Mommy wars: Stay-at-home vs. working mothers
Globe and Mail
Monday, Jun. 22, 2009

For years, it simmered quietly under the surface – until fresh fuel reignited the age-old us-versus-them debate: What's in the best interest of the children?

They're the five words most likely to preface a mother's position when the topic of child care comes up: “I'm not one to judge.”

Mommy wars? What mommy wars?

The tussle between moms who stay at home to care for their children and moms who head to the office has historically divided women: Stay-at-home moms resented working moms for shipping the children off to daycare in pursuit of the almighty dollar and professional satisfaction. Working moms resented stay-at-home moms for wasting their potential and perpetuating the housewife stereotype.

But in recent years, Canadian mothers say, the conversation about child care choices has become more conciliatory in tone. As the work force has changed, moms are more polite and respectful of the decisions they make for themselves and the ones life makes for them. Mothers who spend their days in cubicle land are friends with moms who spend them on the playground – and they know full well they may eventually switch places.

“I think people are becoming more open-minded,” says Jennifer Martins, a 33-year-old mom in Mississauga who works outside the home and is founder of InfoMommy.com. “I think the majority of people understand that not everyone's situation is the same as theirs.”

But last week, fresh debate over proposed optional full-day learning in Ontario that may begin as early as next year, paired with inflammatory comments from Alberta Finance Minister Iris Evans, resurrected the much-maligned term – and the realization that the mommy wars may just be bubbling below the surface.

Amanda Kruzich has never given much thought to the term “mommy wars.” But she encountered it when an acquaintance in Ottawa sniffed at her decision to hire a nanny. “It was a secondhand comment like ‘In Toronto, a lot of people have nannies and in [Ottawa], we raise our own children,'” she says. While the 36-year-old vice-president of marketing for a cosmetics company doesn't think the comment was meant maliciously, she acknowledges that kind of pressure and scrutiny still nags at moms.

Ms. Kruzich is glad she may be able to send her daughter, Samantha, 3, and son, Tommy, 18 months, to all-day kindergarten. The option will help her save costs on a nanny, who now cares for the kids while she and her husband Joel work full-time. But some of her friends feel all day would be too long for their youngsters to be away from home. “I certainly am in no position to judge. Everybody's situation is so different, you have to do what's right for your kids,” she says.

But discussing hot-button issues such as child care tends to spark these tensions, says Kathy Buckworth, a Toronto writer and stay-at-home mother of four. “There's always been debate between stay-at-home moms and working moms about who's doing the right thing for their kids,” Ms. Buckworth says. “I think the judgment that's going on here is a lot of parents, stay-at-home moms maybe, are saying to the working moms ‘Is this really for you or is it for the kids?'. I think an argument can be made both ways – I think it's good for both.”

Such debates tap into a mother's guilt complex, Ms. Buckworth says, making her feel vulnerable and exposed to other women's judgments – whether real or imagined. “A lot of that maybe comes from the best place and the best intentions [to] justify your own decision, to feel, ‘I'm doing the right thing for my child.' It can easily come across as, ‘I'm doing the right thing and you're doing something different, so yours must be the wrong thing to do.'”

A mother's decision to stay at home or to put her kids in child care is one of the most divisive debates between working mothers and stay-at-home moms, says Leslie Morgan Steiner, the Washington, D.C.-based author and editor of Mommy Wars, a collection of essays from stay-at-home moms and working mothers.

“Who cares for children and how they're brought up is a choice for people lucky enough to have those choices. … There becomes a lot of judgment involved … it comes from a good place, I believe. We all want to be really good mothers.”

But even if it comes from a good place, the result is that parents often choose not to air their child care decisions for fear of being criticized by other parents, says Kate Tennier, a Toronto-based education writer and elementary teacher for more than 10 years.

“Parents are hesitant to have an honest and open dialogue about this move to full-day kindergarten for fear of generating further conflict and misunderstanding,” she says.

Helen Ward, a mother of two in Burnaby, B.C., says the combatants in the mommy wars aren't limited to mothers. When it comes to child care, everybody judges everybody.

“Many parents I know have been pressured by the father or your own parents or siblings or friends saying ‘You're wasting your time or your talents, you should be doing something else,'” she says.

As president of the Kids First Parent Association of Canada, Ms. Ward, 40, says the government's refusal to give parents alternative child care options has aggravated the judgments and pressures from other moms and dads and forced a gap between them.

But talking about and accepting early childhood learning could bring moms together, says Susan Prentice, a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba.

“To the degree that the mommy wars aren't just a fiction of overheated imaginations, universal services of early learning and care for all children help ease any strains that might exist among women from different family situations,” she says. “On the local board of the early learning and care program, mothers with jobs will sit beside mothers who are home full-time and working … to make sure the programs that their children use and enjoy are high quality.”

While she's sure the pressures and judgments are out there, Mississauga mom Sandra Viveiros, 34, says they haven't shaken her intention to enter her 11-month-old daughter Soraya into all-day kindergarten when the time comes.

And while Ms. Evans's comments caused her to wince with resentment, it's really to each her own. “There's definitely a judgment, but what are you going to do?” she asks. “When it comes to everything and anything, we all do things so differently.”