Let’s talk about the Mommy Wars! Why not? It never seems to go out of style.
I was thinking about it the other day, because I came across a meme in a Facebook group I belong to that sparked a lively conversation. I can’t find it now, but the gist of it was that stay at home moms work harder because there is no quitting time for moms, but are better because they’re not paying someone else to raise their kids. And while it’s easy enough to come back with another meme about how working moms also have no real quitting time, but get stuck doing all the mom stuff around their 40 hour work week, or make some disparaging comment about helicopter parents, I don’t really want to go there.
I always feel like I’m in no-man’s land on that particular Mommy War front. I’ve done it all: I’ve stayed at home and not worked. I’ve been a single mom working 2+ jobs and barely getting to see my kid. I’ve worked full time outside the home while my husband was a stay at home dad (you want my opinion, stay at home dads have it the worst in the martyr contest – they do all the work of a stay at home mom, but they’re excluded from mommy-and-me and playground meetup groups and outsiders call them lazy bums who won’t work. Poor daddies.) Now I work from home.
I have three children. One of them went into a daycare from an early age, and was also frequently babysat by family members and certain non-family members. He’s the kid that I barely saw while I was working my butt off to feed and house us. He’s been in public school for the past 10 years. My daughter is sort of in the middle. She never did go to daycare, though she entered preschool early through an early intervention program for a speech delay, then went from public preschool to public school, where she stayed for three and a half years. She rarely had babysitters, other than when grandma requested her for an overnight a few times. For a little more than half of her life, I worked full time outside the home, either trading shifts with my husband, or while he was a fulltime stay at home dad. She’s now being homeschooled. My youngest never went to daycare or preschool. He probably wouldn’t remember that I used to leave the house to work. I think he may have been babysat by my sister once (along with the older two) when my husband and I went out for our anniversary one year, but otherwise I don’t think he’s ever had a babysitter other than his big brother for short periods. He did start kindergarten this year, but was pulled out, along with my daughter, in January when we decided that homeschooling was a better fit for our family. He’s also the child that breastfed the longest, co-slept the longest, and was worn in a sling. (In fairness, I would have worn the other two in slings had I known about them – great invention, that. Only baby carrier that never hurt my back.) At any rate, he’s probably the most attached of the three.
So I’ve had a range of parenting experience, especially in relation to work and schooling choices, and my children have all had very different childhood experiences. Someone should study us.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: there’s no right way to do any of this.
Now, that doesn’t mean there’s no right way for a particular, individual family to do things. As of today, I think that the way we do things now is the most comfortable fit for us. I’m unhappy and anxious when I’m not bringing in a paycheck – straight up stay at home mom-ing isn’t for me. It isn’t healthy for me, and it never felt right. Between the two, I preferred working outside the home to being a stay at home mom – but that had serious drawbacks, too. I cried in the car on the way to work every damn day for weeks and weeks after my third maternity leave was over. It was wrenching – perhaps more so than with the others because I knew that was my last baby. And baby number two? She wouldn’t drink from a bottle, at all, ever. My husband and I had to coordinate to the minute so that I could go home, or he could bring her to me on my breaks so I could feed her, then get back without taking any unapproved time off. This went on for months, until we finally found a cup she was willing to take. And my oldest? I had no choice, or I never would have chosen to be gone as much as I was. And since daycare isn’t cheap and I was broke, he wasn’t always in what I would consider top-notch care. I worried when I was away from him and I knew the alternative was even deeper poverty. It sucked.
But working at home – that suits me well. It doesn’t hurt that I’m doing something that I love, but I think it would be preferable – for me – even if I was doing something I didn’t much care for, if I could do it at home. I don’t have the anxiety that comes with not earning my own money, and I also don’t have the anxiety that comes with leaving my kids.
As should be obvious, things have shifted for me in a lot of different ways – I have no illusions that this will last forever. The day may come when I need to work outside the home again, or when I have no job and my husband supports us again. Or something else (I don’t know what else there is, but life has taught me to expect the unexpected.) And while that may not be ideal for me, the real question is, what’s ideal for the kids? That’s what’s at the crux of the whole Mommy Wars thing, after all – everyone is scared of getting it wrong and screwing up their kids for life, and that’s what I believe leads to the urge to attack other people’s choices and circumstances – because if there’s any chance they’re doing it right, that might mean that you’re doing it wrong. And that’s unacceptable. Better to cement it in your mind that they’re wrong, and you’re right.
But I don’t think it’s anything like that clear cut. That first child? The one who had his first babysitter at six weeks and has never really had the luxury of tons of uninterrupted time at home with mom and or dad? He’s 15 now, and he’s amazing. And yeah, I’m his mom, and I would say that of course. But I also get compliments from strangers about my bright, polite, helpful teen, so it’s not just me. He’s super smart – he wants to be an astrophysicist, and he’s already venturing in to math that I only dimly understand. He is also a fantastic writer (and does some freelancing of his own.) I keep waiting for that sullen/secretive/rebellious/disrespectful teenager phase that everyone says to expect to start, but it doesn’t seem to be coming. He comes home from school and plops down next to me to tell me what happened in school, what’s going on with his friends, what’s going on with him. He helps out tremendously around the house. He plays with his 8 year old sister and 6 year old brother, and by all appearances, he enjoys this, rather than just tolerating it. He and I share a love of Stephen King books and an interest in politics. He got me interested in Neil Degrasse Tyson. By all measures I can think of, he’s on his way to becoming an amazing man, despite my failure to practice attachment parenting with him.
My daughter is 8, and she’s the friendliest and most outgoing girl you’d ever want to meet. She is interested in learning foreign languages, because she’s met children who don’t speak English and wants to be able to talk to them in their language. She will talk to anyone. She will go out of her way to hug someone who looks sad, or bring them a favorite toy or stuffed animal to make them feel better. She’s a fantastic problem-solver – an ability that I believe originated due to her inability to communicate effectively when she was younger. Since she couldn’t find the words to ask for things, she got really good at figuring out how to get them herself. She’s a chatterbox now, but she retained that ability to go after what she wants. She’s fiercely independent, and she can stand her ground in a way that I can only admire – and somewhat envy. She got a working mom, a little bit of a stay at home mom, and a work at home mom, and despite that inconsistency, she’s a delightful, funny child with personality to spare.
And my youngest son? The one who got coddled (some would say) and has rarely spent any time away from his parents? Well, he’s six, and while I think it’s a bit early to make any definitive pronouncements about his development, I see signs that he’s coming along nicely. He’s quieter and more contemplative than his older siblings, most of the time – he’s the one who has to stop and think before he speaks. (This is not to say that he’s always quiet and calm. He can roar and wrestle with the best of them.) He’s less outgoing, but once he warms up, he’ll happily share his encyclopedic knowledge of Lego Star Wars with you. He’s shaping up to be something of a deep thinker, I believe – he worries more than the others seemed to at that age, and he makes connections that surprise me. He definitely prefers to spend his time in the company of myself, my husband, and his siblings, but he’s more than capable of handling a playdate or activity without one of us looking over his shoulder (in fact, we’re increasingly likely to hear something along the lines of, “you don’t need to walk me in mom, cousin A wants to play with me, not you.”) All of the “helicoptering” this child received doesn’t seem to be inhibiting him.
So, in my admittedly unscientific and biased analysis of a sample of three, I’ve come to this conclusion: the kids are all right. This parenting gig isn’t easy, no matter how you choose to structure it (or how circumstances force you to structure it) but if you are doing your best and loving your kids, they’ll come out OK. There’s no need to “win” at the Mommy Wars by attacking another parent, or playing yourself up to be the best mom with the hardest job. You’re winning by taking care of your kids, plain and simple, however that happens to look in your house. I don’t know if there are really more than one ways to skin a cat (because ew, gross, who wants to skin cats?) but there is definitely more than one right way to raise a child.
Have a happy Mother’s Day, and this year, reach out and encourage another mommy. Tell someone who’s doing it differently from the way you’re doing it that their way is great too, and that they’re doing a good job. Let’s all be winners this year.