Pity the poor stay-at-home mom. In one ear there is Mainstream Society pressuring her to work outside the home so her family can enjoy all the middle-class luxuries (the McMansion, the speed boat, the Harley Davidson, the latest electronic gadgets). In the other, she hears the shrieks of the Feminists warning her not to waste a valuable liberal arts education on household drudgery and child-rearing. Her encouragement to stay at home comes from that nagging voice in the back of her mind accusing her of being a bad parent.
What’s a girl to do?
My four siblings and I were blessed to have been raised by a stay-at-home mom — a mother who may have skimped and struggled to raise five children on a shoestring budget, but never had to concern herself with the twin evils of status and radical feminism.
How incredibly fortunate we were to have our mother at home to make sure we were wearing our yellow rain slickers and rubber boots when storms threatened, to nurse us when we were feeling feverish, and to rustle us up a hot breakfast every morning before school. We may have gone without brand new bicycles, a color television set and a season pass to the city swimming pool (as did everyone else we knew), and we may have had to sit in the cheap seats when we attended a baseball game at Busch Stadium, but that was a small price to pay to enjoy our liberty every afternoon after school, instead of being locked up in some latchkey program in the school basement. In the summer time we were blessedly free to romp the parks and back alleys, not bused off to some daycare facility or bible study camp. No color TV or luxury sedan could compensate for the freedom we enjoyed by having mom around. And because she was always near, mom didn’t feel the need to coordinate our every minute nor smother us with planned “activities.” She allowed us to be kids and to do our own thing, whether that involved building tree houses in some distant wood or shooting spatzies with the BB gun we “borrowed” from the school janitor’s garage.
Of course, we grew up long before the first salvo was fired in the Mommy Wars, before being a stay-at-home mom was necessarily a political statement. It was easier then for mothers to remain at home. Like most Americans of their generation, neither of my parents received a college education, so it was not like there were hordes of self-righteous women telling my mother that she was wasting her earning power on a bunch of brats.
Nor was status something we were overly concerned with. Ours was a town where — in native son Jeff Tweedy’s words — “Everybody is equally poor.” My parents grew up during the Depression and World War II. Coming of age, their concern was survival, not status. It was left to the far shallower Baby Boomer Generation to make a fetish out of status and its symbols.
TODAY, WE OFTEN hear that being a stay-at-home mom is no longer an option. That it takes two parents working full-time to pay the bills. And certainly if you must live in a 3,000-square-foot house in a tony suburb, send your kids to private school, drive a Lexus and a Mercedes Benz and buy each kid an iPhone, one salary is insufficient. That’s where a modest, frugal, 1960s lifestyle comes in. “Living modestly, frugally, who needs that?” I hear you say. “Why struggle and skimp when you can have it all?” As if working mothers weren’t struggling and skimping to balance their work and home lives.
The idea of the Mommy Wars still strikes my former stay-at-home mom as absurd. Arguments over whether motherhood is a job because it doesn’t pay a salary? Only a woman with no children of her own has time for such nonsense. Motherhood might not meet the Department of Labor’s definition of employment, but raising five children and keeping a home is certainly harder work than being an attorney or a magazine writer.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, the childless, manic-depressive attorney-writer who recently revived the Mommy Wars with an hysterical piece in the Atlantic charging that stay-at-home moms are contemptible and cultish, and helping to kill feminism, is on the fringe of the fringe. As such, she and her piece do not deserve to be taken seriously. Certainly Wurtzel does not speak for 99 percent of the women I know. But then I don’t live in Manhattan.