Are the 'Mommy Wars' Exaggerated? E.J. Graff talks about her op-ed that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post explaining why she thinks the conflict between mothers who work and mothers who stay home is greatly exaggerated. She argues that the majority of working mothers seek employment because they have to.
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Are the 'Mommy Wars' Exaggerated?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Right now, the Opinion Page. You see the magazine illustration, writes E.J. Graff - two women glaring at each other, about to take a swing with their satchels, one with a briefcase, the other with a diaper bag. And you know right away what's coming: another "Mommy Wars" story, pitting working mom against Stay-at-home mom. But Graff argues this war is more media hype than actual fight. She says the majority of young mothers work because they have to, and that newspapers, books, magazines, TV and radio widely overplay conflicted emotions as real conflict.

Well, is this an issue in your life, or is it just hype? Give us a call: 800-989-825, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. You can also weigh in on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

E.J. Graff's op-ed ran in Sunday's Washington Post. She's a senior researcher at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and joins us today from a studio at member station WGBH in Boston. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. E.J. GRAFF (Senior researcher, Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University): It's a pleasure. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: So how and when did this war start?

Ms. GRAFF: The media war? It's - there has - the mommy war, the idea that women are fighting each other over whether they should work or stay home, comes -starts around the 1970s. A slightly related story, the opt-out story that women, when they have children, want to go home and play with their babies and leave their careers behind - that starts in the '50s.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. GRAFF: Not - yes, there's a 1953 New York Times story called "Career Women, Go Home." And you can see pretty much the same story every five or 10 years in the Times.

CONAN: And, in fact, the Times is one of the villains in this piece.

Ms. GRAFF: Villain is strong, but I would say, yes. They have been peddling the moms go - what I think of think of is the moms go home story - or moms go home story - for 50 years very steadily.

That article, the "Opt-Out Revolution," which was the cover of the New York Times Magazine in October 2003, really lit a fire. I know women who can still remember where they were sitting when they read that article, they were so furious. It was the most e-mailed story of the year. It was - it had got so many letters that people where - that the Times was running them for four weeks in a row.

It said that this small group of women that Lisa Belkin knew, who were all Princeton graduates - were choosing - were representative, in some important way - not statistically, because most people are not Princeton graduates who have husbands who are investment bankers and can keep the family in the upper middle class if one earner stays home - but that they were representative in some other way in really deciding that success meant staying home with your baby, not climbing the career ladder. And it was infuriating to many, many women.

CONAN: You don't get to be the most e-mailed story and 42,000 hits on the Internet unless you've really touched a nerve, though.

Ms. GRAFF: Exactly. Exactly. You don't. But the "Mommy Wars" story, the larger idea that women who are making a philosophical choice to stay home and women who believe that it's important to work while their children are small - that there's some battle between those two groups, that is really a myth.

What's true is that most - many women, while their children are young, take some time to either stay home with their infants - we call that maternity leave - or work part time while their children are small. But the - but they are -the women who work and the women who stay home are the same women. That's - there's not a huge battle on the playgrounds between them.

CONAN: And as you point that for a lot of people, the grass always looks greener. If you're staying at home, you look at the career women and say, gee, they can have it all. And if you're in the office you say, boy, I'd sure prefer to stay home.

Ms. GRAFF: I did have one woman that I interviewed say that exactly to me. She said, you know, when I was at home with my baby, I looked at those mothers going to work and thought, oh my gosh. They've got it figured out. How come I can't do that? And then as soon as she went back to work, she found herself talking to a friend who was staying home, and she was thinking, oh, that must be more fun. You get to be home with the baby all day.

It's - she was laughing at herself. But if there is a war, it's an internal set of anxieties. Women are - what's true about the mommy wars is that women are under tremendous pressure. They do feel pressure to stay home with their children and be the perfect mother - not all, but many. They do feel that they want to be at work or they have to be at work financially. And our society is not set up with the mindset - as one person I spoke with said - that workers get pregnant and have babies. It is not - our society is not set up for those mothers.

CONAN: We'll get to some calls in a minute, but I think, essentially, you're arguing that, you know, most mothers don't have a choice. They need to go back to work to earn money, to keep up - to pay the rent. And, in fact, if there is a conflict, it's the same women on both sides.

Ms. GRAFF: Absolutely. And the problem with the "Mommy Wars" story is it's treating a very serious public policy issue as if it's a frivolous, personal issue. I mean, to just say, you know, here's this kind of woman and here's that kind of woman, and they're nasty to each other - that's a play story. That's a lifestyle story, where if you turn it around instead of saying there are these two personal choice - two kinds of personal choices, and those women hate each other - which is a lot of fun, right? But it's not a serious story.

If you turn it around and say 70 percent of American children are growing up in families where all adults are in the workforce, then you have a major public policy issue. You have tens of millions of working families who are facing some kind of crisis every week about getting their children to school on time and making sure there's food on the table when they get home, and figuring out what to do and that weird gap between three and six - between when the children are let out of school to milk the cows…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRAFF: …and parents come home from their actual jobs. I mean, there's a lot of - there's a lot of structural issues that individual families cannot fix for themselves. But if you call it a mommy war, that's very cute and puppy like and diminutive, and that's not something we need to take seriously as a policy question.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is E.J. Graff, a senior researcher at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Our number: 800-989-9255, e-mail talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Amanda - Amanda calling us from Ottawa, Illinois.

AMANDA (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

AMANDA: Great. I just wanted to comment. I would agree with the - with what your guest says. I don't see the war on the playground, but my husband and I face the situation. We're both educators at higher institutions of education, and we have tried to work out a situation where we don't have our son in daycare at all, but we work fulltime.

And we've used creative methods to do that, and we've seen a lot of resistance and complaints and attempts at sabotage, particularly by other women that we work with who seem to be very angry that we're trying to have it all while they have to put their children in daycare. And this has been a real struggle for us, so I'd like to hear what your…

CONAN: Well - just ask a question - sabotage?

AMANDA: Yeah. They've gone behind our backs and tried to get us in trouble and brought up issues about how it's not fair. We faced an issue where my son wouldn't take a bottle and he was breastfed - in fact, he still is at 18 months - and my husband, who wasn't working, would bring him up to the campus so I could nurse him on my breaks. People complained about it and tried to get us in trouble effectively, even though we weren't really breaking any rules.

And there's been this real sort of sense of backlash that we're doing something that they can't, and there's a lot of anger about it.

CONAN: Hmm. E.J. Graff?

Ms. GRAFF: That's very interesting. There's - I've heard the sabotage by employers, but not colleagues. We do need a cultural shift. This - when Judith Stadtman Tucker, who's the editor of Mothers Movement Online Web magazine, said that the culture doesn't - we don't have a sense that workers get pregnant and have babies, that's not just going to be just a policy shift. In order to get to a world where a flexible working and actually family values-friendly workplaces area there for everybody, a lot of people need to change how they think.

CONAN: We wish you luck, Amanda.

Ms. GRAFF: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Thanks for the call. Let's see if we can go now to Jill, and Jill's with us from Pepper Pike in Ohio.

JILL (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

JILL: And thanks for having this conversation. I completely agree with the guest. I happen to be a columnist. I'm working on a deadline right now on a column that's called "Mommy Matters," which appears in a Cleveland area family magazine. And some of the columns that I get the best reaction to are the ones that acknowledge not the mommy wars between the moms that are stay at home and the ones that work, but the internal mommy war that each mother feels, or each primary caretaker.

As your guest has said, this is an issue about taking care of the children - it's not necessarily the moms, so when we're talking about how does this discussion inform public policy, it's really important to broaden it so that we're talking about anyone who's in charge of taking care of the kids on a primary basis. And that was my point.

Ms. GRAFF: Or taking care of sick parents or a sick spouse or the aunt or - there's - Ruth Rosen, in The Nation, called it the care crisis, that we have - 50 percent of our labor force is female. Seventy percent of mothers are in the workforce, many of them single mothers. And an entire generation's - you know, the baby-boom generation's parents are living longer and getting - being sick for longer, and there's nobody at home. We still have workplaces, schools and all other institutions structured as if there is somebody at home to take care of those in need, and that's a crisis.

JILL: If I could just add one other thing - what's also - other moms who are writers that I know find most frustrating about this is that people who are closest to the news, closest to the sources who should know and concede that this is kind of a fabrication exploited for the purpose either of publication or for whatever self-serving reasons they may have - that's not to say that I don't think that they believe there really are these mommy wars, but I do think that it's gotten completely out of control over the last few years.

I remember when Judith Warner's book came out, I was just so frustrated by that particular book because it was such a niche group of women that she looked at. And to have it broadened to all moms and have it out there the way that the media exposed it just seemed so unfair to the real conflict that most parents feel over staying home versus doing some sort of work.

I've worked every permutation. I've worked fulltime, part time - I've worked from home, telecommuted, and all through three pregnancies and three children who are now seven, 10, and 13. So, you know, I've experienced all of that, and I just feel that lot of the media does not really cover this kind of internal conflict that we feel. Instead, they focus on this, you now, pitting the moms against one another. Thanks very much.

CONAN: Thanks, Jill. We're talking with E.J. Graff today on our Opinion Page about the myth, she argues, of the mommy wars. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this from Anne in Minneapolis by e-mail: I'm a working mother of two because I am lucky enough to have a salary that brings home more money than daycare costs. My family cannot - she emphasizes and capitalizes cannot - do without my income. The only stay-at-home moms I know have jobs that do not pay more than daycare costs. It's purely economics, period.

Would you agree?

Ms. GRAFF: It is economics. We are not - the United States is not going back to a time where we were the only economic superpower, and therefore even young men were paid enough to support a family of four. That's - we're just not going back to that time. Families in this country absolutely need all earners' incomes. And many, many mothers are the sole support for their families. But I want to go back to something that your - that Jill, your previous caller, said, that I have been told - in fact, I got an e-mail yesterday after publishing the Post article by reporters who say I know this is false, but my editor told me this was the story he wanted. I think there are a lot of people who know that it's a fake story and, as she said, if it's true, it's true only in some small, wealthy enclaves where very few women actually do have a choice.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Sierra, Sierra with us from Tallahassee in Florida.

SIERRA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

SIERRA: The conflict, the internal conflict - you've nailed it. I personally could not get a job that made more than daycare costs, which is why I'm currently a stay-at-home mother. Not that I don't enjoy it, but there are some days that yes, I would much rather be in an office. I'm lucky enough that my husband makes enough money that we can just scrape by. I'm taking care of two children, two elderly parents, and an elderly aunt. So…

Ms. GRAFF: Oh, God bless you.

SIERRA: My time is pretty much tapped. But I would love - and you can hear them in the background…

CONAN: They're calling for your attention, I think.

SIERRA: Yes, but I would love to see some serious discussion of changing the workforce if possible. I mean, you know, we talk about Europe and they're socialist and everybody starts getting, you know, the hair on the back of the neck stands up, but they manage to include women who can drop in and out of the workforce without as much - without as much problems as it seems to be here. You now, they're willing to subsidize mothers who have to stay home.

CONAN: And E.J. Graff, you make that point in your piece, that, you know, things like family leave is much more generous in a lot of European countries.

Ms. GRAFF: Well, in every developed country outside the United States. I mean, we're one of five countries out of a survey of I think 163 that was done by a Harvard School of Public Health researcher that does not have mandatory paid maternity leave, and the other countries include Lesotho and Swaziland. I mean, it's really appalling. I talked to someone who said her dearest friend who lives in Canada had two years of paid maternity leave. Her husband had half a year of paid paternity leave. And when her employer had to hold her job open at the same income and responsibility level so that when she reentered, she didn't get the enormous penalties that American women get if they take a maternity leave of a year - even if it's an unpaid maternity leave. Women who go back after what Barbara Ehrenreich has called the infamous resume gap - are hit with pretty steep penalties in this country.

CONAN: Sierra, thanks for the call, and we'll let you take care of the kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIERRA: Thanks.

CONAN: This is - finally, an e-mail from Debra in Salt Lake City: as a mom who works outside the home, I do not feel the tension from women who work inside the home. In fact, the greatest amount of stress in moral judgment I encounter on this subject comes from men I encounter. I've never understood the tendency for men to comment on the life choices I have made. Oh, and I'm writing this at my desk while my husband is at home with our three beautiful children.

E.J. Graff, thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. GRAFF: It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: E.J. Graff's opinion piece appeared in the Washington Post. You can find a link to it at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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