The 'Mommy Wars' Myth: It's Actually A Flourishing Mom Ecosystem

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A bake sale in Kittery, Me (Beautiful Lily/Flickr Commons)
A bake sale in Kittery, Me (Beautiful Lily/Flickr Commons)

It was the kind of imminent afternoon crunch that looms more often lately as my work hours ramp up. My children would get out of their elementary school at 2:20, but I wouldn't be able to get home until nearly 5.

"Sure," Isabella's mom said when I called. "Your daughter can come home with mine." "No worries," Luca's mom texted. "I'll pick up your son."

My problem was solved. But more, my heart swelled with gratitude and respect for these parents who had structured their lives to be there for their own children but were also so willing to take in mine in a pinch.

And I thought: So much for the purported conflict between "stay-at-home" mothers and "working" mothers.

I'd like to declare "The Mommy Wars" officially over, helped along by the latest ammunition from the Pew Research Center: Moms are now primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households, either because they're single mothers or they out-earn their partners.

Does that sound like a nation riven between 'housewives' and 'career women'?

Does that sound like a nation riven between "housewives" and "career women"? Or does it sound like a land of a million permutations of family-work arrangements?

In fact, we don't even need a truce because there never really was a war in the first place. Rather, what I see in real life, in my own community, is a sort of mom ecosystem, and it's often a thing of beauty to behold.

Consider class gift season, which is right about now at schools around the country. There are class parents — oh, forget the gender correctness, I've only ever seen class moms — who take on the organizational challenge of gathering money and card signatures. And then there's the rest of us — overscheduled or discombobulated — who are thanking heaven for those class moms.


Or consider the parents whose full-time work is so compelling that they're asked to come in and speak to their child's class about it. They may never run a single bake sale, but they fill a key ecosystem niche, too.

I used to work somewhat less, and felt proud to be able to help with the children of parents locked in by work or other obligations, and lucky to have the time to do it. Now that I'm working more, I'm leaning extra on mothers who have more flexibility. It's not a substitute for the added regular babysitting that I'm now putting into place, but meanwhile, nothing beats friends who come through in the clutch.

Sure, it's not all sweetness and light. I confess to gossiping about outlier working parents who seem to spend virtually no time with their children. And I suppose I'd gossip about parents who seem to spend their days only on home decorating and helicoptering around their children — but actually, I don't know any of those.

Instead, I know mothers who work full-time and I'm glad of the diligent example they set for my children's future careers, even as I marvel at their stamina. I know mothers who work only a little outside the home, often because their children have extra needs, and I'm glad of the diligent example they set, too.

Mostly, I seem to know mothers like the one who used to run a government agency, cut back to part-time consulting for the sake of her kids and has now taken in an additional child in need of a home. She's also helping to organize a mutual aid society at our school. I am in awe of her.

In my experience, there's only one place where there's really a mommy war raging, and that's inside our own heads. We expect working-world disrespect if we spend more time mothering. We expect bad-mother criticism if we spend more time working. Mostly, we think that if we can't do it all, there's something wrong with us.

Speaking as a veteran of nearly a dozen years now, I'm seasoned enough to know that this little internal war does not lend itself to an easy truce. But at least I know — when my comrades come to my defense or I to theirs —  that I'm not in this alone.

Readers? we'd love to hear your own tales from the ecosystem...

This program aired on May 31, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.