I try not to engage in, encourage or really even acknowledge the faction of women who make up the "Mommy Wars." Not only is the conflict insulting, divisive and juvenile, but how another woman parents rarely affects my children and me. Bottle- or breastfeed your baby? I don't care. McDonald's or organic food for your kid? Your business. Work or stay home? Whatever makes sense for you and your family.
But there's something about Gwyneth Paltrow's smugness that incites many mothers into feeling like it's her against us. She is the ultimate Sanctimommy. Her children, clothing, food, workout, house and even her divorce are better than ours. Her effortless, nonchalant judgment makes us all feel like we're not enough. Her public persona is one of perfection, so even when she lets the façade crack a little and admits that she too has hard times, it's hard not to be jealous since her tribulations sound like our luxuries.
This was the case recently when Gwyneth said in an E! News interview:
It's much harder for me. I think it's different when you have an office job, because it's routine and you can do all the stuff in the morning and then you come home in the evening. When you're shooting a movie, they're like, "We need you to go to Wisconsin for two weeks," and then you work 14 hours a day and that part of it is very difficult.
Her naïveté was rude and insulting to parents everywhere, and Mackenzie Dawson wrote a wonderful, hilarious response in a piece for The New York Post that went viral. But, as a stay-at-home mom, I wanted to weigh in too.
I'm sure Gwyenth is absolutely right that it's difficult to be away from her children for weeks at a time. And while many of us would welcome the break (hand raised), I'm sure we too would tire of and be irritated by recurring, lengthy stays away from our families. But she loses our sympathy when she says that the average working mother has it easier because she has a regular schedule.
Gwyenth has something better than a regular schedule: millions and millions of dollars. While most of us have a routine, the overwhelming majority of us don't have the kind of money that she has. The kind of money that makes a backyard, wood-burning stove not a dream but a necessity. The kind of money that can hire a personal trainer to not just help you lose weight, but help you craft a personalized plan to change the shape of your butt and then design an entire video series around your workout. The kind of money that makes a staff of nannies, housecleaners, chefs, hairstylists, makeup artists, drivers and more a requirement -- and private schools, luxury labels and vacations around the world commonplace.
Before you think this is about bashing my working sisters, let me emphatically state that it is not. Being a stay-at-home mom is hard. Guess what? So is being a working mom. So is being a working dad or a stay-at-home dad. Being a parent in any capacity is hard. No matter what side of the coin you're on, most of us never find the right balance that we're looking for.
I decided to stay home for the reason that many women decide to stay home: my salary simply wasn't large enough to significantly cover the high cost of childcare. I never planned on becoming a stay-at-home mother. In fact, as a feminist, I thought one of the most important things I could teach my children was that it's important to have strong, independent women to look up to and emulate. But, things change and this is how it worked out.
I know I'm incredibly lucky that I don't have to work one or even two jobs to support my family and we can rely on my husband's salary. I know that being able to raise my kids the way I want to raise them is, in this day and age, a rare gift. But that doesn't mean it's more fulfilling or easier than working outside the home. It is HARD.
Staying at home is lonely. It's exhausting. It's isolating. It's boring. It's frustrating. It's maddening. It's exhausting. It's depressing. It's tedious. It's mind-numbing. Did I mention that it's exhausting?
Some days I barely say a handful of words to another adult. Many days I don't bother to shower or wear real clothes because I'm just going to be covered in spit-up and baby food anyway and what's the point? I often feel like a failure since I have yet to achieve my personal or professional goals. I am constantly worried that I'm not doing enough to challenge, engage, teach, encourage and love my children. In the mania of trying to get everything done, keeping my children fed, clothed and merely alive sometimes feels like an accomplishment.
Worst, in the day-to-day mundane, disgusting, repetitive, trivial moments, I wonder if this is it. If this -- the diapers, fights about getting out the door, sweeping the floor eight times a day -- is what parenting is about. And in the midst of it, when I remember, I think about the person who I was and wonder about the person I've become. How I made the transition from Jen to Mom.
I can't speak for all men and women who stay at home, but by far, my biggest challenge as a stay-at-home mom has been losing and trying to regain my identity as a person.
When a working mother is at work, she's called by her name; when I'm at work, I'm called Mommy.
I'm finally embracing the idea of being Noah's (and now Ryan's) mom, but it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with not just children, but other parents and educators calling me "Noah's mom." I would mentally protest, thinking: I have my own name -- I'm Jen! I am defined in other ways than just being a mother! But I'm coming to terms with it now. I know it's not an insult or a judgment, but it stings a little, being reduced to being known by who your child is instead of who you are.
Whether I want to be defined by it or not, I am Noah and Ryan's mother and the vast majority of my day is spent doing things for them, for our family as a whole, and for our house (well, our tiny NYC apartment).
Since my older son is in pre-k and my baby naps, I have a couple of hours of free time in the morning. And I have a choice of what to do during two hours: do I become Housewife Jen and focus on the chores I need to do to keep things from falling into disarray (like planning shopping trips, prepping for dinner, doing the laundry and dishes, sweeping, mopping, vacuuming and Dear God -- with so much cleaning, why is it never clean)? Do I tackle a larger project like cleaning the fridge, organizing the closet or gasp, creating photo books for my kids? (Spoiler: the answer is always no.)
Or, do I try to be Person Jen and check my email? Drink a cup of coffee? Augment my burgeoning writing career by sitting down to write? I couldn't even write this in a timely fashion; I had to wait until Sunday afternoon when my husband took the kids took the park.
It's all a trade-off. If I don't do the housewife stuff, it won't get done. If I don't write, I feel like my thoughts aren't expressed and like I'm subjugating myself for the sake of my family. Sure, when I make enough money to justify hiring a sitter, that'll be great, but in the meantime, I need to find a balance that works for my family and me -- just like every other parent out there, whether you work at home, at an office job or on a movie set.
In spite of the hurt feelings it caused, I think the conversation inspired by Gwyenth's perceived hardship has been incredibly important. For decades, women have been told we can "have it all." In recent years, it has become very obvious that this myth was just that, a myth -- a falsehood created by wishful thinking, the media and, of course, the advertisers who would have us believe that the right mop, whole wheat cracker or board game would somehow revolutionize our lives. It, of course, will not.
What will help revolutionize our lives is learning to listen to each other. To help each other. To understand that while every parent is in a different situation, we're all struggling to do the best thing for our kids, our families and ourselves. How we do that, however, is anyone's guess.