps most surprising: 51 percent of the SAHMs in our study said they're home at least partly because of "insufficient pay or pay that doesn't make up for the cost of child care." Sixty percent said they would get a job if there were more options for part-time work or quality and affordable day care. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) said that being unable to find work figured in, while a third (33 percent) cited an inflexible work schedule. And a small percentage (7 percent) said they were home to address their children's unique health or learning issues.

Most Mothers Worry Regardless of Their Work Situations

33% of WOHMs and 16% of SAHMs feel stress because of their work choice.

18% of WOHMs and 17% of SAHMs feel guilt because of their work choice.

35% of WOHMs and 20% of SAHMs worry about whether they're being a good mom because of their work choice.

If you've ever had doubts about whether you're doing a decent job as a mom, you're not alone. A quarter of our respondents said their work choice led to worry over whether they're a "good enough mom"; 22 percent feel stress because of their work choice, and a little less than that -- 17 percent -- feel guilt. Full-time working mothers worried the most about whether they're good enough moms. They don't feel guilty about working, however; only 18 percent of full-time WOHMs said they do.

One thing every kind of mom -- 66 percent overall -- worries about? Money. Stay-at-home moms (69 percent) worry about it the most, though full-time WOHMs (58 percent) worry about it too. Part-time work-at-home moms feel the least guilt and stress, perhaps because they have both some income and time.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Parents magazine.