April 13, 2012

Wealth, The Mommy Wars, Some Family History, and the Nature of Parental Stress

My granny is the little girl on the right
Part of the Mom Pledge reads, "I want to see moms work together to build one another up, not tear each other down. Words can be used as weapons. I will not engage in that behavior."

Words like "Mommy Wars," words combined into 140 characters that set whole presidential campaigns against each other.

I'd like to address this, if I may.

The thing about life is that no matter what you're doing, you want to have somebody tell you how impressed they are with what you do.

You want to have somebody who made a different choice than you say, "Wow, I could not do what you do.  You work so hard.  You impress me so much.  You must be exhausted.  You must feel amazing about yourself."

Or, you know, some sort of paraphrased version of that.

So today it's been hard for me to get away from the back and forth over the comments that Hilary Rosen made about Ann Romney.

What she said was, “His wife has actually never worked a day in her life.  She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we — why we worry about their future.”

Now, these are two entirely different statements.  If Hilary Rosen had left off that first sentence, this wouldn't have ever turned into an issue.  Of course the left believes that the Romneys are out of touch with the majority of Americans.  Let's face it, they are.  But that isn't what the argument is about.

This has been made into yet another occasion for people to accuse each other of accusing each other of being lazy.

I know that sounds like nonsense.  That's because it is nonsense.

Do stay at home moms think that working moms are worse parents?  Do working moms think that stay at home parents are worse parents?

No.  Nobody actually cares.  This only matters when somebody feels that they are being accused of being less than the best parent they can be for their children.

Being a working mom is hard.  But a lot of women in this country don't see it as a choice.  They see it as a necessity.  If they're the only parent, or if their spouse is in a low wage job, they may not have an option.  And then they see stay-at-home parents as having the luxury not to "work."

But they know that staying at home with kids is work.  It's just work that our society doesn't seem to value very much.  The United States is one of only a tiny handful of countries in the world that doesn't require employers to pay maternity leave.  In many countries, that pay can go to either parent.  In either case, a parent can stay home, if they choose, with their child.

Not so here.

So now in this country, we have a situation where some women CAN choose to go to work, or to stay home.  You have many families, like mine, where the choice comes down to whether or not the cost of childcare exceeds the benefits of a second income.

So the so-called Mommy Wars have grown around the ability women have to work, the frustration of being torn in one's desire to both contribute financially and their desire to contribute in the many intangible ways of being a constant and positive figure in their children's lives, and the frustration of people who make different choices being happy.

Because, you see, their happiness is an affront to anyone who has made a different choice.  If your life is willfully different than mine, and you are happier than I am at this moment, your happiness is an indictment of my choices.

...this is crazy talk.  But we all do this.  We all see somebody else being happy and we think that because we're exhausted or sick or overworked or somebody three feet tall has peed on our favorite chair twice that morning, they must have made a better choice.

And we can't stand that.  But we've made it up ourselves.

I was talking to my mother the other day about how tired I was.  How I couldn't imagine how she did it when she was in labor (for a month) with my younger sister.  How I had no idea how single mothers could do this.

And then she told me about my great-grandmother's diaries.

You see, my great-grandparents were wealthy.  Mansion in Chicago, vacation house in Aspen, property across several other states...  My great-grandparents were patrons of the arts (the Dadaists in particular), had the sort of living room that has a full grand piano "in the corner," and built a bowling alley in their basement.  My great-grandfather refused a request to invest in Henry Ford's early plants- although whether that was a poor business decision or a good choice based on Ford's anti-semitic sentiments is up for debate.

My great-grandfather was independently wealthy, despite the wealth of his father, who was also a construction magnate.

My great-grandmother and her son
My grandmother was in many ways closer with the house manager than her own mother.

But my great-grandmother, the wealthy socialite weathering the Depression in mansion, hosting her benefits and having chamber orchestras over to play parties with centerpieces made of gilded lilies...

(Yes, she actually gilded lilies.)

She agonized over her work.

Her journals were full of worry, worry that her baby was sick, that her household help couldn't do things as well for her children as she knew they needed to be done, that she was terrified that she was incapable of caring for her three children alone, that her son wouldn't speak after learning to speak Spanish during their years in Mexico.  She had so much to do and that she was pulled in so many different directions.

She was terrified and exhausted.  She was overworked and miserable.

She was, in short, a mom.

Then there's my grandmother- her daughter.  In her stories of her early motherhood, she and my grandfather are living in a rapidly collapsing house in backwater Florida in the late 50's, subsisting on food stamps and around $3,000 a year.  My grandfather turned down an opportunity to compete in the Olympics because back then, that meant forgoing any sort of income.  And besides, he was focusing on his Ph.D.  In these stories, my grandmother mastered the art of stretching her food stamp allotment into real meals for her family, every day.  She made pasta out of her flour rations, she made sauces and soups from every last scrap of meat.  And of course, her children were mischievous or dangerously ill in turns.  She had truant officers stopping by her house to discover that her children weren't in school because they had scarlet fever, mumps, and measles.

My grandparents
She was frustrated and exhausted.  She was worried and overworked.

In short, she was a mom.

I have no idea how either of those women did it.  And honestly, I don't know how I do it.

The problem with wealth is that it does nothing- nothing- to make you happier.  The more you have, the more you come up with to do with your time and money.

You have the money to hire a nanny to watch your children?  You will commit to all sorts of other activities or causes that will depend on you, and you will be pulled in more directions.

You have four houses?

You have four times as many rooms to clean, four times as many lawns to care for, four times as many cobwebs to combat.

You have committees and causes and charities.

You are working.  And you have your kids.

You have less money?

Well, you have fewer rooms to clean, fewer cars to keep up.  Fewer bills to pay.

There is no world where this is easy.
But your bills take up more of your income.  You have to "work" harder to stay on top of them.  You have to make choices between phone or gas, food or car, rent or a medical bill.  Even if you're subsisting entirely on government aid.

You are working.  And  you have your kids.

And kids?  Kids are a lot of work.  Kids are hard.  Kids are exhausting.

And they will always have more energy than you.  They will always have a leg up on you.  They will always have a million things that they need you to do.  That they simply cannot do for themselves.  That nobody but you can do for them.

Being poor is hard.  I've done it- it sucks.  I've been on public aid and literally lived off of leftovers from going on as many blind dates as I could squeeze into a week.  The closest I've been since I've had children involved food stamps and WIC, and I know the difference between relying on the public safety net and being totally without one.  As millions of single mothers in this country are.

Being rich is not hard in pretty much any of the same ways, but it's not as much fun as you probably think.  My family has been rich.  It didn't solve our problems.

There is no world where this is easy.
Even when my family was rolling in it, my mother was still dealing with four teenagers who, while independent and intelligent, were just as crazy and disaster prone (and in some cases, much much much more so) than any other teenager.  There were car crashes, bad boyfriends and robberies.  There were brushes with the law and curfew violations and plenty of standard rivalries.

My mother?  She must have been exhausted.

And when we were all little, and she was working as a secretary while my father worked on his Ph.D., she must have been exhausted.

Because all of us, all parents, everywhere... we are all exhausted.  We are all stressed.  We are all paranoid and concerned and determined to be better.

But we are what we are- human beings.  Human beings trying to raise other human beings.

And honestly?  None of us know how we do it.

You know what it's like to be 32 weeks
pregnant, working on your degree, fighting
off skin cancer and gall bladder disease, and
raising two toddlers?  It's exhausting.  This
is how I look most days.  It's not a failure.
Somebody else having a good day doesn't mean they made a better choice than you.  It doesn't mean they're happier than you.  It doesn't mean that they are judging you in any way.  It just means that they're having a good day.

Ann Romney?  She raised five boys, she's fought cancer and MS.  Yes, she is out of touch with the majority of Americans.  The majority of Americans can't afford to buy horses to help them through their MS, or furnish half a dozen homes.

But all of those things?  Those things are hard.  Those things are more things that Ann Romney has to do.  And she must be exhausted.

There are no Mommy Wars.  There is no battlefield where women are attacking each other for their parenting choices, or lack thereof.

There is only the horrible, self-critical part of our own minds that insists that we are being judged by everyone.  All the time.

And we are all working our asses off to do the best job that we can.

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  1. Hear hear!!!! Let's stop being so tough on each other as parents and instead support each other, whatever our choices are!

  2. "If your life is willfully different than mine, and you are happier than I am at this moment, your happiness is an indictment of my choices."

    This? I think you've touched on the heart of the whole issue. And I think to a certain extent it is part of human nature. We just have to work to rise above it.

    Great post!

  3. I really appreciated this post.

    I appreciate it because I'm single, working and have no kids, and am constantly frustrated with my friends who are parents for comparing their difficult lives to mine, which of course I find very difficult at times. Most often, I feel defensive and think, "Well, you're not even working."

    I know that's not true, of course. This does help, however, to put into perspective why those parents feel the need to compare lots.

    It's good to be reminded, as much as possible, that everyone is as crazy and defensive about their life choices as I am, even if they have a home full of beautiful children.

  4. Totally agree with all of this. The mommy wars are part of what makes being a mother hard. You're afraid to ask for help, ask for advice because along with that help or advice (if you get it) is judgment. Even venting about a bad day will cause the wrath of moms to descent upon you, so bad you start to think dealing with ten plagues would be nothing compared to it.

    I have come to realize very quickly how much I miss being in school, how much I miss living in that bubble where my intelligence meant SOMETHING. Because here, it doesn't matter. Here, nothing you do is good enough and it can feel SO defeating at times.

    One thing for sure, it has me understanding more and more why my mother went back to school when I was 8 because more and more I'm thinking about doing the very thing myself even though I swore I never would do that to my kids. And it's not that it will make things easier, because very likely it will be very hard to do but at times, I it's almost harder emotionally because there's so little to feel accomplished about. I honestly and truly do not feel I do well as a mother (especially not at home) and my self esteem has really taken a hit since becoming a mother, something I absolutely did not anticipate.

  5. "There are no Mommy Wars. There is no battlefield where women are attacking each other for their parenting choices, or lack thereof.

    There is only the horrible, self-critical part of our own minds that insists that we are being judged by everyone. All the time."


  6. I Love you Lea!! Actually, I adore you also!! Always have and always will. I hear your struggling words. Keep up your spirit. This pregancy and graduation will be happening very soon - days go slow and weeks go fast. GREAT HAPPINESS will insue I do want to remind you to believe your words."Wow, I could not do what you do. You work so hard. You impress me so much. You must be exhausted. You must feel amazing about yourself." I want to support you and your efforts - never judge you or give you grief. It is not my place nor am I living in your shoes. Keep strong - HAVE FAITH - You are destined for am amazing life!! And, the people around you - that you touch everyday, are VERY lucky to have you in their lives - I am better for knowing you and sharing whaever I can with you - and your amazing children. I am in your corner - I have your back! KEEP your love flowing for everyone else and expecially for yourself. You deserve all the love and respect that you can muster up for yourself. These are amazing feats and will end with incredible success. My LOVE toyou ALWAYS, Cousin Laura

  7. This is the BEST DAMN THING I've read all day, hands down! Thank you so much for this. Live and let live. Man, woman, wealthy, poor, black, white, I don't care. We've all got problems and we're all generally doing our best.

    Thank you.
    Thank you.

  8. Yes! Let us not judge each other for our differences, be they circumstantial or choice. So well said. I look forward to reading more of your blog!



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