The mommy wars, interrupted

Should mothers stay at home or go to work? Sandra Tsing Loh chooses her choice, and so do I.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

I don’t know about you, but few things would make me happier than a temporary moratorium — say 12 months — on discussions about what female Harvard grads are doing with their time and what that tells us about the state of feminism and motherhood in general. I’m not suggesting that, say, Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickeled and Dimed” is the only legitimate feminist text. But in the five years since New York Times writer Lisa Belkin discovered a tiny pocket of Ivy League mothers who preferred to put their expensive degrees to use taking care of their kids and discussing the political implications of said radical act in their book groups, the sheer column inches devoted to these ladies could leave one with the impression that the sole goal of the women’s movement has been to dump modern women into a well-stocked mall where one can shop for one’s identity du jour: Attention shoppers! In Aisle A we have a financially lucrative, socially relevant, totally fulfilling career! In Aisle B we have the complete love and devotion of your very own, perfectly adjusted, privately educated, organically fed children!

In this month’s Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh takes one look at this mess and sums it up in the title of her story, “I Choose My Choice!” (a phrase that originated in an episode of “Sex and the City,” when Charlotte defended her decision to quit her job to please her rich husband). In one corner, Loh places Linda Hirshman, the “marvelously cranky” author of “Get to Work … And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late,” who basically argues that it is women’s feminist duty to embrace socially relevant, financially rewarding work. In the other corner, we have Neil Gilbert, author of “A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life,” who argues that the jobs that most women — and men — toil in are hardly sources of joy and liberation and that, in fact, for working-class families with small children, having two parents in the workforce doesn’t even make economic sense. In his view, the tiny group of women who make up the so-called occupational elite have created a host of “cultural norms” by which all women now feel they must abide.

While Hirshman claims that the family traps women in a cycle of repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks, Loh argues that repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — paper pushing, battling traffic and, in the immortal words of Rob Schneider’s “SNL” skit, “makin’ kahpies!” — pretty much define the average American workday. “We all fantasize about work that uses our creativity, is self-directed, happens during the hours we choose, and occurs in an attractively lit setting with fascinating people,” writes Loh, but the vast majority of American jobs have more in common with “The Office” than “Sex and the City.” Hell, Loh even takes on Sweden, every liberal American’s idea of the perfect working mother’s utopia, with its free day care and government subsidies for children. The problem? As Loh writes: “A whopping 75 percent of Swedish jobs created were in the public sector … providing social welfare services … almost all of which were filled by women.” So, in the end, the average Swedish mother “leaves her toddlers behind from eight to five (in that convenient universal day care) so she can go take care of other people’s toddlers or empty the bedpans of elderly strangers.” As Loh concludes: “In reality, so many roads lead to a wet wipe.”

I don’t think Loh is saying that the feminist revolution is all for naught, but if even the lauded Swedes haven’t come up with a vision that’s all sunshine and rainbows, maybe it’s time to retire the notion that it’s possible to choose a choice that will result in all fulfillment, all the time.

As a single parent, I chose my choice to work: at poorly paid, socially relevant jobs (canvassing for Greenpeace and a feminist call bank), poorly paid, soul-sucking jobs (call center for a bank, editor of the phone book) and moderately paid, socially relevant but often damn stressful jobs (journalism, where I am now). Am I proud that I managed to support my child and myself, in wildly different degrees of comfort, over the past 18 years? Hell, yes. But plenty of times, personal fulfillment had very little to do with it. The rewards of work, whether in the home or in the office, are often cumulative over time: Sometimes we trudge through the day, to better fund our leisure time, sometimes our children are darling things that renew our faith in humanity, and sometimes they break their toys and fight with friends and keep us from reading the newspaper. And sometimes the day-to-day work of even the most fulfilling, socially relevant jobs — writing briefs, calling sources, tracking one’s vast army of underlings — can make one yearn for a day in the park, or just the repetitious, physical tasks of “makin’ kahpies.” The truth is, for a very large class of families — women and men — figuring out how to muddle through the daily muck of life has very little to do with personal fulfillment and everything to do with just getting by.

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>