Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Mommy Wars/War against Mothers aren't Going Away

One theme of my book is that despite not representing the real truths about our parenting lives, the Mommy Wars model continues. Over the last month or so, it's became popular for media reports to say, oh, the mommy wars are over, the new problem is hyper mothering, and both at home moms and working moms share in creating that problem. That was one theme of Perfect Madness, and the media quickly forgot the parenting publishing sensation that preceded that one, Home Alone America, which roundly critiqued mothers who worked. Despite our desires, and unfortunately, the Mommy Wars model hasn't yet slithered away.

There's a long chapter near the front of my book, called "Do Real Women have Mommy Wars?" that looks at how newspaper and magazine articles, and marketing firm trend reports pitch mothers against each other. The real Mommmy Wars are a war against mothers, and in this part of the book I show how it's done, specifically, again and again and again.

Today's NYTimes has an article that shows how it's done, too. Jacques Steinberg, on E1, the Arts, writes "One Show's Unexpected Lessons in Reality." He describes how tonight/wednesday's ABC's "Wife Swap" episode falsely crafts narrow stories about each mom, so that they perfectly fit the Mommy Wars model. One mom lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, and her family has a nice, large house. She's pitched as the working mother who puts "success before family life" and is a high achiever who runs her family like a business. The other mom is an at-home and home-schooling mother who lives in a rustic cottage in Vermont.And Vermont mom is described falsely as not leaving her house on a daily basis. It's "coldhearted working mom versus nurturing stay-at-home mom." Where have we seen this before. Meanwhile, of course, we learn almost nothing about the fathers, as if men don't take part in family life, as if they too don't make creative decisions about how much they want to work, and parent.

In recreating the classic working mom vs at-home scenario, here's what the Wife Swap producers left out, and here are the details Jacques Steinberg puts back into the story, bless him, and that's why we need good reporters.

As it turns out, Philly suburb working mom was a stay at home mother for five years when her kids were little. During the end of that time, her husband was working such insane hours to support they family that they made life changes. He took a job with more normal hours, and she went back to work. To me, this sounds like a family that's thought hard about work and family life, and that was willing to make big shifts in their habits. Like many moms I know and have interviewed, Philly suburb mom has carouseled in and out of the workplace. The reality show I'd like to see is what it took for her to get a job after five years away, how much of a wage hit she took, and whether her boss accommodates her family responsibilities. Produce that show and I'll tune in on wednesday nights, believe me.

And Vermont rustic stay at home and teach the kids mom? She too, works, it turns out. Like many stay at home moms I know and have interviewed, she works. About 20 hours a week outside the home, doing property management. That sounds like work to me. Vermont mom says she tried to tell a producer about her job, but was discouraged from doing so. Another episode I'd like to see would feature part time working moms and the challenges they face. is she being paid fairly for her work? What's her wage hit, the lower wage paid to mothers who take time out of the paid workplace? Does she get prorated benefits? Make me a show where mothers trade places with bosses, and bosses get treated like working mothers. Make me an episode where the moms all get together in a big consciousness raising circle and then take their insights to the guys and gals in the corner offices, and then to the streets. Make that show, and it'll get high Nielson's in my house, believe me.

There was no mommy war in real life, yet that didn't stop the show's producers from creating it. Thanks guys. All us moms and dads in America love you for that one.


Jody said...

I saw the episode, and started to write a super-long comment here, but I'm hijacking it for my blog. Hope you don't mind me sending you over to for my thoughts, which boil down to, (a) I would have LOVED hearing these backstories and (b) The whole premise of the show is both disturbing and worthy of further attention.

Anonymous said...

I find it just ever-so-slightly ironic that these "reality" shows have to fabricate stories they believe makes the shows more interesting... I'm sure they all do it, because none of the people on any of these shoes seem to act like normal people anymore... :)

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