Can you straddle the Mom Wars?

I was thinking back to one of the first posts I wrote here, back when I thought the blog would be more of a lighthearted take on modern motherhood, less of a personal...exploration? It was called Before They Were Moms, about my frustration with insipid playground chatter, my curiosity about how (besides as moms) these women on the playground defined themselves. I found it so hard to connect. I don't have that problem anymore, but I also don't have such insecurity about what I myself am doing there. 

One reader said my post the other day sounded discouraging and I actually felt the opposite. I feel totally liberated admitting to these limits, admitting to reality of being a hands-on (for lack of a better expression?) mom and also trying to do my own work. I think asking oneself to do the near impossible might be motivating for a time but there is a breaking point and then you're not really doing what you think you're doing. I’ve tried to stress all along here that I feel lucky enough to be able to make so many choices--some people don't have the options to work part-time or flexible hours or whatever it is that is running me so ragged. But, still, is it possible to really push oneself career wise – to “lean in” – and still lean out at the same time, by that I mean, still be the mom who packs lunches, who picks kids up from school or arranges for the sitter (calling, getting cash ready in an envelope, packing a snack, the bathing suit, the sunscreen the water), who helps a first grader assemble his costume for the arts festival, who buys birthday gifts for his friends, keep track of where the parties are, write thank-you cards or oversee their getting written, who makes sure there is enough milk in the fridge for the kids that drink a gallon a day each. Alex “helps,” he does more than probably many partners in similar situations. He cooks. A lot. He cleans up. He hangs with the kids. He accepts me dashing out the door the minute he gets home so I can go to class or work or run. He was 100% supportive of me going back at a crazy time (with a 1-year-old and 6-year-old) to get a degree that is worth nothing in our post-death-of-the-humanities age. Who else would accept all that additional stress for no real advancement, other than whatever personal gain I'm afforded by these classes and papers?

But there are just a million things on a daily basis that I do that Alex does not. A million things I have to keep track of and think about that he does not. Gifts for teachers at school and daycare. Setting up a school account. Buying tickets to the auction. I mean I don't know--one by one it all sounds small. But Alex can get ready for work just on his own, take a shower, with nobody banging down the door. I am the one who has the bus driver’s phone number and knows the names of the parents of kids in Wally’s class or Petra’s “class.” I am the one who keeps track of the half days and cuts out early to pick Wally up on them. I read the emails from the school that he deletes or "didn't see." I am the one who every few months changes out Petra’s clothes with new batches we’re lucky enough to get from neighbors, cleans the previous batch, brings them back over. I am the one who books tickets for vacation. Who drops stuff off daily at textile recycling and goodwill (he would do it, if I asked I suppose, but it would be during the time that I need to be out of the house working, not here with the kids). I do most of the grocery shopping. I know what size shoes the kids wear. Before I start my work I come home and clean up the dishes that assembled between cleanup last night and this morning even though the kids barely ate breakfast. Just a million things. If he is sick, he can stay home and be sick.

He’s a really good intern. If you give him specific tasks—exactly what to buy (organic, cage-free, vegetarian, antibiotic-free eggs) and where to buy it—he can hobble along, with encouragement and reminders. And it's I suppose my problem that I don't want the kids inside on sunny weekend days watching soccer so I often take them out even when I need to work and he says to leave them home. And then when he hauls them off to the playground it is my choice to pack them up with water & sunscreen & bathing suits & snacks. He would have to scrounge around or buy these things or bounce right back otherwise and I know he'd be frustrated. Is it enabling then, to continue to assist/control to this degree? And I suppose--money aside [if it can legitimately be set there]--there is the option of more help, which is what people who lean in must have, right? Either hired help, or one parent who has basically given up—at least temporarily—any personal career advancement.

So then I ask myself if I should continue pushing myself, because I really don't know if it's possible to push oneself career-wise, without turning into a nights and weekend mom like I was in the early part of Wally's life. Can I do that and still be the mom I want to be, the mom to young children I will look back on happily once my children like Jeanette’s are cartwheeling through Europe and scaling mountains, or even a few years when like my sister’s they walk ahead of me on the sidewalk? 

There is some other quality to it, to the every dayness of a certain kind of SAHM. There is something qualitatively different to being around and I suppose I can't even say that "with authority" because I've never been 100% dedicated to kid-raising the way other moms are. So I guess I will say I sense there is some unique possibility of parenthood contained there, in being the one who is reliably there, the one standing at the half day pick ups holding the cheese sandwich, remembering the bandaids, taking them for ice cream spontaneously and pulling out a journal to write down some amazing thing they said, pointing out a ladybug or butterfly, just as an every day thing, not as a special, "quality time together" on the weekend thing. The kind of every day parent so many of us grew up with. There is a comfort to that. It seems wrong to say that a mom who works--full time or part time--is the same kind of mom, devoted to the same degree in the same way--as the one who does nothing but care for the children and keep the house heaving along.

So then I turn into telling myself of course you can't have everything. You can't devote that level of energy to the kids and get somewhere professionally and go to grad school and get in shape. You choose. Does it come down to the fact that you can't really straddle the mom wars? That leaning in necessarily means missing out?  
It's strange that David Brooks' commencement speech at Dartmouth this year feels relevant. He writes:

"Your fulfillment in life will come by how well you end your freedom. By the time you hit your 30s, you will realize that your primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.

Making commitments sounds intimidating, but it’s not. Making a commitment simply means falling in love with something, and then building a structure of behavior around it that will carry you through when your love falters."

It does feel liberating and great to make a commitment and even to know that one (taking care of kids) will likely come at the price of the other (advancing my own "career"). I just feel there is a widespread resistance to admitting to that cost. Maybe it's the supermom myth or the hope that women can have it all and the fact that it feels anti-feminist to say that's not true.  


  1. I love David Brooks (except some of his political views) - his book The Social Animal was awesome.

  2. His political views aren't great. But I guess many of his other views are. Will look into The Social Animal.


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