04/13/2012 02:33 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2012

The Real Reason Working Moms Dislike Other Moms

Oh goody. The Mommy wars are back. As if the presidential campaign weren't tawdry enough already.

Just as Mitt Romney's wife Ann has taken a more prominent role in her husband's campaign -- stepping up as his surrogate on issues relating to women -- Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen has questioned her credibility on work-life balance. Ann Romney has "never worked a day in her life," Rosen said on CNN recently, articulating the thoughts of many others who wonder if either Romney has a clue about the pressures facing working people in a tough economy.

Ann Romney has ably defended herself, arguing that raising five boys was work enough and pointing out that she's battled breast cancer and multiple sclerosis and knows something about struggle. Rosen demurred, apologizing for her choice of words and urging everybody to move past the "faux" war on women.

Fat chance. The reason that fewer than a dozen words spoken by somebody most people have never heard of can ignite a firestorm is that this is one of the touchiest issues in modern America. Working Moms and stay-at-home Moms seethe at each other's presumed smugness every day, in communities everywhere. It has virtually nothing to do with politics. What it's really about is the choices women make, deflated expectations and a wee bit of regret that nobody's willing to acknowledge.

Obviously I'm neither a working Mom nor a stay-at-home Mom. But anybody with kids has been around both maternal types, and felt the atmospheric pressure rise whenever the subject comes up, no matter how casual or friendly the setting.

We all know the usual argument. It's always about the kids. Are they better off with a Mom who stays home and looks after them in person all day long? Or are they better off getting thrown into the hurly-burly world of daycare and babysitters, where they have to get used to different people and sometimes strangers taking care of them?

I'm convinced this is a bogus argument. Defenders on either side trot out research showing one way of parenting is superior, or the other. Spare me. It's obvious there are kids who grow up both ways who turn out terrific, and kids who grow up both ways who turn out rotten. There are diligent working Moms and neglectful stay-at-home Moms, and vice versa. For most kids lucky enough to grow up in a stable home with quality parenting, the determining factor in their ultimate success isn't how their Mom spends her day. Other things are far more important, such as quality of education, exposure to enrichment opportunities and learning how to overcome age-appropriate challenges.

The Mommy wars aren't about the kids. They're about the Moms. What I see happening when Moms argue over which parenting style is better is an intensely personal effort to justify their own choices. Psychologists call it confirmation bias. Virtually all of us seek out "expert" information that confirms our own choices and beliefs, while filtering out information that conflicts with our worldview. We see this in politics all the time, as liberals and conservatives each muster evidence proving that they're right and the other side is wrong. Moms are no different.

Many Moms have a few regrets about their choices, even if they're subtle or unspoken. The working Moms I know feel stressed by the competing pull of work and home, which makes them feel like they're not performing especially well in either setting. They thought they could "have it all" and discovered that "all" is a lot harder to have than they once thought, and maybe not even worth it.

The stay-at-home Moms I know feel understimulated and sometimes bored, nagged by the sense that they're missing out on something beyond the borders of home. The gauzy vision of motherhood that was once so captivating didn't include the tedium that just happens to be part of the job.

Add to this an element of class resentment that comes with Moms who can "afford" to stay home, and other Moms who can "afford" to pay for daycare or sitters because they earn enough money to make the tradeoff worthwhile. Yet neither way is completely satisfying. Many Moms of each variety must wonder if they could have, or should have, made the alternative choice.

But that's a hard thing to admit or even say out loud, which is why each side is far more likely to muster their ammunition and attack the other. I suspect there are days when Hilary Rosen wishes she had stayed home with her kids, like Ann Romney. And I'll bet there have been many days when Ann Romney wondered why she's slaving after five boys instead of making her mark in the working world. The two women may have far more in common than they realize. Being a Mom is pretty cool, after all, no matter how you do it.