July 6, 2006

Between working and parenting, I don’t have time to read books about working mothers vs. the stay-at-home variety. So what I do instead is read articles and reviews about such books, and then I read letters to the editor blasting those articles, and the reviewer striking back. I imagine it’s almost as good as reading the book itself! Maybe even better, because I gain the entertainment value of a holographic catfight. Plus, it fits my schedule.

While scarfing pasta and flipping through my latest Atlantic Monthy (my favorite kind of multi-tasking:eating and reading!) I read a vicious, delicious volley of words between Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices Their Lives, and Their Families and Sandra Tsing Loh, who reviewed the book for the Atlantic.

Most of what I know about the Mommy Wars I’ve learned from Caitlin Flanagan, Linda Hirschman, and a smattering of other articles and online postings. The whole dialogue or debate has made me twitchy with irritation because of two primary reasons: the writers are 1) only talking about a tiny subset of the population and 2) not realizing it.

Various iterations of these two points have been articulated by a lot of you in comment threads. It was fun to read Loh’s review, because she finally gave the phenomenon a name: afflufemza, “wherein the problems of affluence are recast as the struggles of feminism, and you find yourself in a dreamlike state of reading firstperson essays about it, over and over again.”

The cover flap (of “Mommy Wars”) describes the angst thus:

With motherhood comes one of the toughest decisions of a woman’s life: Stay at home or pursue a career? The dilemma not only divides mothers into hostile, defensive camps but pits individual mothers against themselves … Ranging in age from 25 to 72 and scattered across the country from New Hampshire to California, these mothers reflect the full spectrum of lifestyle choices.

OK, let’s slow down for a minute and unpack this description of Everymother before, with iced mochaccino latte in hand, we hurriedly whisk on. There are, in fact, great varieties of American mothers left out of Steiner’s anthology. They’re women for whom work is not a “lifestyle choice” but a necessity–a financial one, gauchely enough, and not an emotional one. Why do they work? To keep the electricity on…

But clearly no one at Random House thought to red-pencil this, because it’s a given today, in non-zine, non-blog, hardcover-anthology women’s writing, that “Everymother” implicitly means “every mother from the well-defined e-mail list of people like us”–media professionals who have now become their own class and tribe.

I’m going to blockquote plenty from this, since you can’t access this online without a subscription. Here’s the potentially controversial crux:

All right, some might argue–so what? Affluent mothers have problems too–call it the Anxiety of the Mommytocracy, if you will. And people shelling out $25 for a hardbound book of essays are more likely to be intrigued by the lives of blue-coast elites than by those of poorly dressed office managers in Toledo, married to traveling salesmen, whose children eat pimiento-flavored Tuna Helper. Indeed, what’s wrong–what’s unfeminist, even–with celebrating not just the affluent but the powerful?

…the question remains: Once they have the proverbial loudspeaker, how much social good do affluent, successful, powerful women really do (other than treating their wonderful full-time nannies like members of the family)? I didn’t notice any successful career women in the book mentioning specific campaigns they’re waging on behalf of the less fortunate, nor did I catch to what women’s or children’s charities proceeds from the book will be given. (I would love to know the inner dynamics of this collective-bargaining arrangement of which Steiner speaks, whereby a turbo woman’s pursuit of a glamorous career somehow makes the world better for her minimum-wage sisters.) These days, I suppose, it is feminist enough an action to edit a women’s anthology, get on Oprah, sell a million copies, and make a pile of cash, all of which you keep, presumably so that your investment-banker husband can’t move the family again.

Yowza! So what she’s kind of saying is Fuck you rich bitches! Who cares about your navel-gazing identity crises! Tell it to your shrink and quit pretending that your revelations are helpful to all mothers! That there’s some kind of “trickle down” benefits to your affluent mothering malaise!

She goes so far as to suggest a remedy for these ladies who are driven batshit over their nanny-and-housekeeper supported choices!

…how wonderfully refreshing it would be for Nelson to transfer Charley right away into a racially and socioeconomically mixed New York public school, with the children of mothers who actually are the factory workers and cops and firefighters she so admires. Even Steiner’s snippy PTA über-mom at the Sulgrave Club would be invigorated by a relocation to one of the many poorer, browner Washington, D.C., schools, where she wouldn’t have to rub elbows with those irritating Leslie Morgan Steiners. Then that PTA über-mom could really roll her sleeves up. Think what she could do: rebuild an entire school from the ground up–clearing out the asbestos and bringing in landscaping, violins, top-of-the-line computers. At her dogged persistence, the other parents would simply be amazed, awed, grateful. What a better world such demographic mixing would bring, for all women and children. And what a relief for the “mommy wars” moms to be finally liberated, into the wilds. Certainly all those catty remarks would be easier to restrain when the mommy close at hand is a Jamaican waitress taking the bus to her job, wearing not her forest-green Regina Rubens but the uniform of Howard Johnson.