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March 02, 2006

The Extended Mommy Wars Q&A

Lauren Young

With the arrival of that first baby comes one of the most difficult and controversial decisions a woman ever makes: Stay at home or go back to work? Leslie Morgan Steiner, an advertising executive at the Washington Post and mother of three, has struggled with the question, too.

Steiner fled an abusive husband for business school. Armed with an MBA from Wharton, she took a job in marketing at Johnson & Johnson but eventually scaled back when her second husband?? job forced her to move her family to Minnesota. Her new book, Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career-Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families (Random House), features essays edited by Steiner from 26 women. Personal Business Editor Lauren Young spoke with Steiner about the clash (and how she managed to slip away from a house full of kids to conduct the interview).

A shorter version of this interview appears on page 92 in the March 13 edition of BusinessWeek.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to today.

The kids are off from school today, and they??e got friends over, so I??e tried to find a quiet place, but if you hear yelling in the background, you??l know why.

Why a book about mommy wars?

Women are naturally competitive. That?? what drives women to form cliques at early age. Nobody in America is in the business of making moms feel good about themselves. When you can?? feel good about yourself, the next best thing is to feel better than other people??sk any seventh grade girl. Working moms elevate themselves above stay-at-home moms, and stay-at-home moms try to put down working moms. It?? a war in which both sides are trying to put the other one down.

Is either side winning?

It?? a dead tie. Part of it is that we don?? really want to win. There are millions of moms in America and in the world. There is no way that there is one answer that?? right for every mom. Ultimately, we are all trying to be the best possible mothers we can all be.

In this country, we deify motherhood. The best thing is to be a mom and a good mom. But we live in a capitalist country, too. Moms don?? often earn the majority of money, but they control it. Every brand manager out there knows it. Yet every message is moms are not good enough. Because of societal reasons and commercial reasons, I think moms are really vulnerable.

How do we fix it?

The first thing is to talk about it and write about it, but in a way that?? not necessarily offering solutions. We??e been so solution-oriented like: ??ou can be a great mom if you can breast feed for a year.?Well, every mom out there knows that motherhood is much more complicated than that. While there are lots of societal fixes, nothing is going to happen until moms speak up for themselves and each other. You don’t have to feel guilty about everything.

You spent the past three years working on this book. What surprised you the most?

I thought the battle was between stay-at-home and working moms. But women don’t fall into these neat categories. Most women see it as a continuum. A mom who left a hard-driving job may be at home now, but she plans on being back at work two years from now.

“Mother Superior,” one of the essays by Catherine Clifford, is really interesting. Catherine, who had a high-powered New York-publishing job, fought infertility for 10 years. Then she had three kids quickly between ages 39 and 42, and accidentally became a stay-at-home mom when her child-care situation blew up. Catherine revels in the non-milestone moments: when her daughter puts 23 barrettes in mommy’s hair or when her son uses a Tupperware container as a hat.

There were times when I was editing her essay that I thought: “Is she really a superior mother because she is at home?” She argues that there’s no one like a mom for taking care of our kids. That is something people want to deny.

And from the pro-work moms?

Leslie Lehr’s essay, “I Hate Everybody.” She gave up a career in film production, which is really a mom-unfriendly field because you have to be able to work around the clock at a moment’s notice. As a result, she hates her husband, because he goes to work and doesn’t think about raising kids. She also hates stay-at-home moms, and she hates working women without kids. Something a lot of people don’t want to admit is that there’s a lot of anger involved in motherhood because of the choices you make, or the ones that are made for you.

One of the most poignant essays is “Guilty” by Dawn Drzal. Dawn suffers awful post-partum depression after she has a baby and exists on caffeine and cigarettes. She wears the same mint green shorts all day. It turns out her depression is hereditary. Her own mom was terribly depressed. Because of her mother’s depression, Dawn was determined to always work and be independent. Dawn decides not to have any more kids because of the experience. What’s amazing about the story is that Dawn gets a full and complete apology from her mom. In real life, that almost never happens.

Is it possible to find the perfect balance?

Not a single mom who contributed to the book is saying “My life is perfect.” I was so tired of going to cocktail parties, hanging out with moms on playground, and hearing mom after mom saying my life is so great. I pushed my writers to tell whole truth.

There was a survey in last couple months of moms. One thing every mom wanted was peace. Not world peace, but inner piece. Being a mom is definitely the hardest job any of us have taken on. We’d like to have more support from husbands, employers and, most especially, from other moms.

Have companies gotten better at offering flexibility?

They are more flexible, but the changes are coming much more slowly than many women would like. There’s a real gray area when you work part-time. It’s hard for companies to set hard and fast policies on it. If you work a full-time job and are paid a salary, the truth is that it rarely amounts to 40 hours a week. So when you start cutting a nebulous commitment in half, that’s nebulous, too. I still work after I leave the office at 2:30 p.m. via e-mail or conference calls. It’s worth every penny I gave up just because I don’t feel guilty about leaving early.

I spent 10 years at J&J. In my pre-mom phase, I consciously joined a company as being very family friendly. A smart thing to do before you have children is to make sure there’s a good fit with your career, but it’s hard to tell that before you have kids.

It’s the same thing with husbands. You don’t know until you have kids if your husband is going to be the kind of dad you expect him to be. You can do the due diligence, but part of becoming a mom is giving up control.

What are your favorite blogs?

The closest thing is not really a blog, but it’s the Urban Baby website. It’s interesting to get raw opinions. I haven’t found many work/family blogs with a voice that’s readable or compelling. BusinessWeek’s Working Parents blog is the one I’m most impressed by. My new blog, the Juggling Act, is set to launch in early March as part of new Washington Post section called Real Life. I don’t want it to be only about parenting, but also about how working moms pull it off.

Who are your role models?

Susan Lapinski, the editor-in-chief of Working Mother magazine, told me the most importing thing about being a mom is being happy. Another role model is Lucy Danzinger, editor-in-chief of Self. She is a boss who gives lots of flexibility to employees. She lets people leave early whenever they need to do as long as they can get their work done. Moms have a lot of time and energy to give to work, but that doesn’t always happen between the hours of 9 to 5. Anne McDaniel, who is head of corporate human resources at the Washington Post Cos., is another role model. She doesn’t have kids, but she gets it. She’s really fair to everybody whether they are a woman or a mom, and whether they have kids or not.

What kind of example did your own mother set for you?

The most important experience for learning to be a mother is your own mom’s experience. My mom is one of my role models in a complicated way. I learned from her how to be a good mom. She was one of those natural moms who really took to it. Her chosen profession was teaching. She loves kids. But she was extremely frustrated and unhappy because for much of my life she was a stay-at-home mom. I was acutely aware of just how unhappy she was. There’s nothing more formulative than my mom’s unhappiness. I knew she was unhappy. She went to Radcliffe. She did every volunteer thing she could do, including taking a home for unwed moms and turning it into a daycare center.

Did business school prepare you to be a working mom?

It was no coincidence that I left my abusive (first) husband during my time at Wharton. In many ways, I was able to leave him because of the confidence Wharton gave me, and the surprising support I received from my female classmates, surprising because B-school has such a mistaken reputation for being a shark tank. These female colleagues, some still working and some who are now stay-at-home moms, remain an invaluable network for me, as a businesswoman and as a mom.

Wharton also taught me how to compete as a woman--something no educational institution had done--and showed me how much better life is for women when we compete openly and fairly. The school taught me how to negotiate, which was critically important when it came time to ask Johnson & Johnson and, later, The Washington Post, for the flexibility I need to be able to combine work and raising kids.

And last, but definitely not least, Wharton gave me a way to achieve long-term economic independence (to provide for myself and my family) by giving me such a valuable, marketable, practical business education.

Do you expect to see a book on Daddy wars?

It would be a very short book. Men aren’t that introspective. When kids come, their lives haven’t changed as much dramatically. When husband goes on a business trip to New York, he just packs his little suitcase. When I go away, I have to write a three-page memo for the nanny. I have to talk to three moms to arrange for people to pick up my kids from school. I have to send a note to school to tell them to call my husband in case of an emergency. And then I have to tell my husband to keep his cell phone on.

02:07 PM

Work/Life

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Feeling Introspective from Rebel Dad

There are tantalizing clues that Steiner might actually understand why fanning the "Mommy Wars" flames is a bad idea, but in general, she seems to relish the mom vs. mom element of it.

But the thing that has pushed me over the edge is Steiner's trea... [Read More]

Tracked on March 3, 2006 07:11 AM

I suppose Leslie Morgan Steiner is trying to be interesting and provactive in this interview, as way of attracting readers to her upcoming blog. But even so, her comment that "Men aren't that introspective" just seems over the top. Whatever her perspectives on the "Mommy Wars", indulging in gross stereotyping hardly seems to be a good way to start a dialog.

Posted by: David at March 3, 2006 11:29 AM

As a stay-at-home dad, I find the last paragraph offensive. Stereotyping men as non-introspective shows that Leslie Morgan Steiner in not that introspective herself. I may speak for a small group (SAHDs) but times are changing. In my circle of friends, the measure of a man is not how much money he makes, but what kind of dad he is.

Posted by: John Sloas at March 3, 2006 11:42 AM

Well, Leslie Morgan Steiner, how about this: i worked on Wall Street for about 15 years until my wife and I had our first child, at which point I gave it up and went into a field that offered "flexibility"- and this flexibility translates into working every evening after my son goes to bed until who knows what time, getting up at 5AM to work, and constant, constant multitasking and juggling. But here's the upside: I get to take my son to school every day, make his lunch, and do many of the tasks "Mom" does. And I wouldn't have it any other way. And, even though you say men are not that "introspective", I spend a great deal of time thinking of how this arrangement is working/not working for my family and trying to make improvements. And, I know a lot of husbands (and, of course, wives) who perform similar juggling acts. So be careful when you stereotype.

Posted by: Bill at March 3, 2006 11:50 AM

I'm sorry, but as a stay-at-home dad, I just find Leslie Morgan Steiner's perspective to be unspeakably narrow -- both in terms of the opportunistic Mommy war frame (she admits parenting is more of a "continuum" than a war) and with regard to her final comment about a Daddy War book. Maybe the men she knows really aren't that introspective; that might be a problem in her life, as it is in the lives of many women, and she has my sympathy. But I think it's more accurate and interesting to say that many (but not all) men find it immensely difficult to speak of the intimate delimmas provoked by parenting; that in itself would make for an intereseting book. I also think that many men would take on more childcare if they had more role models and if they felt their personal financial circumstances permitted it. It's simply not OK for most men to go back into the workforce after five years of full or part-time parenting and explain the gap in their resume by saying, "I took a few years off to take care of my daughter." It's hard enough for women, but for men, taking that time can mean death to their careers, and they know it. Comments like Steiner's aren't helpful. Men and women both need more options when it comes to parenting, in law and by custom.

Not surprisingly, I also take issue with Young's lede: "With the arrival of that first baby comes one of the most difficult and controversial decisions a woman ever makes: Stay at home or go back to work?" Some men already face that question, and in the future, hopefull all of them will.

Posted by: Jeremy Smith at March 3, 2006 12:05 PM

I'm glad to see these issues getting attention, and I love the recognition that "at-home" and "at-work" aren't permanent, mutually exclusive categories.

I think the dismissal of men's role in this is both inaccurate and counterproductive.

And Steiner clearly isn't reading the same blogs that I am, because there are lots of very compelling blogs on this topic. Some of my favorites are:

Playground Revolution: http://www.playgroundrevolution.com/

Geeky Mom http://geekymom.blogspot.com/

Ravings of a Corporate Mommy http://corporatemommy.mu.nu

Rebel Dad http://www.rebeldad.com

11d: http://11d.typepad.com

Posted by: Elizabeth at March 3, 2006 12:14 PM

I ran into a friend, a full-time stay-at-home mom, at the ice skating rink today. She says she has no problems at all with working mothers. In fact, most of the moms she knows are incredibly supportive of each other and always ready to help out if a child has to get picked up at school or needs to be watched for a while.

"My beef is with the men," she says. "You should see the emails that go back and forth about how little the husbands do to help out at home. I feel sorry for the working mothers. Most of them have two full-time jobs."

I know there are fathers out there who do their fair share. But too many women in all walks of life have the same beef for us to think this is not an issue at least worthy of discussion.

Posted by: Amy at March 4, 2006 04:35 PM

I find Steiner's perspective infuriating. She asserts that this is a war that no one wants to win, but then she has chosen some fairly extremist viewpoints for her book (one mother who believes that only a mother can raise a child, another who hates everyone, a third who is bogged down by depression and a special needs child). She says that all mothers want inner peace, but instead of investigating how we can find that, she offers example after example of women who are defining themselves as what someone else is not. Steiner says that mothers would like to have more support from other moms, but she also talks about how tired she was of hearing other moms say that they were happy with their choices. Insisting that I must be angry about my choice is not an offer of support; instead, Steiner is perpetuating the idea that there is a right way to mother, and that it probably isn't the way any of us are doing it now. The truth is this: I am a good mother because of the choices I make, not because of some other woman's choices. Hating that other woman doesn't get me anywhere.

Like the other commenters, I also find Steiner's attitude towards fathers to be reprehensible. She asserts that mothers need more support, and she points specifically toward fathers, but then she turns around and says that men aren't 'introspective' enough to participate in this discussion or intelligent enough to manage the kids without a nanny and six pages of instructions. She is selling men short and setting women up for failure.

Posted by: Susan Wagner at March 5, 2006 10:13 PM

Who is crowning these authors and editors as experts in the work/life world, or even representative of parenting in this country in general? Can we get some numbers, please? Perhaps an attempt at a statistically representative sample?

If we're just going to let people rant about their personal experiences and relate charming anecdotes, we may as well give over to Caitlin Flanagan. This does not qualify as journalism in my book.

Posted by: jen at March 7, 2006 10:53 AM

Well, having kids changed the entire course of my life. It changed my career, where I lived, how my wife and I interacted ... and many of those changes were wonderful, and some were very difficult. And I talk to other dads all the time, some working and some at home, and they all have interesting things to say.

Well, I think they're interesting. I guess Steiner wouldn't think so.

Personally, I wish the writers of all these articles would less frequently use the words "mother" and "father," and especially "mommy" and "daddy," to describe our roles and what we do. We're all parents, and we're in this together. Sure, some men need to reconsider what that means. But I think the outcry against flat, divisive, stereotypical portals of mothers and fathers should be a mutual one; it doesn’t have to fall along gender lines as rigidly as we’re led to believe.

Really, I can't even go to CVS to by diaper rash ointment without Being reminded that I'm just a dumb man whose wife knows much more than I ever will about parenting, because she, after all, has no self beyond the care of my offspring. But it's especially disappointing when writers like Steiner perpetuate nonsense of this type.

Posted by: Wayne at March 7, 2006 11:39 AM

Before everyone gets too worked up--it is incredible how people are willing to rant against a book without having actually READ it. I am offended by some of the comments Steiner makes here, too, but note that, except for a small section, she didn't actually write the book. I've already read a few of the essays, including some she mentions, and they are far more thoughtful and balanced than you would get a sense of from this interview. So take issue with what she says, fine, but then go and read--and don't pre-judge the whole book by one interview with the editor.

Posted by: Arlene at March 7, 2006 10:39 PM

As a huge advocate for working women (and even those who opt out for a bit), and a big fan of stay-at-home moms who devote their energies to helping our public schools, I cringe whenever I read media that pits women against women. We are living in a society where women's rights are being stripped away at an alarming rate, and to focus on who is the better mommy seems rather besides the point.

In the past year, Title IX has been seriously undermined, abortion rights are being reversed, there is legislation proposed in several states to keep single (and gay) women from getting fertility treatment (and a major national business newspaper is rumored to have refused to run an ad for a fertility company - while they have no problem with viagra ads), and the government wants to suppress a cure for cervical cancer on the basis that single women should just abstain from sex until they get married.

Single mothers are also being prevented by the courts from moving to be with their families, relocating for better jobs, or to join a new husband elsewhere, under threat of losing custody of their children. In Massachusetts, a court is about to rule on whether they should cut down the radius of where a single mom (who has sole physical custody of her child) is allowed to move to less than a 20 mile radius.

Posted by: Diane K. Danielson at March 9, 2006 11:03 AM

20 miles? That could be a huge difference. If you're in the country or something, it's obviously not, but in a large city, 20 miles can be 2 hours. Think about Long Island versus New Jersey or the like. I would think that the courts would take that into consideration, not just miles.

Posted by: Mary Sloan at March 10, 2006 02:30 PM

After reading the comments of Ms. Steiner I thought I would be one of a few individuals who would get "riled" up at her generalizations of men. It is good to see that I am not. I find fault in her comments because I am a working parent with a stay at home spouse. I take a deep interest in all my children’s lives and am an active member of my house, to include doing housework! Ms. Steiner's view that men’s “lives don’t change as much” is archaic, uneducated and from the past. Like Ms. Wagner's reference to support motherhood, I have taken interest in "fatherhood". Due to a shift in marital views more and more of our children are growing up without fathers in the household. Who is to teach our young men how to be fathers when the mother works all day? Our society's view that men be relegated to being a "checkbook" is detrimental to the family. It should be the families, and not our societies, decision whether the man or the woman stays home to raise the children. All “maternal” laws should also include the man.

I will not get into a "political" discussion, but I take issue with Ms. Danielson statements about women’s issues in this country. Many male health issues are "glossed" over; such as prostate cancer. There is no correlating Department of Men's Health as there is for women’s health issues in the government. As for abortion, which is biased against men, if the women chooses to have the baby without the man’s consent the man still has to pay for the child. On the flip side, the woman does not have to consult the man to have an abortion. Ultimately the man is relegated to a bystander in the birth process when he should be consulted.

Instead of publishing such backward articles maybe a section dedicated to helping working men find “fatherhood” support should be included in this publication. Men can and are willing to be parents and it is time that we change our social views on this subject.

Thank you for such wonderful posts and I have enjoyed reading each one of them. It is especially good to know that women are the most voracious in their condemnation of Ms. Steiner's comments.

Posted by: Ed Parkins at March 13, 2006 06:57 AM

Mrs. Steiner has obviously made poor choices in men in her life and, based on her bad experiences, she generalizes that mens' lives don't change "that much" when kids come along and that men "aren't that introspective." As a father who goes to great lengths to juggle the needs of my wife, children and my business, I take great offense at her glib comments.

Rather than fuel the so-called "mommy wars," perhaps she should focus her writing energy on highlighting couples who have worked hard to create successful husband-wife teams with strategies that serve the best interests of all family members.

My three boys are now 6, 4 and 4 years old and when my first was born, my wife and I were both working and pursuing advanced degrees. We made this extra effort in our educations so that we could secure the types of positions that would allow us -- together -- to have flexible schedules to care for our children. Her goal was to move into management in her department so she could set her own hours and my goal was to launch my own law firm to control my own hours. It has been a great challenge, but we have succeeded in both working reduced hours while taking turns caring for our children at home. We have never relied on day care or a nanny.

So, yeah, my life changed quite a bit as we started having kids -- it changed because I intentionally made changes in my career so that I would be available for my children and so that I could be supportive of my wife's desire to stay active in her profession.

The mom v. mom mentality conveniently leaves the dads out of the picture. In reality, moms couldn't choose whether to work or stay at home without coordinating that decision with their husbands and vice versa. Leslie, I wish you luck finding a better partner who really cares about you and your children. While you work on getting your life back in balance, stay out of the lives of those of us who are working hard to make husband-wife teams work.

Posted by: Charles Randall at June 5, 2006 04:30 PM


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