I edited Mommy Wars because I was struck by American moms’ need to disparage other women in order to feel good about ourselves. Sandra Tsing Loh (“Rhymes With Rich,” May Atlantic) provides an example of this tendency when she dismisses Mommy Wars by attacking the writers for being white and suffering from “afflufemza.” The contributors are all college educated (as, I imagine, are most Atlantic readers), but nearly 20 percent are nonwhite, offering a mix of African-American, Pakistani, and Latina perspectives in a book of only twenty-six contributors. Here are some of the women Tsing Loh disparages as privileged: Natalie Smith Parra, a Latina former welfare mom and immigrant-rights activist; Lila Leff, founder of the Umoja Student Development Corporation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk Chicago youth; Veronica Chambers, who supports her extended African-American family on her writing income alone; Jane Juska, a grandmother, teacher, and prison literacy volunteer from Berkeley; plus the many stay-at-home moms in the book with $0 listed in their IRS income columns.
Even the more affluent moms write with candor about universal problems women face: cancer, domestic violence, children with special needs, post-partum depression, financial hardship, a mother’s suicide, infertility, child abuse, and plain old lousy husbands. Tsing Loh employs a tired misogyny in her attempt to denigrate the moms in the book, and she quotes details of our lives out of context. She derides, for instance, Dawn Drzal’s Regina Rubens outfit—and fails to mention that Ms. Drzal’s essay recounts a bout of postpartum depression so severe that she contemplated suicide. Monica Buckley Price is berated for complaining about her husband’s extended absences—without acknowledgment that she struggled to treat their only child’s autism during that period of time. And Tsing Loh ridicules my second marriage, but conveniently leaves out my first—to a man who beat and nearly killed me.
Throughout the article, Tsing Loh suggests that she is superior to the women in my book because she is not white, is not affluent, and sends her child to a public school. Ironically, in 2004 I offered Tsing Loh a chance to share her story in Mommy Wars, and the woman who pegs her authority to a lack of material wealth declined via an e-mail that explained, “I generally don’t do anthologies because the money tends to be poor … correct me if the pay is in the four digits.”
The primal forces of motherhood have the power to unite women rather than divide us. Before we can adequately assist other women—as Tsing Loh rightly encourages women to do—we need to find unity as mothers. Tsing Loh instead seems committed to fostering women’s battles with one another.
Leslie Morgan Steiner
I appreciate much of what Sandra Tsing Loh discusses in “Rhymes With Rich.” But saying that “the troubles of the poor … don’t seem to lap up much around the ankles of any of these mothers” is unfair to women of all income levels. I’m qualified to write about my feelings as a stay-at-home mom, not about racial or economic diversity. I do wish that I had more fully expressed how grateful I am to have a choice, and I know that the majority of women don’t have that option. But I doubt they begrudge me—or judge me for—my choices as hotly as does Tsing Loh.
I was lucky enough to be born standing in the right line, and so were my children. I try to remind them of that every day—whether taking them to volunteer or giving a portion of their allowance (they each get a dollar a week) to the homeless. I realize this sounds like I’m throwing pennies down from the turret of my Georgetown castle. (For the record, it’s two bedrooms; my girls share a room. Since writing my essay for Mommy Wars, I’ve moved, divorced, and started writing more to pay some bills.) But I want my children to know that they’re fortunate, not entitled. And I want them to be grateful, not guilt-ridden. Believe me, as a freckle-faced WASP living in a privileged enclave, I have enough guilt for all of us.
Author of “Sharks and Jets” from Mommy Wars
I’m sorry Sandra Tsing Loh reviewed the book she wished had been written, rather than Mommy Wars. She raises some interesting and valid points about the plights of mothers who work for subsistence wages while trying to raise their own kids (and sometimes other people’s). But if we’re trying to get to a place where all work is valued (and I think this is Tsing Loh’s underlying argument), aren’t the struggles of the high-earning women also valid? What’s more, the immigrant women that Tsing Loh identifies with, in her daughter’s Los Angeles magnet school, are working to give their kids the kinds of opportunities the women in the book have—and I’m not sure they would begrudge their more fortunate sisters the choices they’ve made. Finally, I wonder what Tsing Loh would do if she weren’t one of the lucky few to get her child into one of those highly competitive magnet schools? Would she really send her daughter to one of L.A.’s failing, 94 percent minority public schools? Or would she join the ranks of those of us she seems to regard as somehow compromised, and make a different choice?
Dee Dee Myers
Sandra Tsing Loh replies:
Leslie Morgan Steiner writes: “Before we can adequately assist other women … we need to find unity as mothers.” Perhaps we should ask the women who huddled inside the Superdome if they felt they had the luxury of waiting for that hell-freezing-over day (the day I change my pan of Steiner’s book to the appropriate rave and we sing “Kumbaya”), or if they would have simply preferred to be handed the damn water bottles already.
Unity first, then help—that’s a gloomy prognosis for the future of female philanthropy. Because despite the heat of Steiner’s rebuttal, I must stubbornly continue to disagree. I find her calculation that “nearly 20 percent” minority is not overwhelmingly white a bit spooky, frankly. She misreads my take on affluent women; my point was not that I’m above “mommy wars” because I’m morally superior, but just the opposite. I’m certain that if I lived in Georgetown or in those Barney Greengrass–fed, Ferragamo-shod, Bugaboo stroller–bashing blocks of the Upper West Side, I too would be driven that certain kind of crazy.
But the hot, pulsing, opera-bag-across-the-face core (I think of Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point) of why I find Steiner’s quasi-feminist thesis to be spectacularly dishonest comes when she cites my daring to ask for money. (And putting it in quotes is really wonderfully catty—I did laugh.) When Steiner first wrote me to solicit an essay for Mommy Wars, she enthusiastically branded her anthology “the next Bitch in the House.” While Bitch ended up a surprise New York Times best- seller—no impediment to Steiner securing a Random House contract—I couldn’t help recalling that potential Bitch essayists had been originally offered about $500 for, say, 3,000 words—one-twelfth the going rate for midcareer magazine work.
Thus my quote: “I generally don’t do anthologies because the money tends to be poor … correct me if the pay is in the four digits.” Four digits—good lord, that could come to … $1,000! Write quickly and one might start approaching one-tenth of what Steiner’s own investment-banker husband makes in an hour (women, unite!). Yet in the next trickle-down feminist turn, Steiner doubles triumphantly back to reveal me as the cold business mercenary who, sadly, wasn’t passionate enough to “share her story.” Yes, it’s a jungle out there in the women’s-angst-anthology-with-all-profits-going-to-the-female-editor world.
Bottom line: don’t ever ask a media professional who says that women’s work should be valued to give you a fair market wage. You’ll pay for it later, sister. Rawr!
By contrast, I feel that Page Evans is poignantly wrestling with the complex issues we, as America’s luckier women, face. I can relate. But Dee Dee Myers’s grasp of L.A.’s public-school magnet system is fuzzy; the system is highly competitive only in that kids from the most disadvantaged zip codes get in first. My daughter’s magnet school is Title I due to poverty and high risk factors—many of her classmates came from Head Start. And yes, we were indeed planning on trying our regular 96 percent Hispanic school, never mind Myers’s stated belief that I’d find that unthinkable (which itself is fascinating). I really must get to D.C. more often.
That said, our magnet school does enjoy a self-selection of parents motivated enough to fill out the government forms required to get their children in. So if we’re not guilty, to borrow Evans’s alchemical thinking, we are grateful. In fact, I’m grateful enough that my charitable giving this year, which goes largely to local poor non- magnet schools that lack PTAs, will be “in the five digits.” Tired misogynist that I am, I don’t need female unity to write a check; I just need a pen. And happily, after telling this book reviewer to go to hell, Steiner need not wait to use her Wharton-trained business savvy to invent a way to channel economic resources toward, if not poorer women, causes about which she clearly feels great passion: spousal abuse, postpartum depression, and autism.
Now that would impress me. Applause, flowers, chocolates … It’s all standing by.