Oprah: Keeping the Mommy Wars Alive and Well

Oprah revisited the ultimate mommy question on her show yesterday. “My Baby or My Job: Why Elizabeth Vargas Stepped Down.” I don’t think I’ve blogged about this here before (though I’ll look through my archives and check), so I want to do so now. I’ll give you a rundown of the show – especially a few of the comments that really struck a chord with me – and then share my thoughts on the subject.

I came into the show late – about the last half hour. Apparently in the first part of the show, Oprah interviewed Elizabeth Vargas about her choice to stay home with her newborn baby instead of staying in her high-profile job as anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight.

The part I saw dealt with the members of a discussion panel – if you visit the link above, it starts on screen “6 of 13.” I don’t have a transcript of the show, so I’ll just do my best from the notes I scribbled as I watched and the recap provided on the Oprah Show website.

First of all, my biases. My son was born in February of 2006, and I returned to work for nine weeks in March-May of 2006. I have been a stay-at-home mom for the fifteen months since then. Now then, on to the show.

Barbara, a working mother of three, said that

“If you don’t have something that is your own, then your kids become everything. And you need to make that separation about what you’re doing for your kids and what you’re doing for yourself.”

I can see her point, to a certain extent. It’s not healthy to sublimate your every thought, emotion, and need within the roles of housewife and mother. As an adult woman, you need to have time and space for yourself – time to affirm your intellect, to nourish your spirituality, to nurture your emotional self. However, I disagree that the only way to maintain your sense of self is to pursue employment outside the home.

Women who stay home make a powerful choice to do something “for their kids” and they often make sacrifices which make their choice possible. They also make the choice to find necessary “separation” in other avenues. You can enjoy adult conversation at church – a great, stimulating debate at a book group – a peaceful meditation during naptime – a “break” from the day to day doldrums at the spa – a creative outlet in a hobby, a class, or a blog (:-). For women who stay-at-home because they BELIEVE they are making the best choice for their children, Barbara’s comment rings empty and hollow – it’s a false argument in favor of working.

She went on to say that it’s

“more important… that you’re around when your kids are teenagers. You know, anybody can read your kid a book or cuddle your kid.”

One stay-at-home mom took exception to her remarks.

“I think that sometimes using phrases like that minimizes what being a stay-at-home mom is. It’s not just about reading a book or wiping their nose. It’s engendering in them a sense of independence and a quest for learning that is shaped by your values.”

I’m so glad that Whitney spoke up. I was saying almost the exact same thing to my TV screen. Even though it doesn’t take anything special to qualify someone to read a book to a child, or to give that child a hug, it also doesn’t MEAN anything special when a stranger does those things. When a mother reads with her child, she communicates so many things: that our family values books and learning, that you are important enough for me to stop what I’m doing and read with you, that I like asking you questions and hearing your answers. When a mother hugs her child, she brings so much caring, so much history, so much of a bond to that hug. The argument from the working-mom camp that the things their daycare providers do are trivial and simple and “no big deal” to farm out… that argument drives me crazy. Even though the tedium of day-to-day infant and toddler and preschooler care gets old and frustrating sometimes – it is just DIFFERENT to be the mommy who changes that diaper, or wipes that nose, or sings that song, or creates that art project. The intent and the care that a mother brings to the same situation cannot be hired.

Dr. Robin Smith, Oprah’s go-to psychologist these days, said that Americans have too much of an either/or dichotomy mindset. “We lose the wisdom of both worlds,” she said, and “the goal isn’t to have it all… it’s to be attuned with yourself and your children. Attuned means ‘I’m connected.'”

She pointed out that a stay-at-home mom who is disconnected, exhausted, and disengaged really isn’t PRESENT with her children – and a working mom who makes a point to attend her kids’ functions and games but then focuses on her Blackberry instead isn’t really there, either.

Dr. Robin gets on my nerves. (Just in the interest of full disclosure, y’all.) I have to give her some credit for this one. I’m a member of a parenting forum that seems to be full of moms who come down on others with a judgemental, holier-than-thou, best-darn-stay-at-home-mom on the block attitude… and yet these self-proclaimed SuperMoms have racked up 10,000 posts in under 3 years. Where are their SuperKids while they’re online all day long?

Toward the end of the show, a lovely young mom shared her change of plans. Melissa had a rough pregnancy and now believes her daughter may be her only child. When she visited the daycare they had chosen, and a worker asked her to leave a disposable camera so that pictures could be taken of the “moments she would miss,” it put her in tears. She said that she feels badly for her husband, since they had a plan in place before the baby was born – but now that her little girl is here, she can’t leave her in daycare. Her current plan is to stay home for one year and then re-evaluate how it’s working.

Then she wondered aloud,

“But will it be harder in a year when she’s crying ‘Mommy’ and holding on to me? {paraphrase}”

Barbara, our working mom of 3, chimed in.

“Yes, they do that. When I dropped off my 3 year old it was like Sophie’s Choice every day – I’ll be good, I’ll never do anything wrong ever again, just don’t drop me off! – and I would hide out and wait to see if he was okay. It’s just like they say – in five minutes they’re fine and playing. {paraphrase}”

Dr. Robin jumped in again. She said it was natural to feel terrible about dropping your children off at daycare.

“You want them not to ache – but the task of motherhood is to teach them what to do when they ache. How to self-soothe, whether you are there at home or away at work. {paraphrase}”

See, I don’t agree with this one, Doc R. I don’t believe that my primary task as a mother is to teach my son how to soothe himself. As an adult, I don’t soothe myself! When I am hurting, I have learned how to reach out. I go to my husband, to God, to a dear friend, to an expert. I’ve learned where to turn for help. See, in my experience, when I try to solve all my problems and pains by myself, things get worse. I want to teach Jonas to be independent – in his thinking, his decision-making – but I also want to teach Jonas to be interdependent. God made us to be part of a bigger social structure – we are born into families, and we grow up and create our own families. We join church families and we participate in our local and global communities. This dogged insistence on SELF – self-soothing, self-esteem, self-interest – seems to me to be one of our problems in this country. I’d much rather be surrounded by people who care about others and are plugged in to having people care about them.

The show wrapped up with two moms of adult children, who both had regrets about their choices. The stay-at-home mom said that her children didn’t see her as capable of anything other than making dinner and running a house. “What about me now? I want a part of me back.” The working mom seemed near tears when she said, “I missed everything.” She told her kids not do what she did – but her own daughter, who was also in the audience, said that she always felt loved and cared for. She made the decision to return to work when she had her own baby. Dr. Robin had some advice for the working-mom-of-adult-children, too. She told her that rather than tell her daughters NOT to work, she should be helping them on “the journey to find what it means to be a mother to them, not to you. {paraphrase}”

This is another one of my pet peeves. Moral relativism – where it might be right for me, but not be right for you – is one of the most illogical things I encounter among otherwise well-educated and well-intentioned people. If something is right, then it is always right in all situations. Right? And this is why mothers are still engaged in the Mommy Wars – because even when we espouse this notion that “this is right for me but it might not be right for you,” we still believe that what we have chosen is MORE RIGHT. Mothers who work believe that they are doing the right thing – if not the right thing for every child on the planet, then at least the right thing for their personal children or their personal financial situation. Mothers who stay home believe they are doing the right thing, too. Which means that they all believe that mothers making that other choice are wrong.

I believe that children deserve a full-time, fully attached, parental caregiver during their formative years. (I won’t get into my views about mothering school-aged children in this post. We’ll save that topic…. maybe I’ll make this a series.) I believe that some mothers are not able to be the full-time caregiver for a variety of reasons…. including mental illness, physical disability, single parenthood, and financial crisis. I believe that most mothers who claim that they “need to work” for the money actually are “choosing to work” for the money. (I personally know women who worked in the public school system and told me their income went for the “extras” like a yearly trip to Disney World and the latest Louis Vuitton handbag for their 13-year-olds.)

I believe that staying-at-home is more than being a warm body in the house with a child – more than watching out for accidents – more than feeding, changing, and putting down for naps – more than reading umpteen books and singing umpteen songs – more than attending playgroups and library story hours.

I believe in attachment parenting – the “Seven Baby B’s,” as Dr. William & Martha Sears put it in their book, which include bonding with baby at birth; breastfeeding; bedding close to baby; babywearing; belief in baby’s cries (in other words, attributing no ill intent or manipulation to the cries of infants, but rather viewing them as valid communication from real people who are too young to have any other communciation tools); beware of “baby trainers;” and balance. This is a responsive parenting style – the “Baby B’s” help parents get to know and understand their baby, which makes them able to meet their baby’s needs and eventually anticipate those needs.

At this stage, we are no longer breastfeeding or cosleeping. We still wear Jonas in slings and carriers, we believe that his crying is a valid way to communicate his feelings, and we stay away from those who proclaim that toddlers should be getting used to Time-Outs and Spankings by now. AP fits our lives.

AP is an instinctive way of living within our family. Just as I would never want to be ignored if I broke down in tears of frustration and anger, I choose not to ignore Jonas’ tears. When he wants to go downstairs all by himself, but we tell him “No, wait for Mommy or Daddy,” that’s a big deal to a little person! He may bang the gate, he may start to cry. We don’t “punish” him – no scolding, no smacking his hands. We speak to him gently, we explain what’s happening, we offer hugs and kisses if he wants to accept them. In other words: we treat him like a PERSON. A person who doesn’t have an adult supply of patience yet – or a brain that does “cause & effect” thinking – or the dexterity to accomplish all the tasks he is dreaming of…. but still, a person.

Part of the reason I am so passionate about my career as a stay-at-home mom is because I believe it is INFINITELY harder to be an attached parent-and-child when you are separated for many hours of every day. (I didn’t say it’s impossible. Just that it’s a lot harder. I know people who are trying to make it work, and I don’t envy them at all.) So I guess you could say that I choose to be a SAHM because it’s the easiest way to accomplish my parenting goals. I know Jonas so well because we are closely attached. I can usually anticipate his needs, and when I can’t figure out his needs, I can at least put myself in his shoes and decide how I’d like to be treated if the situation were reversed.

For me, the two things go hand-in-hand. I’m a stay-at-home parent because I believe that it’s the best -and easiest- way to ensure that Jonas can form a secure attachment to his parent(s). I’m an attached parent because I believe that my child deserves the best start in life – and I believe that forming a secure attachment with a parent puts him on the best path toward intellectual development, psychological well-being, and emotional stability.

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MICHELLE NEBEL

I write uplifting women’s fiction woven with threads of faith, grace, and Southern hospitality. My blog is where I share a glimpse of my life, and I hope you’ll find the thoughts here encouraging!

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2 thoughts on “Oprah: Keeping the Mommy Wars Alive and Well”

  1. Michelle,

    This was so elegantly written and managed to address so many very valid arguments in favor of SAHM without sounding condescending. I have often had people make rude remarks to me about my choice to put off school and a job until I feel my children are old enough that I don’t need to be at home anymore. Sometimes I just nod and feel comfortable knowing I’m doing what’s best for my babies. Sometimes it’s hard and it really gets to me, even to the point of tears.

    I usually wind up telling them that it wouldn’t matter if I worked or not, we wouldn’t have extra money. My paycheck would barely cover daycare costs (seeing as I have four children and all). Why pay someone else to do my job?

    I won’t hijack your blog. Just know this was so beautiful and was awesome to read this first thing in the morning.

  2. Sarah, thank you! I was a little hesitant to even post this. It’s a tough issue that is so close to so many hearts. Moms are out there, doing their best, trying to keep all the balls in the air… the last thing they need is to feel condemned or ostracized. That’s not the tone I was going for, but I was worried that it would ‘read’ that way anyway.

    What’s that poem say? “Settle down cobwebs / dust go to sleep / I’m rocking my baby / and babies don’t keep.” A job, more schooling, all of the talk about self-fulfillment… those things can wait. You only get ONE shot at raising your babies. For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing just great. (((hug)))

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