Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Mixed up in the Mommy Wars

When I was a little girl, dreaming of what life would be like some day as a mom, it never occurred to me that there would be other moms out there who thought less of me because of the choices I made.  Never thought for a second that I could get a shifty side-ways glance from another woman when I pulled out a bottle to feed my child in the middle of a crowded mall.  Never imagined that I would be glared at by countless other women, mothers or not, for sitting down in a corner of a bookstore to nurse my child.   Didn't count on people "pppffft"'ing me when I explained that I simply couldn't listen to my baby scream for hours to teach him how to sleep.  

I also never realized I would feel strongly enough about some of my own choices to feel some element of judgment towards mothers who made different choices.  I can own that now.  Far less now, but as a new mother, I clung to my own decisions as, to some extent, the "right" ones.  I tried (with the exception of as a message board participant) to keep my judgments at bay, but I identified myself with my own choices and that identification, and the passion with which I clung to it, is, for better or worse, what has made me the mother I am today.  So I'm okay with that because as much of a challenge as this third year has been, I feel like the choices Husband and I have made up to this point have been the right ones for our family.  That shift is important--what is "right" versus what is "right for us".  

One facet of the Mommy Wars that I'd never experienced before, though, barged its way into my life when I was living in Los Angeles.  The battle that wages, I think needlessly, between moms who work and moms to stay home.  

Sure, I'd had a few of my working friend moms say things that got under my skin.  A friend, at the time pregnant with her first child, asked me of being a stay at home mom, when Ethan was barely 3 months old and I was (albeit secretly) in the throes of postpartum depression, "So, how do you like being a lady of leisure?!"  Guh.  The image of me lounging on the couch, popping bon-bons and perusing Amazon.com until my husband's credit card smoked, all while wiggling my toes for an on-call pedicurist didn't quite jive with the reality of me haggard, exhausted, unbathed, bouncing a colicky infant around the house from morning 'til night, crying myself to "sleep" (and by sleep I mean the 45 minute stretches of cat-naps I was allowed for the first year of Ethan's life) and wondering what I had done in a past life to deserve this and what I had done to mess up my present life so badly.  

I also had a friend, expecting a child around the time Ethan was 6 months old, who planned to go back to work fairly soon after delivery and asked me that since I "just stayed home with Ethan anyway," if I could watch her child, too, until she was old enough for daycare.  Because what every mother of a high-needs 6 month old needs is another person's newborn in the mix to really give her something to do with her day.  

Now, don't get me wrong--I LOVE these women.  They are two of my sweetest and most wonderful friends and I think of those words now with a giggle.  They didn't have kids when they said those things, they didn't know.  And honestly, that woman's baby was so sweet-natured and calm as a newborn, taking care of her might have actually gone a long way to calm my nerves that were so badly shot from dealing with Hell On Wheels E.   

And though they said those things (and I am certain that unwittingly said things that perhaps rubbed them the wrong way, too), and went back to work after having their kids, while I stayed home, I never for a second felt judged by them nor did I judge them.   There are personality traits and extraneous circumstances that make work either a joy or a necessity (or a bit of both) for moms who go back to work.  It's not about who places a higher value on being a mother.  At the end of the day, it's about what works for each family, each mother.  In my life on the East Coast, I was able to maintain friendships with moms who were, for whatever reason, at home with their kid(s) and with moms who were, for whatever reason, working.   I've never understood why this had to be an issue at all.  Ever. 

Until I moved to Los Angeles.  I made fast friends with a woman who was at the time, staying home with her little girl.  We became part of a group of friends, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt as though I'd met someone I could be friends with forever.  Her laugh was infectious and her enthusiasm for life and our friendship truly kept me afloat in the early months of living in LA, when I was struggling to get my emotional feet on the ground.   She made me tea on Friday afternoons while our kids played in her adorable cottage house, only a mile from mine.  She watched Ethan for me during those months when I was undergoing acupuncture for the wonky uterus.  She gave hugs both coming and going, and they were real hugs that made you feel connected, not just the cursory tap on the back that really don't mean anything. 

And then, everything changed.  At a regular Monday play date at one of our mutual friend's house, words spilled forth from her that made us all wince and wonder, "What?  What is going on here?"  Comments about how we were stay at home moms so we didn't need to care as much about where our kids went to preschool as she did.  She left in a rush, popping her little one's shoes on and walking out the door, claiming some appointment or other, and Ethan never saw his little friend again.  I only saw mine once.

After a short series of emails, I learned that she was trying to find a job, her mind was in a different place from me and our other friends, she didn't have the luxury of play dates or socializing with us.  I wished her luck on her job search, hoped she found a job she loved quickly and hoped to see her again soon.  I was confused because I'd never had a working mom friend...well, dump me.  I respected her need to find a job, it was a need for her on a number of levels and I understood and respected them all.   But I didn't understand, and I still don't, why going back to work meant that she could no longer be friends with me.  She made it clear that this search was going to dominate her life in a way that excluded even the most speedily chugged cup of tea once every few weeks.  So I accepted that.  And then, over time, I went about making peace with the fact that I never saw her again.  

Except for the one time I did see her again.  It was the night before I left LA.  She'd started her new job, one she fought hard for and was busting with enthusiasm over.  I was proud of her for accomplishing such a huge goal of hers and looked forward to hearing about it.  And somewhere in the back of my head, I was hopeful that something like, "I'm so sorry you're moving away and that I didn't make more time for our friendship when you lived here."  In spite of months of no contact and my mending hurt feelings, I still hoped that there would be some clearer explanation or expression of sadness on her part.  She emailed me often the week leading up to my departure, asking if we could get together, so I knew she wanted to see me; wanted to share something with me.  I just didn't know what. 

We met in the hotel lobby bar and ordered wine.  Made some giggly small talk and I felt momentarily so at ease, having my friend back.   We talked about her new position, the responsibility, the accomplishment of having made the cut.   As the evening went on, I realized there was no expectation of a contribution to the discussion from me.  She wanted to tell me all about how wonderful her new life was, the one she'd gotten because she'd chosen to dump me, well, us. 

At one point she thanked me for my understanding way back in February.  She thanked me for understanding that she needed more from her life than making big dinners, taking care of her husband and shopping.  She told me she had never been the type of woman to be part of a group who talked shit and gossiped about each other (um, we don't).   She told me she was so grateful I understood that she wasn't like me, she didn't have the luxury to spend her days playing with her kid and did I mention, shopping?

I sat across the brown crushed-velvet couch from her, my head reeling.  She hadn't wanted to see me to make amends or extend an olive branch or to say she wished we'd gotten to be closer friends.  She'd wanted to see me to brag about her new job and in order to take one last jab at all the things, or the very ideas of the things, she'd left behind when she went back to work.  All the things she thought I was.  A shallow, gossiping hen who spent her husband's money and mindlessly coo'ed at her child all day long.  

A smiled a tight smile through most of the evening, saying very little, but was grateful when Husband texted me that he was stuck in the room with a snoring Ethan and was thirsty--could I please bring him some ice water from the bar.  

In the end, this woman and I hugged, but it wasn't one of her old hugs; it was a cursory "I guess we have to do this, huh?" hug and then she clip-clopped in her heels out of the hotel while I flip-flopped my way to the elevator.   Even if we weren't departing the next day for our new home up north, I knew I'd never see her again.  

The next day, I noticed she was gone from my Facebook friends list; she'd removed my from her friends list.  And still, in spite of how mind-numbingly offensive her comments had been back in February and the night before, I still felt sad.  After some time I've realized that my sadness is about the ideal rather than the person.  True, I adored her when we were close, and I was sad when we weren't any longer.  

But the most upsetting element of this is the image of the stay at home mom that informed the entire experience.  And I know that there are working moms who have felt equally shunned and disparaged by moms who stay home.  It makes me so sad that people feel like lines have to be drawn and value-judgments have to be made and that like can only interact with like.  If that's the truth, then that means I have lost an entire population of dynamic and interesting women as potential friends.   

You know I rarely talk about people in my life outside of my own nuclear family.  And I try to never tell a story that will hurt anyone's feelings.  I don't tell this story as a way to anger her or  hurt her feelings now, if by some chance she should happen to read it.  I miss her.  I'm saddened by what happened to our friendship and wish it had been different.  At the same time, the experience has weighed heavily on my mind in the past few months and especially the past couple of weeks, and I felt the need to write about it, get out in writing in front of me and ask others in their comments, not to pass judgment or say negative things about this particular person (or me, pretty please!) but to chime in on how the Mommy Wars have impacted you in your experience as a mom, be that working mom, stay at home mom, nursing mom, formula feeding mom, cosleeping mom, sleep-training mom and any of the other issues that tend to leave us standing on opposite sides of a line, ideals drawn like guns, to protect our points of view. 


melissa said...

don't take this down. it's wonderful!!!

Sarah said...

I am writing about this this week, too, if I ever come up from air under all these papers I am reading.

Dude, sarah, this woman? Was jealous of you. The economy screwed her and she felt bad about leaving her kid, and she took it out on YOU. Her problem, not yours AT ALL.

Okay, so here's where I feel like shit in all this: I work because I want to. We don't need me to work. I just want to. And everyday, I feel like a shithead when my kids say "Mommy stay home today," and I am happily flying out the door to grab a solo latte on my way to the office. But my husband? Never feels bad for going to the office. Quite the opposite.

KMW said...

Amazing post. You should be proud. I've had a few of these (not as well written or eloquent) posts too. Why can't we, as women, just support each other? Aren't we suppossed to be on the same team? Anyway, you handled yourself with grace and its great you wrote about it. Again, amazing post.

Liz said...

Wonderful post Sarah! Over the last 18 years, I have also had similar experiences. Now as my children prepare to move on to college, it's even worse. It seems some in our society don't think we have a purpose unless we are raising children or working. What if I find it satisfying working part-time and then enjoying the benefits of living in DC? It's not as if there is a shortage of things to do here!

Amy said...

Great post. It made me look at my own "mommy friends" list and think about the people I am friends with. Funny, other than a good friend I had from before we became moms, all my mom friends IRL are SAHMs. And not by choice, but just because that's who I encounter in my own little SAHM bubble. Not sure what that says, but interesting to me.

It's too bad that woman couldn't see past the difference in your jobs (because lord knows, yours is as much a job as hers is) and just accept the common ground of mothering for friendship.

Becca said...

Really excellent post.

My first impulse was "What a bitch!" and I guess that is true, but then I read Sarah's comment and I think she's right. The woman does sound like she is hurting and she is taking her anger out on you out of jealousy. It sucks to lose a friend, especially what sounds like a great and well-timed friendship.

I've lived both sides of this "war" and can truly say that there are benefits to working and benefits to staying at home (aka "working IN the home"). I had a neighbor say something really nasty about how "she would just miss her children too much" when I told her I put mine to bed at 7:00.

It's exhausting, really. Who cares when I put my kids to bed or whether they eat organic Goldfish or whether a nanny sits on the couch watching Oprah while they nap or I do? Let's just all be friends!

Alice said...

This is a great post. You really did handle the situation with such grace and wrote such an eloquent post. Ethan really is incredibly lucky to have you as a model. I too wish that women could support each other more, be less jealous and judgmental. And know you have lots of women out here (this one a WOHM) who support your choices, and appreciate you writing about them here!

lonek8 said...

ok - I'm going to start off by saying that when I first read this I had a great comment all ready and percolating in my head, but I didn't want to type it out on my blackberry so I waited until now to reread and comment. And so I totally don't remember what I wanted to say. This has not happened to me because I have no mommy friends. To be honest, I have never really had any true friends, but I have met people who I thought would become friends suddenly cut me out of their life with no explanation. Relationships that lasted weeks or months or years, that I thought were important and real, suddenly turned off like a spigot. So I know how it hurts. Over the past few years we had become friends with a couple who had a daughter a little older than Izzy, and the girl's were literally best friends. But when my husband left for his job - leaving me alone with two kids at 7 months pregnant, she suddenly stopped returning all attempts at contact. Literally went from weekly play dates to nothing. No more calls for playdates or coffe, not even a call seeing if I was ok or needed help with the kids if I went into labor. I didn't even get a congratulations on FB when I had the baby, altough my husband did. And it hurt my feelings, but what hurt the worst was trying to explain to Izzy why we weren't seeing Maggie anymore. I can't explain why some women feel superior for being working moms or stay at home moms, or why anyone would suddenly end a friendship that was working so nicely. but I thank you for writing this the way you did, and shedding light on a subject that is both familiar and new to me, and I applaud the grace with which you handled a painful situation. And I will now think twice about asking a new mother I meet if she works, lest she think I am judging. What I always considered to be an easy small talk question might say more than that to her. Good luck meeting more genuine and loyal friends in your new town.

I also almost just left this comment under the mt laundry post. duh

CC said...

Sarah! Seriously. I deal with this everyday. I went back to work because a job kinda fell onto my lap, and I would have been "stupid" (not my words) to not give it a chance.
I wanted desperately to stay home- but then I looked like to other people like I was not contributing and just being "lazy". But now that I am back to work, I am the bad mom that does not see my child all the time, that I am letting someone else raise her, and love her, when it should be ME.
It sucks. I tried to find a happy medium by only working nights and having my mornings free...but still..you cannot win. Ever.
Love this post.

Jane Silvia said...

Beautifully written. It would be nice for the woman to read this and see how her actions affected you, though we know that probably won't happen. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that she needed to go back to work because of financial difficulties? And that maybe she was too embarassed to admit that? Money does strange things to people. So she overcompensated and said things completely out of character for her because she couldn't figure out how to tell the truth? And that the words she used were maybe more her husband's than hers?

Emi said...

Hmmm.. I feel for you babe... It hurts when something like this happens.. I have some mom friends who work and others who don't and it's def easier to get together with other moms who have similar schedules so by virtue of time spent together different relationships develop. I don't feel angry or jealous or judgmental toward moms who make either choice. As you said I am doing what is right for me.. I have another friend who frankly if she stayed home she just might literally go crazy or drive her kids crazy so it's prob a good idea all around (not that those are the only 2 extremes at all) So I think this is one of those situations where the Kyriarchy has plotted to keep those disenfranchised groups (women, people of color, etc.) "in-fighting" because then we don't fight what we should be fighting (paid parental leave, equal pay, better health care, better child care, etc..) So we fight with each other.. as CC said your damned if you do and your damned if you don't.. isn't that the way it often is particularly for women.

sarah said...

Anonymous, that is absolutely possible. I guess in that case, we were not as close as I thought, because I wish, if that were the case, she could have shared her truth with me. Who could judge her for needing to go back to work? Who could judge her for wanting to go back to work?

That was my whole point. For every mom, there is a different "this is right for me and my family." I had hoped she'd trusted me and our friendship enough to know that there would be no judgment involved. I'm thrilled for my friends when they get what they want and what they need--even if it's not the same as my wants/needs.

I just miss her is all.

Aunt Becky said...

It's funny how these things stay with you, isn't it? I have a similar (although not) post brewing and it's wild the things that people cut you down about.

I'm really sorry that it hurt you. I'm so sorry.

Aida Rita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I could never listen to my babies scream either. I would put them down, give it fifteen minutes and then go in and rock them a little more. I don't think letting them scream forever does much more than convince them you might not come if they need you.