Ellen Goodman

Getting over the mommy wars

By Ellen Goodman
Globe Columnist / May 12, 2006

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I SHOULD be over this. We all should be over this. But it's 37 years since I first became a mother, and what passes for public discussion about that role still resembles a food fight more than breakfast in bed.

I've been an embedded correspondent in the mommy wars between stay-at-home and go-to-work mothers for at least 20 of those years. My daughter is now a mother, and the combat has engaged a second generation, as if it were something new.

In real life, the mothers I have known commuted back and forth across those battle lines without even passing a checkpoint. Some had husbands who lost their jobs. Others just lost their husbands. Kids entered the nest and left the nest. One family needed healthcare benefits. Another had a sick child at home. One woman couldn't take the stress of juggling, and another couldn't take the stress of bills. They performed the Improv that's called life.

Were many of us ambivalent? Of course. But on the war front, the commanders and recruitment officers divide ambivalence into opposing armies of true believers. They regularly rev up the mommy wars like some ancient religious conflict.

This year, there was the furor over whether or not professional women were ''opting out." Then there was the firefight over some sociologists' suggestion that housewives were happier.

On the literary front, Leslie Morgan Steiner's collection of testimonials, a fine-tuned orchestra of ambivalence, was originally going to be named ''Ending the Mommy Wars." But it came out of the publishing house packaged as ''Mommy Wars."

Now the current star of mommy-war lit is Caitlin Flanagan, full of retro-hip confusion about being a full-time mom with a full-time nanny. In her book, ''To Hell With All That," she tips her hat to mixed feelings but delivers punch lines directly at the ''enemy" jaw.

She asks herself, for example, what did her boys gain from having her at home? Her answer: ''an immersion in the most powerful force on earth: mother love." Whammo. Don't the kids of working moms get mother love?

What did she learn in her searing experience of breast cancer from the touching description of her husband's care: ''If that's a traditional marriage, I'll take it." Slammo. Don't nontraditional wives get husbands who stick by them?

As an embed, I have thought that no author should be allowed to promote her life as full-time mom without a disclaimer that said: ''I'm really a writer." For that matter, every warrior should be required to reveal her IRS return. And none should be allowed to deal with dads as if they were noncombatants.

The mommy-war profiteers profit because we do, in fact, take this decision personally. In these battles, the personal remains personal. The conflict keeps mothers facing inward, circling and shooting each other, or searching for signs that the enemy's children are not as smart or as secure as ours.

This week, announced that a stay-at-home mom's work is worth $134,121 a year. But the check is not in the mail. Consumers figure moms are collectively worth $14 billion a year in Mother's Day gifts. But motherhood still doesn't count in the GNP.

After three decades of conflict or more, we still regard child-raising as a lifestyle choice by individuals. You had 'em, you raise 'em. We don't think of mothers and fathers as the folks doing the collective job of raising those who'll be paying for your Social Security.

The irony, says Joan Blades, co-author of ''The Motherhood Manifesto" and co-founder of, is that ''mothers have a lot more in common than separates us." Along with Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, she's started an online organization to get grass roots growing over the scorched earth.

Their new website,, has an agenda that's been around as long as my stretch marks. It includes many of the basics for a family-friendly society that range from paid maternity leave and healthcare to television that doesn't fry your child's brain. But the website, with its icon of Rosie the Riveter holding a baby, also includes an e-card for Mother's Day -- and a petition to the media for a mommy war ''ceasefire."

Most Americans, says Blades, are tired of the polarization all across the political spectrum. And the short-term thinking. She thinks ''mothers' strength is that they have a long view." Sometimes that long view looks back over a 30-year war with dismay. But sometimes it has to look forward.

Are our daughters still fighting this war? Will our grandchildren still be fighting it? We should, honestly, get over it. And get on with it.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is