The mommy wars, interrupted

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

Published July 2, 2008 5:10PM (EDT)

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.

By Amy Benfer

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

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