The Mommy Wars
I had a recent conversation with several college-aged women about my identity as a mother and my identity as a woman. It has been over 10 years since I took on the role of being a mother. But I claimed the title “mom” with a great deal of reluctance.
When I became pregnant with the first child in my life I was in the middle of my career (or so I thought) as a university administrator. My first encounter with the “liability” of being pregnant and being a mom came during a conversation with my female boss about taking on additional responsibilities in my role as associate dean.
During the conversation, I revealed to her that I was pregnant. Her response to me was that perhaps we should wait to see how my pregnancy went before giving me additional responsibilities. If I had a difficult pregnancy, then I would not be able to handle what she was proposing I take on.
That was my first skirmish in the mommy wars.
I soon decided that I needed to start looking to go to another university. It became clear to me that I had hit the limits of my ability to move up in my career in my current situation. I started a job search when I was about 4 months pregnant.
The dean of students position became available at one of the universities I had always wanted to work at, the University of Texas at Austin. I applied without hesitation. When the time came for me to interview on campus. I was 8 months pregnant.
I flew down to Austin believing that there was little chance I would be hired given that I was so pregnant. I gave the 2 ½ day interview my all and decided to let the chips fall where they may.
My second skirmish in the mommy wars came during the interview. I sat in the dean of students’ office with the interim dean. This was a man who was holding the job until a permanent replacement was hired.
He looked down at my belly and told me three times during the 45-minute interview that this job was a 24/7 job. It was clear he didn’t feel I was up to the job, considering my state.
My new boss felt otherwise and offered me the job. We moved to Texas. My boss, all my peers (the other associate vice presidents) were all men, who either had no children or who had older or grown children. I was 12-18 years younger than all of them, and I had a newborn baby.
During the time I was there, I pumped milk until the first child was 2 ½ years old. I nursed her until she was 4 years old. I left work occasionally at 4 p.m. to nurse her and returned to the office when I had a late program. I worked 60+ hours a week. I was on call for emergencies 24/7.
How often I pumped, when I left the office and returned in the evenings, the fact that Rob and the baby accompanied me to some social functions, the fact that Rob stayed home with the baby and we didn’t hire a babysitter while I did the evening and weekend functions solo, were all topics of gossip and conversation.
Daily skirmishes in the mommy wars.
When I decided to leave that career, even after being offered the top position in my field, vice president for student affairs, I received a call from another woman, a generation older, who I had considered an ally. She chastised me for thinking that another baby would get in the way of my job.
I realized that my experiences in academia as a woman, a mom, had kept me from claiming that title. Even as I wrote this website and my book, Parenting for Social Change, I rarely used the word mom or mother. I always used the gender neutral term “parent.”
I had internalized the belief that being a mom is not enough, or that it is a liability. Moms are not given respect in our culture. Moms who stay at home with their children are not valued. The unpaid work done by mothers is not seen as contributing to the family in the same way that paid work is.
I had bought into those lies.
The real war that I was fighting wasn’t with those around me. They only mirrored to me my insecurities. They mirrored the beliefs I had internalized, that I was less when I was a mom.
Even since I left my career, I have believed, at times, that I am less valuable to my family because I don’t make the same amount of money now as a consultant, author, or coach as I did as a dean of students. I have believed that I am not as worthy.
And yet, in my heart, I know that the work I do in my role as a mother with the children in my life will have a greater impact that any work I did at the university.
My willingness to parent, to mother, in a way that affirms their dignity and rights will create more change than the many years I tried to create social change in any of my university positions.
As a culture, we value the big actions, the titles, the positions of power. We believe that is where the change is occurring. We believe that is where we most influence those around us.
And yet, it is in our small day-to-day actions, the ways we live our lives congruent with the values of mutual respect and trust that really matters.
It is the ways we hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes and learning that really makes change over the long term.
It is the ways in which we empower the children in our lives, as moms and dads, that results in a better world.
The mommy wars are over for me. Mostly.
I returned to University work, at a more manageable level. And I still struggle with finding ways to hold space for my work, for the children in my life, for myself and my partner. Because I am older and because put less value on upward mobility, the mommy wars don’t show up in the same ways.
I still sometimes struggle with the identity. I still sometimes think my value is reflected in the money I bring to the family. At least now when those thoughts come into my head, I understand where they come from. And, I let them pass on through to their next destination.