The mom wars' newest casualty: Emma Thompson

A controversy over what it means to be "a great mum"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 27, 2014 7:31PM (EDT)

Emma Thompson           (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)
Emma Thompson (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)

Emma Thompson is the kind of woman other women adore. She's an Oscar-winning screenwriter, a talented actress and an eternally outspoken, straight-shooting observer of the human condition. She's a lady who's said that she threatened to quit the production of "Brideshead Revisited" after another female performer was told to lose several pounds, advising women to "Put on weight and say F--- off." She's admitted that she's "proud" to have refused "a whole string of roles that basically involved saying to a man, 'Please don't go and do that brave thing. Don't! No, no, no, no, no!'" And she's unhesitatingly described herself by saying, "I’ve always been a card-carrying feminist." What, then, to make of a seemingly uncharacteristic series of quotes about motherhood in the U.K. press this weekend?

In a profile in the eternally rage-baiting Daily Mail, Thompson – who, the Mail notes, is a millionaire many times over – is quoted as giving the undated and unsourced information that she'd recently taken a year off to focus on being a mother to her 14-year-old daughter Gaia and 26-year-old son Tindyebwa Agaba, a former child soldier from Rwanda she and her husband informally adopted 10 years ago. "A year off was my birthday present to myself. I didn’t actually act or write. I was just a mum," she is quoted as saying. "I taught drama at my daughter’s school, cooked meals and had fun. I highly recommend others to do the same if they can afford it … Motherhood is a full-time job. The only way I could have continued working would have been by delegating the running of the home to other people. I never wanted to do this as I find motherhood profoundly enjoyable ... You can't be a great mum and keep working all the time."

Naturally, sites like The Stir soon called the comments an "insult" and "ridiculous," while the New York Post  -- which just a few days ago inaccurately declared that Chirlane McCray thinks she was a "bad mom" for working -- announced, "Working women can’t be great moms: Emma Thompson."

I remain more skeptical of the whole thing, as I do whenever the phrase "according to the Daily Mail" is involved in any news story. Yet the apparent uproar over Thompson's comments comes shortly after two other Academy Award-winning moms – Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow – have also weighed in on the work-life balance, with very different perspectives and inspiring very different subsequent public reactions. So in all the drawing of lines in the sand of what it means to be a mother and to work, let's remember a few things. First, believe it or not, plenty of feminists – myself included here -- would gladly tell any woman that if you want to take time off to devote yourself to full-time mothering and you have the financial and emotional support system to do it, mazel tov. We'd also agree that "working all the time" is not a recipe for a healthy life.

The problem arises when these discussions are continually framed around women and women's choices -- or lack thereof. You don't see a whole lot of pull-quote grenades being lobbed out there about Johnny Depp's or Brad Pitt's struggles to parent and maintain their careers, you know? You don't see much us-against-them rhetoric around the sacrifices Matthew McConaughey says he makes so he can be with his family. Of course you can be a great mom – a great parent – and work. Of course everyone who has children has to figure out how to juggle money, time, work demands and career satisfaction. And you bet there are more choices when you're a movie star. Just don't assume – whether you're an Oscar winner or a New York Post headline writer – that one woman's choices set the bar by which all mothers are supposed to be judged. In fact, let's take a shot at a little less judging of mothers all around.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Angelia Jolie Emma Thompson Gwyneth Paltrow Motherhood