I think it's time to send the Mommy Wars off to bed once and for all.
Best-selling novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan would definitely agree. Kogan was one of the featured break-out speakers at last week's Sun Valley Writers Conference and her talk on the myth of the mommy wars provided food for both thought and the soul.
Kogan, a former photojournalist who spent her twenties covering international war zones, is the author of Shutterbabe, a memoir she wrote after the birth of her first child, and The Red Book, a New York Times bestseller that catches up with four Harvard roommates as they struggle, twenty years later, with the challenges of adult life. She told a rapt audience that the media-created war that, again and again, pits women against each other is nothing but a diversion that keeps us from the real work of changing a broken system:
Once women were seen pitted thus -- working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers -- instead of us discussing why we have no infrastructure for working families -- the simple us versus them becomes insidiously ingrained.
The us-versus-them business: Kogan was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned. But what was encouraging to me was the way the women in the audience, ranging in age from twenty-something to sixty plus, grabbed her message and got riled up, ready to join the right kind of fight.
Kogan traced the origins of the Mommy Wars back to that ridiculous cookie contest between Barbara Bush and Hilary Clinton. (Call it the cookie wars. Check Family Circle and you'll see they're still going on.) She provided slides of the recent media flashpoints, stuff we've written about here and here: "Are you Mom Enough," the recent Time magazine cover story on attachment parenting and Anne Marie Slaughter's piece in The Atlantic, which set the bar so high for having it all, Kogan said, as to render the term meaningless. The resulting brouhaha also led to a fake dust-up between Slaughter and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. What's interesting, Kogan said, is that these images, these poster-moms, don't look like any women she knows.
Most women are worried about how they can afford to buy that dinner; what if their husband gets sick; if the nanny makes $750/week, how can I afford to work? What vacation? AND being judged constantly. By framing this as a war, the media sets up the idea that one side must win. And that diverts the attention from the real issue through the juxtaposition of mommy plus war -- without caveats.
Kogan provided charts and stats, comparing the support the U.S. offers working mothers versus the policies in other countries such as France or Sweden. You can guess where the U.S. fell in most of those measures: Off the charts, actually, and not in a good way (as we too found when we researched our book.) Add in crappy vacation policies (versus France, she said, where five weeks' vacation is the norm) and corporate work expectations that can top out at eighty hour work weeks. And while the cost of child care have gone up, salaries have stagnated.
Read and weep.
What we need, Kogan said, is paid maternity leave (or parental leave, so pop can step in as well) to get the babies through that crucial first year of life without either making ourselves crazy by going back to work too soon or staying home and going broke. What we also need, she said, is "subsidized day care so one's entire paycheck after year one is not going to the nanny."
Amen to that.
And yet, we've all been conned by the subtext of the Mommy War meme: It's an either/or choice. You stay home or you go gangbusters on your career. Nothing in between. All of which leads to a lot of judging. But for most women, the choices are not quite so stark.
Kogan realized early on that motherhood was not compatible with war photography. She moved to New York City, got a job at NBC and with the birth of her first child, took six months maternity leave and saw her family's savings dwindle. Twenty-one months later, she had her second child and, toward the end of her maternity leave, found herself called to Paris at the last minute -- instantly weaning her daughter and without time to grab a breast pump -- when Princess Di was killed. Three years later, she asked her boss at NBC if she could cut back to a four-day work week. Her boss said yes. Her boss's boss, a female VP, turned her down. At which point Kogan quit to stay home and write -- and became a casualty of the Mommy Wars herself.
When Shutterbabe came out, a memoir of her days as a photojournalist, she was called a sell-out, a "lactating nester" and a woman who had "left a brilliant career to be a soccer mom." Now, three books later, she is often asked, if she had to make a choice, which would it be: Her children or her books?
I doubt that's a question any male author has to answer. I answer that I'd chose my children of course, but why on earth should I have to?
The real issue, Kogan says, is not the media-created catfight, but the fact that when (make that "if") we end up judging each other for our choices, we're fighting the wrong fight.
Toward the end of the session, a woman in the audience stood, asking if Kogan was doing anything herself to work on policy change. Her answer? "No! I'm too friggen busy. I always feel like one shoe is falling off. And that's at the heart of what happens -- people who are affected by this are just too busy."
Later, I caught up with her for some additional thoughts:
It should really be us -- all mothers -- versus them, the men in Congress who keep trying to chip away, seemingly mercilessly, at the small gains women have made instead of pushing forward and rethinking the entire American paradigm, which is rotten to the core. So in that sense, it's about controlling women: their access to birth control, family planning and the normal benefits after the baby is born that all other developed countries take for granted.