The Mother of all Mommy Wars

April 29, 2006

I have an embarrassing story to tell. In my previous life as a naïve, childless tech reporter, I once marched into the publisher’s office and complained that a colleague — the only parent in the newsroom and father of four — was taking more sick days than anyone else on staff. A bunch of us would gather around the water cooler to remark on this guy’s frequent absences, but I actually had the chutzpah — more like highly royal bitchiness? — to say something about it.  

Our company had gone through three rounds of layoffs and those of us left worked through our lunch breaks, had story quotas, were forced to take an unpaid Christmas vacation and were not given pay raises. I was bitter and I took it out on the father who regularly left while there was still daylight — as if chasing four kids were a vacation. Boy, was I ignorant!

Now before you (justifiably) chastise me, I want to let you know that my son more than repaid me with a 23-hour labor, frequent bouts of colic and nine months of refusing to sleep through the night. Ouch.

Also, I wasn’t the only one stewing at my desk. Apparently this cold war between mommies and the childless has been brewing for some time, according to a feature story in the latest issue of O Magazine. Here’s a glimpse at the two sides of this battle:

In a large corporate office in Minneapolis, Anne Frederickson has watched her coworkers come in late, go home early, bend this rule and that — and get away with it all in a manner Frederickson believes she could never hope to. The coworkers are mothers. Frederickson is not. “I’m going to get a picture of a kid and put it in a frame so I can tell everyone, ‘Gotta go pick up Billy at day care,'” she says, in a voice that suggests she’s joking, but maybe not.

Mommy’s comeback:

To the mothers, the non-mothers look unappreciative. “I’m raising the person who’s going to create world peace and pay your Social Security, and if I don’t do it right, we’re all doomed, so help me out here,” is how (Lisa Earle) McLeod sums up the feeling.

As the article points out, mothers must work to put food on the table. But they cannot afford to neglect their children. A University of Minnesota study linked the number of weekly meals adolescents eat with their families to better grades and lower incidences of smoking, alcohol and drug use. Research by Harvard Professor Jody Heymann found that “for every hour a parent works between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., his or her child is 17 percent more likely to score in the bottom quartile on math tests.”

On the other hand, everyone is working longer hours than ever before — not just mothers. While there is no data to back their claim, many childless workers think mothers rely on them to pick up the slack whenever a family emergency arises. According to a 2004 study by the Families and Work Institute, 54 percent of childless career women believed that “people without children are unfairly expected to pick up the slack for people with children.” Forty-five percent of the respondents said that “people with children have altogether too many options or benefits,” like maternity leave, flextime and the ability to work from home.

While more companies are opening flextime to non-parents to avoid the appearance of impartiality — or a lawsuit — this hasn’t always boded well for the company’s bottom line. At least one boss told of an incident in which an unimpressive employee wanted time off from work to enhance his yoga routine. When she refused to give it to him, he retorted, “You’re just making a value judgment that raising children is more meaningful than yoga.” To her relief, he quit his job.

Okay, this is me as a mother talking: What a mess! No wonder our childcare and maternity leave policies are so pathetic. Leander, please forgive me and take as many days as you need. 🙂

But in order for us to see family-friendlier leave policies and workplaces, we have to be honest and upfront about our needs: No matter how smart and capable a woman is, her child will and should always come first. (Well, at least in a country that touts “family values” it should.)  And, yes, this approach may require the boss to occasionally “bend the rules,” including granting an extra sick day or two.

On the other hand, for political and moral reasons, we do have to extend the olive branch to childless workers. Rather than fight for “parents-only” policies, we should make sure that everyone has equal rights to personal downtime and we should look to Europe and other places for more dignified working conditions and vacations. I am so looking forward to the day everyone in this country can have evenings free and at least four weeks paid vacation. If there is anything I agree with our President, it’s his ability to relax at the Crawford Ranch for weeks at a time.