Credit: Tom Magliery/mag3737 on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
(WOMENSENEWS)-- Every mother I know has felt judged, at one time or another, about her choice to work or not work, most often by other women. Stay-at-home moms are overcoddling and wasting their education. Full-time "career" moms are coldhearted, reptilian women who care more about money and status than about their own children.
Oh, but the judgment doesn't stop there. Mothers who stop at one kid are depriving their child of siblings. The ones who have more than two kids are accelerating global warming. Mothers who don't breastfeed long enough are going to give their children asthma. Mothers who breastfeed too long are weird. Helicopter moms are overscheduling their children, turning them into type A, anorexic basket cases, while the rest of us are depriving our children of important enrichment activities. Health-nut mothers judge others for putting Fritos and unnaturally flavored juice in the lunch box. Meanwhile, everyone pities the children of health-nut mothers, who have to eat that gritty whole grain bread and the brown spotted bananas.
These are the kinds of judgments that get passed around casually in our personal lives. Then there's the public arena. There was the furor over tiger moms with the publication in 2011 of Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." Should women push their children harder to be "successful" in school, music and other pursuits? Next we were outraged over the May 2012 Time magazine cover, which showed a mom looking defiantly into the camera while breastfeeding her toddler next to the headline "Are You Mom Enough?" Are women breastfeeding too long or not long enough?
Marissa Mayer Criticized
This happened around the same time everyone had to weigh in on the pregnancy of the new Yahoo! CEO, Marissa Mayer, and her decision to take only a couple of weeks of maternity leave. What's wrong with her, anyway? We had barely settled back in our seats when we had to rise again to join the kerfuffle over Anne-Marie Slaughter's essay in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," which quickly became one of the most widely read articles in the history of the magazine. But instead of a dialogue about the structural issues that Slaughter said are holding us back, much of the reaction to her piece came back to personal choices. Should women change their definition of "having it all"? Should we learn to be content with what we have?
Why are we so obsessed with women's personal choices? Why are we so quick to judge mothers? Maybe we judge because we feel conflicted about the choices we've made. We're afraid of screwing up what we're constantly reminded is the most important job we'll ever have: raising our children. We point the finger at others as a way of feeling better about ourselves. We wrestle with our feelings about how our own mothers raised us.
The Real Conflict
Whatever its cause, all this judgment is, of course, a distraction. The real conflict, which we all feel either directly or indirectly, is between all parents and the economic policies and social institutions that don't value the act of caregiving, that make it so damnably difficult to raise our children, stay economically viable and keep ourselves and our relationships intact. Politicians of all stripes (mostly men) extol family values, but do we really value families when we don't offer parents paid time off after the birth of a baby? When affordable, quality child care is out of reach for so many families? When so few women have the support they need from employers to breastfeed, and half of us lack paid sick time?
As one author pointed out in a May 2012 New York Times opinion piece, "If 'the conflict' continues to be framed as one between women . . . it will continue to distract us from what we should really be doing: working together--women and men together -- to change the cultural, social and economic conditions within which these crucial choices are made."
Excerpted from "Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink" by Katrina Alcorn. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.
Katrina Alcorn is the author of "Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink" (Seal Press / $16.00 / September 2013). She writes for The Huffington Post, as well as about the perils of working and raising kids on www.workingmomsbreak.com. She lives in Oakland, Calif., with her husband and three children.
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