Books May 2006

Rhymes With Rich

One woman’s conscientious objection to the “mommy wars”

More and more these days, reading women’s writing fills me with a vague, creeping, slightly nauseating feeling. Lying in bed the other night, cradling some seltzer water, my stomach gurgling, the word for my malaise suddenly came to me: “afflufemza,” wherein the problems of affluence are recast as the struggles of feminism, and you find yourself in a dreamlike state of reading firstperson essays about it, over and over again. We’ve always had rich mothers, of course; it’s just that the boundaries between the privileged and the unused to be clearer. Back in the eighties, for instance, I was among the many couch, or at least futon, potatoes who used to love Dynasty—the Mothra-versus-Godzilla grapplings of the Carringtons and the Colbys, of Joan Collins’s deliciously nasty Alexis and Linda Evans’s nurturing, oddly affectless Krystle. Alexis was the Execu-Bitch; Krystle, the Saintly Wife. It was the eternal female ur-struggle, ever campy, ever watchable, ever conveniently framed for us—out there in the distance—by that swoopily hammy Bill Conti score, those soaring trumpets, those glittering Denver skyscrapers.

Twenty years later, gone are big hair, big diamonds, and big shoulder pads. In their place, among America’s most affluent mothers, is a kind of gnawing, grinding anxiety—and a mediacentric conviction that this fretfulness is somehow that of every woman. Or so it appears in the just-published Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families, edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner. The cover flap describes the angst thus:

With motherhood comes one of the toughest decisions of a woman’s life: Stay at home or pursue a career? The dilemma not only divides mothers into hostile, defensive camps but pits individual mothers against themselves … Ranging in age from 25 to 72 and scattered across the country from New Hampshire to California, these mothers reflect the full spectrum of lifestyle choices.

OK, let’s slow down for a minute and unpack this description of Everymother before, with iced mochaccino latte in hand, we hurriedly whisk on. There are, in fact, great varieties of American mothers left out of Steiner’s anthology. They’re women for whom work is not a “lifestyle choice” but a necessity—a financial one, gauchely enough, and not an emotional one. Why do they work? To keep the electricity on. Such women would include, oh, single-mother waitresses, hotel maids, factory workers, grocery-store cashiers, manicurists, even countless low-level white-collar functionaries, from bank clerks to receptionists to data processors. Imagine a nanny wondering about her lifestyle choice: Why have I always had this burning dream to spend sixty hours a week taking care of other people’s children? Is it because of unresolved communication issues from a lonely childhood? Would I experience more personal fulfillmentfind more of my true “voice”in department-store retail? Perhaps these are issues I should examine this week in therapy, before I put my call through to Po Bronson.

But clearly no one at Random House thought to red-pencil this, because it’s a given today, in non-zine, non-blog, hardcover-anthology women’s writing, that “Everymother” implicitly means “every mother from the well-defined e-mail list of people like us”—media professionals who have now become their own class and tribe. A female member of the mediacracy can now seize the bully pulpit for all women without needing to give even lip service to those women whose lives, unglamorously enough, are more blue collar than blue state. (Actually, that’s not entirely true: they do occasionally give lip service, in the most bizarre and self-aggrandizing ways. More on that in a bit.)

However, even when one excludes most American mothers, there’s still plenty of material for a book. Life at the top may be privileged, but it is not simple. Take the mini-autobiography proffered by Steiner, a graduate of Harvard and Wharton, the general manager of The Washington Post Magazine, and the former Johnson & Johnson executive who was responsible for the international launch of Splenda. Her dilemma, she explains, was being married to an investment banker who kept getting ever more attractive jobs in ever new places. The crisis came when he was “offered the presidency of a hot Internet start-up,” which would require a family move to Minneapolis. The pain of it had Steiner lying on the parquet floor in her beloved Upper West Side, fighting tears: “Within a ten-minute walk lay my son’s favorite playground, my sister’s apartment, my in-laws’ condo, Gymboree, a pediatrician as kindly as Big Bird, five or six Starbucks, the Reebok gym, and at least a dozen museums.” But no. “My husband calmly explained that we were very lucky and really had to go. Millions of dollars in stock options, he said.”

(Again, for comparison, I don’t want to go red state on you but a military wife might take the news of a move differently, perhaps even thinking something like, Yes, moving is inconvenient, but sacrifice is part of the duty our family owes our country … which in the “mommy wars” universe would be a strange notion full of foreign words.)

Steiner’s female-empowering argument is that her only choice, as a mother, was to return to full-time work at a plum Washington Post advertising job in order to gain the economic leverage needed to have a say in household decisions. It is a leverage that Steiner’s own depressed, rum-and-Coke-swilling, stay-at-home—if brilliant, Radcliffe-educated—mother never had, since Steiner’s cheerful lawyer father was the one who worked. And, well, what with the battling upper-class incomes and the pretty continual flap, almost as though in a wind tunnel, of Ivy League sheepskins, it was at this point that even I—a media professional who has the freedom to type, at my desk, about the waitresses who labor hourly for minimum wage—began, from my relatively privileged position in the cosmic sisterhood, to feel the cultural disconnect of the downwardly mobile.

Never mind that—with such Mommy Wars essayists as Publishers Weekly editorin-chief Sara Nelson, ten-year Viking editor Dawn Drzal, Washington Post Magazine deputy editor Sydney Trent, and Lizzie McGuire creator Terri Minsky—it’s conceivable that in the next wave of cultural rightsizing we could have a genre of women’s literature written entirely by media executives; it’s just that, even when the media moms quit work to raise their children, they’re still able to spend a lot more than I do, on a daily basis.

It began with little things, like Georgetown mom Page Evans’s frustrating day juggling three-year-old daughter Katherine’s ballet class with six-year-old daughter Peyton’s kiddie yoga class ($15 per session). There was stay-at-home mom Monica Buckley Price’s resignation about her husband’s having to work out of town, co-executive-producing The Joan Cusack Show, in order to cover her autistic son’s expensive Santa Monica preschool and therapy bills of $700 a week. On the Upper West Side, Drzal’s small son mistakenly consumed a brunch centerpiece of two pounds of Barney Greengrass eastern Gaspé smoked salmon. In yet another gastronomically sophisticated part of Manhattan, workingfrom-home mother Susan Cheever’s baby literally hurled foie gras and made playthings with quenelles de brochet. (I wondered if there was any Random House editor for whom that image had given a moment’s pause: “Baby hurling foie gras … Let them eat cake … Marie Antoin—hmm.”)

Then came the onslaught of designer labels. Not since Daisy Buchanan wept over Gatsby’s shirts have individual items of clothing been so emotionally fraught. There were the traditional “Armani success suits” (which one abandons when one leaves office life), “Merrell Jungle Slides” (as casual wear, worn to pick up the kids), a “new BCBG suit” (bought for speaking engagements, though the cost of it unfortunately offsets the honorariums), a favorite “forest-green wool Regina Rubens” (to cheer oneself up enough while returning to one’s publishing job in Manhattan). The autism piece, while poignant in its descriptions of Price’s son’s condition, happens to be titled “Red Boots and Cole Haans,” a reference to the mom’s “funky new Anthropologie outfit” and Cole Haans, which loom touchingly large against the preschool children’s tiny Stride Rites (the piece recounts a much happier day than at Gymboree, when the son soiled his “fabulous blue-and-white-striped Petit Bateau outfit”). No surprise, then, that the battle between stay-at-homes and career moms is described unfailingly in terms of outerwear and accessories. In “Sharks and Jets,” Evans writes, “I imagine Jerome Robbins choreography. The stay-at-home moms in their park attire of rubber clogs, khakis, and T-shirts. The working moms in their pencil skirts, pressed blouses, and Ferragamos.” Stay-at-home mom Catherine Clifford finds it difficult to retain her equanimity with “the mom who groused jealously that she couldn’t afford not to work, then grabbed her Kate Spade bag and headed off in her new Mercedes SUV.” (The image of Upper West Side—or, for geographic diversity, Georgetown—women hitting each other over the head with Kate Spade bags was hard to shake.)

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and a performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.

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