4-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.mother.4-2.3 | Akass PDF

Despite the pass­ing of sex­u­al dis­crim­i­na­tion leg­is­la­tion, the dif­fi­cul­ty of com­bin­ing work and moth­er­hood repeat­ed­ly hits the head­lines.  This paper looks at the Amer­i­can media phe­nom­e­non known as the ‘mom­my wars’ and asks if British moth­ers can expect to face the same issues and atti­tudes as their Amer­i­can sisters.

Mal­gré les lég­is­la­tions con­tre la dis­crim­i­na­tion des sex­es qui s’accumulent, la dif­fi­culté d’harmoniser mater­nité et occu­pa­tions pro­fes­sion­nelles n’en occupe pas moins le haut du pavé et con­tin­ue de faire actu­al­ité. Cet arti­cle exam­ine le phénomène médi­a­tique améri­cain con­nu sous le nom de « mom­my wars » et s’interroge sur la dis­tinc­tion entre les défis de la mater­nité en Angleterre et aux États-Unis.

Kim Akass | Uni­ver­si­ty of Hertfordshire

Motherhood and the media under the Microscope:
The backlash against feminism and the Mommy Wars

Sur­vey­ing the acres of newsprint ded­i­cat­ed to the sub­ject of moth­ers and moth­er­ing, it would seem, on the sur­face at least, that chil­drea­r­ing remains the most impor­tant job a woman can do. For exam­ple, women are warned that if they work post-child­birth they not only risk dam­ag­ing their child’s prospects (Har­ris; Doughty), but that their off-spring are six times more like­ly to be over­weight (Bor­land); they are cau­tioned not to delay start­ing a fam­i­ly because of declin­ing fer­til­i­ty (Bor­land) but, on the oth­er hand, warned of the dire con­se­quences of teenage preg­nan­cy (Phillips). The media storm over Repub­li­can Par­ty can­di­date Rick Santorum’s views on sin­gle moth­ers (Mur­phy & Kroll) cou­pled with accu­sa­tions that Britain’s 2011 sum­mer City riots were fuelled by the fail­ure of sin­gle moth­ers to raise their chil­dren prop­er­ly (Gold) are fur­ther proof of how moth­er­hood out­side of mar­riage is viewed neg­a­tive­ly by many.  Indeed, after study­ing a cross sec­tion of head­lines relat­ing to moth­er­hood from the past decade, it should be no sur­prise to dis­cov­er that both work­ing and stay-at-home moth­ers are prone to depres­sion (Rochman; CTV), a con­di­tion no doubt exac­er­bat­ed by the pletho­ra of media sto­ries about how they should, or should not, be rais­ing their chil­dren.  It is lit­tle won­der then that women find them­selves con­fused and con­flict­ed over the demands of moth­er­hood and how that impacts upon their rela­tion­ship with their sense of self.

What fol­lows is an inves­ti­ga­tion into whether the agen­da behind these media reports is less about what is best for moth­ers and chil­dren and more about the needs of soci­ety. I will first pro­vide a very brief his­to­ry of the con­fig­u­ra­tion of the post indus­tri­al fam­i­ly, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the role of the moth­er: how she evolved into being the main care­giv­er of the fam­i­ly and how both the British and Amer­i­can media have, in turn, mon­i­tored, com­ment­ed on, and policed that role. I will then turn to the more recent phe­nom­e­non known as the “mom­my wars,” a dis­course orig­i­nat­ing in the Amer­i­can media that pitched stay-at-home moth­ers against work­ing ones in an alleged bat­tle between two oppos­ing styles of moth­er­ing. This media onslaught, I shall argue, is the lat­est incar­na­tion of the back­lash against fem­i­nism which, as the­o­rised by jour­nal­ist Susan Falu­di, comes to the fore when­ev­er women are per­ceived as mak­ing too many inroads into sup­posed “male domains.”  Falu­di argues that this reac­tion, or “back­lash” can be traced back to “the rise of restric­tive prop­er­ty laws and penal­ties for unwed and child­less women of ancient Rome, the heresy judge­ments against female dis­ci­ples of the ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church, or the mass witch burn­ings of medieval Europe” (Back­lash 67).  While we can be grate­ful that the burn­ing of women has long been out­lawed in both North Amer­i­ca and Europe, I shall argue that this round of media report­ing is repeat­ed­ly used to rean­i­mate (and in some cas­es con­sol­i­date) old misog­y­nist beliefs about women’s per­ceived “place” in the home. In addi­tion, pit­ting woman against woman in a fic­tion­al bat­tle of moth­er­ing choic­es obscures the real issues affect­ing women in the 21st cen­tu­ry, such as the lack of mater­ni­ty leave, inad­e­quate child­care pro­vi­sion, and equal pay and employ­ment rights.

A brief history of the family in the media

The way par­ent­ing has been report­ed in the media has had a long and tur­bu­lent his­to­ry with notions of the “ide­al” fam­i­ly chang­ing from one era to the next. We are famil­iar with the con­cept of the “tra­di­tion­al” family,—a stay-at-home moth­er sup­port­ed by a male breadwinner—but where does this notion of the fam­i­ly actu­al­ly come from?  And does this famil­ial group­ing even exist except in the hearts and minds of adver­tis­ers, politi­cians, and the media?  In The Way We Nev­er Were, Stephanie Coontz writes about the con­cept of “tra­di­tion­al par­ent­ing,” in which the father, a strict patri­arch, com­mand­ed total obe­di­ence from both his wife and chil­dren (10). This was in the pre-indus­tri­al era when chil­dren were the respon­si­bil­i­ty of both par­ents, their care woven into a fam­i­ly and work life that revolved around the home.  Jour­nal­ist and writer Judith Warn­er describes how the fam­i­ly under­went a major rev­o­lu­tion dur­ing the late-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry when indus­tri­al­i­sa­tion dic­tat­ed that men worked out­side the home and new ideals of moth­er “as sacred teacher and moral guide came to Amer­i­can shores … from Eng­land” (134).  This new con­fig­u­ra­tion soon brought anx­i­eties about the chang­ing nature of fam­i­ly life.   It was at this time that the gen­dered divi­sion of labour gave birth to the male “bread­win­ner” role (“a mas­cu­line iden­ti­ty unheard of in the colo­nial days” [Coontz 10]) and the “Moth­er­hood Reli­gion,” which was con­ceived through “ser­mons and par­ent­ing books that made their way from Eng­land to Amer­i­can shores” (Warn­er 135).  This new form of the fam­i­ly meant that fathers played very lit­tle part in their offspring’s upbring­ing, and “mater­nal guid­ance sup­plant­ed the patri­ar­chal author­i­tar­i­an­ism of the past” (Coontz 11).

It was this mod­el of fam­i­ly life that spawned the Vic­to­ri­an cult of moth­er­hood and, accord­ing to Warn­er, “com­pen­sat­ed nice­ly for the fact that, in truth, mid­dle-class mar­ried women sim­ply didn’t have much else to do any­more” (135). But it was a mod­el of domes­tic­i­ty that depend­ed on legions of work­ing-class women hired to ser­vice those house­holds. Accord­ing to Coontz, “Between 1800 and 1850, the pro­por­tion of ser­vants to white house­holds dou­bled, to about one in nine.  Some ser­vants were pover­ty-strick­en moth­ers who had to board or bind out their own chil­dren” (11). The point is that the “Angel in the House” self­less­ly car­ing for her chil­dren has, since the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, been the pre­serve of a priv­i­leged few reliant on numer­ous work­ing moth­ers paid to ser­vice the house­holds of the more for­tu­nate class­es.[1] In addi­tion, there was an increase in child labour with chil­dren forced to work to sup­ple­ment the fam­i­ly income, lead­ing to calls for a retreat from the “har­nessed” fam­i­ly mod­el (in which a num­ber of fam­i­lies were “har­nessed” togeth­er in house­hold pro­duc­tion) to the “‘true Amer­i­can’ family—a restrict­ed, exclu­sive nuclear unit in which women and chil­dren were divorced from the world of work” (Coontz 13). It was not long, how­ev­er, before social reform­ers became increas­ing­ly con­cerned about the effect of new fam­i­ly con­fig­u­ra­tions as mid­dle-class fam­i­lies began to with­draw their chil­dren from the work­ing world, and “observers began to wor­ry that chil­dren were becom­ing too shel­tered” (Coontz 12; empha­sis in original).

Fam­i­ly life in the 1920s and 1930s came under scruti­ny yet again, argues Coontz, as  “social the­o­rists not­ed the inde­pen­dence and iso­la­tion of the nuclear fam­i­ly with renewed anx­i­ety” (13). The Boy Scout move­ment was pur­port­ed­ly formed in the 1920s with the explic­it aim “to staunch the fem­i­niza­tion of the Amer­i­can male by remov­ing young men from the too-pow­er­ful female orbit” with Chief Scout Ernest Thomp­son Seton fear­ing that “boys were degen­er­at­ing into ‘a lot of flat-chest­ed cig­a­rette-smok­ers, with shaky nerves and doubt­ful vital­i­ty’” (qtd. in Falu­di, Back­lash 84).  The Chica­go School of Soci­ol­o­gy was amongst those that believed that the tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly had been weak­ened by both urban­i­sa­tion and immi­gra­tion. While they may have wel­comed the way com­pan­ion­ate mar­riage ensured an increased democ­ra­cy between the gen­ders, “they wor­ried about the root­less­ness of nuclear fam­i­lies and the break­down of old­er sol­i­dar­i­ties” (Coontz 13). By the time of the Great Depres­sion and fuelled by the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, fam­i­lies were again forced to share liv­ing arrange­ments, and gen­er­a­tions once again depend­ed upon each oth­er in a way lost to pre-Indus­tri­al times.  One news­pa­per even opined that “[m]any a fam­i­ly that has lost its car has found its soul” (qtd. in Coontz 14). How­ev­er, this rose-tint­ed nos­tal­gia for a fam­i­ly bound togeth­er  obvi­ous­ly hid the ter­ri­ble truth of a life lived in grind­ing pover­ty as the depres­sion took hold. Numer­ous accounts detail how fam­i­ly life all but broke down as “[m]en with­drew from fam­i­ly life or turned vio­lent; women exhaust­ed them­selves try­ing to ‘take up the slack’ both finan­cial­ly and emo­tion­al­ly, or they belit­tled their hus­bands as fail­ures; and chil­dren gave up their dreams of edu­ca­tion to work at dead-end jobs” (qtd. in Coontz 14).

The dawn of the 1940s saw the pop­u­lar­i­ty of psy­cho­an­a­lysts like Helene Deutsch who, build­ing on the work of Sig­mund Freud, the­o­rised that good moth­er­hood depend­ed upon women reject­ing “mas­cu­line wish­es” and accept­ing their pas­sive “fem­i­nine” role (Warn­er 73).  For psy­cho­an­a­lysts, this notion of ide­al or “com­plete moth­er­li­ness” was cru­cial if chil­dren were not to be bur­dened by patholo­gies in their future lives. It was, how­ev­er, a fine bal­anc­ing act and depen­dent upon women not embrac­ing moth­er love too completely—a view com­pound­ed by Philip Wylie’s now famous 1942 book, Gen­er­a­tion of Vipers, in which he attacked America’s moth­ers for rais­ing a nation of sons “unmanned” by excess mater­nal affec­tion (194-217).

World War II pro­vid­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to study the results of this par­tic­u­lar brand of “smoth­er love” thanks to test­ing per­formed by Army psy­chol­o­gists, most notably the Selec­tive Ser­vice Admin­is­tra­tion which report­ed that “[n]early one-fifth of all the men called up to serve in the war were either reject­ed or unable to com­plete their ser­vice for ‘neu­ropsy­chi­atric rea­sons’” (Warn­er 73).  Of course the rea­son for this was firm­ly placed at the feet of moth­ers who were blamed for over-pro­tect­ing their sons, at least so thought Edward A Streck­er, con­sul­tant to the sur­geon gen­er­al of the Army and Navy, and an advis­er to the sec­re­tary of war (Warn­er 73).  Streck­er added his voice to those of Thomp­son Seton and Wylie and based on his war-time expe­ri­ences, argued that the nation’s men had suf­fered neg­a­tive­ly from the behav­iour of women “whose mater­nal behav­iour is moti­vat­ed by the seek­ing of emo­tion­al rec­om­pense for the buffers which life has dealt her own ego.”  A major fault of “mom,” he added, was that she had failed “in the ele­men­tary moth­er func­tion of wean­ing her off­spring emo­tion­al­ly as well as phys­i­cal­ly” (qtd. in Warn­er 74).

It was not long before mag­a­zine arti­cles start­ed to echo these sen­ti­ments, and in 1945 Ladies’ Home Jour­nal pub­lished an arti­cle ask­ing: “Are Amer­i­can Moms a Men­ace?” Author Amram She­in­feld linked nation­al secu­ri­ty to the way in which moth­ers raised their chil­dren, argu­ing that: “mom is often a dan­ger­ous influ­ence on her sons and a threat to our nation­al exis­tence” (qtd. in Warn­er 74).  For She­in­feld one way to counter the prob­lem of neu­rot­ic moth­ers rais­ing neu­rot­ic sons was for them to breast­feed “only as long as is absolute­ly nec­es­sary” (qtd. in Warn­er 74). But this was too late for many, as the author not­ed that Adolf Hitler was the “only son and spoiled dar­ling of his not-too-bright moth­er” (qtd. in Warn­er 74).   This sen­ti­ment was shared by authors Fer­di­nand Lund­berg and Mary­nia F Farn­ham, who issued the fol­low­ing warn­ing when study­ing despots like Hitler and Mussolini:

Biog­ra­phers will, one day, we hope come to under­stand that their true sub­ject is hard­ly the man (or woman) they have cho­sen to scru­ti­nize … but the moth­er or her sub­sti­tute.  Men, stand­ing before the bar of his­tor­i­cal judg­ment, might often well begin their defense with the words: “I had a moth­er ….” (qtd. in Warn­er 74)

The way moth­ers were increas­ing­ly blamed for the ills of soci­ety and neg­a­tive­ly rep­re­sent­ed in mag­a­zine and news­pa­pers famous­ly came under the scruti­ny of Bet­ty Friedan in her now sem­i­nal text The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique.  Argu­ing that there was a major change in the way women were rep­re­sent­ed between the 1940s and the 1950s, Friedan not­ed that the “New Women” of mag­a­zine sto­ries pub­lished in the 1940s “were almost nev­er house­wives; in fact, the sto­ries usu­al­ly end­ed before they had chil­dren,” adding that these were the days before the term “career woman” became a dirty word in Amer­i­ca” (35). Friedan sur­veyed pub­li­ca­tions such as Ladies” Home Jour­nal com­menc­ing  in 1949 and notes that after the end of the war there was an increase in titles like: “Have Babies While You’re Young,” “Are You Train­ing Your Daugh­ter to be a Wife?,” “Careers at Home,” “Should I Stop Work When We Mar­ry?,” and “The Busi­ness of Run­ning a Home” (38). She argues that by the time the new decade dawned in 1950, there was a marked change in the way women were rep­re­sent­ed in mag­a­zines with “only one out of three hero­ines” being “a career woman—and she was shown in the act of renounc­ing her career and dis­cov­er­ing that what she real­ly want­ed to be was a house­wife” (39). A decade lat­er, in 1959, and Friedan describes how she scoured “three major women’s mag­a­zines … with­out find­ing a sin­gle hero­ine who had a career, a com­mit­ment to any work, art, pro­fes­sion, or mis­sion in the world, oth­er than “Occu­pa­tion: house­wife.” Only one in a hun­dred hero­ines had a job; even the young unmar­ried hero­ines no longer worked except at snar­ing a hus­band (39).

By the end of the decade Friedan argues that the hap­py hero­ine had dis­ap­peared from print alto­geth­er and was no longer rep­re­sent­ed as “a sep­a­rate self and the sub­ject of her own sto­ry,” but only as one half of a mar­ried cou­ple (41).  It was as if, dri­ven from the work­place and hav­ing no inde­pen­dent nar­ra­tive, women could only exist in the pages of pub­li­ca­tions like McCalls, liv­ing life through and for their hus­bands and, more impor­tant­ly, their children.

As the career woman was slow­ly sub­sumed under her iden­ti­ty as wife and moth­er, the notion of “togeth­er­ness,” coined by the pub­lish­ers of McCalls in the mid-1950s, became the watch­word for fam­i­ly life. As Friedan notes, this was “a move­ment of spir­i­tu­al sig­nif­i­cance [used] by adver­tis­ers, min­is­ters, news­pa­per edi­tors,” (41) and it trod a fine line between mar­i­tal bliss and co-dependence:

Why, it was asked, should men with the capac­i­ties of states­men, anthro­pol­o­gists, physi­cists, poets, have to wash dish­es and dia­per babies on week­day evenings or Sat­ur­day morn­ings when they might use those extra hours to ful­fil larg­er com­mit­ments to their soci­ety? (Friedan 42)

Of course, no such ques­tions were raised when it came to the squan­der­ing of women’s con­sid­er­able skills. In spite of the fact that only 10 years ear­li­er women had been deemed capa­ble of hold­ing down jobs and enjoy­ing ful­fill­ing careers, by the end of the 1950s this was con­sid­ered out­side of their realm, in mag­a­zine land at least.

Forced to vacate the jobs that they had filled dur­ing the war and hav­ing child­care sup­port with­drawn, in addi­tion to being inun­dat­ed with mag­a­zine arti­cles espous­ing the ideals of “hap­py house­wife hero­ines,” it is easy to see how women began to com­pare them­selves unfavourably to the domes­tic god­dess­es laud­ed by the pop­u­lar press.  If there is some­thing famil­iar about the era of The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique it is because it was dur­ing this time that the image of the “tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly” was cre­at­ed. Accord­ing to Coontz, the ide­alised fam­i­ly that was con­ceived in the 1950s was formed from two oppos­ing and, in many ways, mutu­al­ly exclu­sive fam­i­ly ideals: the first (from the mid-19th cen­tu­ry) favoured the strong moth­er-child bond, and the sec­ond (from the 1920s) focused “on an eroti­cized cou­ple rela­tion­ship, demand­ing that moth­ers curb emo­tion­al ‘over­in­vest­ment’ in their chil­dren” (9). Friedan admits that she is one of those female jour­nal­ists that helped cre­ate this image of wom­an­hood “designed to sell wash­ing machines, cake mix­es, deodor­ants, deter­gents, reju­ve­nat­ing face-creams, hair tints” (63-4).  And it should come as no sur­prise to learn that “the hybrid idea that a woman can be ful­ly absorbed with her young­sters while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly main­tain­ing pas­sion­ate sex­u­al excite­ment with her hus­band was a 1950s inven­tion that drove thou­sands of women to ther­a­pists, tran­quil­iz­ers, or alco­hol when they actu­al­ly tried to live up to it” (Coontz 9).

Fac­tor a job and child­care issues into this mix and it soon becomes clear that this roman­ti­cised ide­al, so often used as an aspi­ra­tional bench­mark for mod­ern moth­ers, was doomed to fail­ure.  It is a fact that, in the light of recent media reports, we would do well not to forget.

And then the backlash

And yet, look­ing back to this post World War II peri­od, Falu­di con­tends that while Friedan may have writ­ten about women being con­fined to the home, suf­fer­ing from a “prob­lem that has no name,” this bears lit­tle rela­tion to the real­i­ty of women’s lives (Back­lash 74), despite what books like The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique would have us believe. “While 3.25 mil­lion women were pushed or per­suad­ed out of indus­tri­al jobs in the first year after the end of the Sec­ond World War,” argues Falu­di, “2.75 mil­lion women were enter­ing the work force at the same time” (Back­lash 74). How­ev­er, com­pared to the war years, women were enter­ing more menial jobs than ever before and pub­lic opin­ion regard­ing their work­ing out­side the home had changed. Falu­di con­tends the following:

The cul­ture derid­ed them; employ­ers dis­crim­i­nat­ed against them; gov­ern­ment pro­mot­ed new employ­ment poli­cies that dis­crim­i­nat­ed against women; and even­tu­al­ly women them­selves inter­nal­ized the mes­sage that, if they must work, they should stick to typ­ing. … The fifties back­lash, in short, didn’t trans­form women into full-time “hap­py house­wives”, it just demot­ed them to poor­ly paid sec­re­taries. (Back­lash 75)

In fact by 1947 women had man­aged to recoup the num­ber of jobs lost to them in the imme­di­ate post-war years, with more women employed “by 1952 … than at the height of the war” (Falu­di, Back­lash 75).  Accord­ing to media his­to­ri­ans Susan Dou­glas and Mered­ith Michaels, by “1955, there were more women with jobs than at any point in the nation’s pre­vi­ous his­to­ry, and an increas­ing num­ber of these were women with young chil­dren” (34).  It is not dif­fi­cult to see why Falu­di asserts that it is “pre­cise­ly women’s unre­lent­ing influx into the job mar­ket, not a retreat to the home, that pro­voked and sus­tained the anti-fem­i­nist uproar" (Back­lash 75). This is a claim borne out by the fact that, accord­ing to Judith Warn­er, “at the height of the peri­od [which] we tend to think of as the at-home-mom Fem­i­nine Mys­tique years, one third of the work­force was female.  About two-thirds of those work­ing women were mar­ried, and more than half of those mar­ried women had chil­dren of preschool or school age” (137). By 1960 “40 per­cent of women were in the work force … almost half were moth­ers of school-age chil­dren … [and] the fig­ures were even high­er for African Amer­i­can women” (Dou­glas and Michaels 34-5). Sta­tis­tics like these add weight to back­lash argu­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly when read against sto­ries in The Wall Street Jour­nal and Look mag­a­zine com­plain­ing that women were grab­bing “con­trol of the stock mar­ket … and … advanc­ing on ‘author­i­ty-wield­ing exec­u­tive jobs’” (qtd. in Falu­di, Back­lash 85) pre­sum­ably at the same time as they lan­guished in their homes suf­fer­ing from that “prob­lem with no name.”

Look­ing at the 1980s back­lash report­ing it is clear that it presages the recent round of mom­my wars, even if the bat­tle did not com­mence ful­ly until the past decade. Bear­ing in mind the log­ic behind back­lash report­ing, it should not be sur­pris­ing that in Decem­ber 1980 The New York Times ran the head­line, “Many Young Women Now Say They’d Pick Fam­i­ly Over Career,” par­tic­u­lar­ly when employ­ment fig­ures show that by “1984, 59 per­cent of mar­ried moth­ers worked …[and] 46.8 per­cent of moth­ers with a child under one worked.  Black mar­ried moth­ers were even more like­ly to be in the labor force than their white coun­ter­parts” (Dou­glas and Michaels 56).  With noth­ing oth­er than the opin­ion of one woman, Mary Anne Cit­ri­no, a Senior at Prince­ton, who told The New York Times that “when she mar­ries and has her chil­dren … she plans to quit what­ev­er job she has for eight years to become a full-time moth­er” (Kleiman 1), the arti­cle assert­ed the following:

She is not alone. At a time when young women have more job oppor­tu­ni­ties and chances for advance­ment than ever, many of them now in col­lege appear to be chal­leng­ing the val­ues of their pre­de­ces­sors. They are ques­tion­ing whether a career is more impor­tant than hav­ing chil­dren and car­ing for them per­son­al­ly. (Kleiman 1)

The report insti­gat­ed a few sim­i­lar sto­ries, but this reportage died down until mid­way through the 1980s when anoth­er news report sur­faced that seemed to con­firm the sen­ti­ments of the New York Times mis­sive. Pro­mul­gat­ed by for­mer adver­tis­ing exec­u­tive Faith Pop­corn, the idea that women were aban­don­ing careers post-child­birth and choos­ing “nest­ing” or “cocoon­ing” over work­ing out­side the home gained pop­u­lar­i­ty.  Based on lit­tle evi­dence, apart from the “improv­ing sales of ‘mom foods’, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of ‘big com­fort­able chairs’, the rat­ings of the Cos­by show, and one sta­tis­tic” that “a third of all the female MBA [Mas­ter of Busi­ness Administration]s of 197[6]” had already returned home (qtd in Falu­di, Back­lash 109), and Popcorn’s pre­dic­tion that women were aban­don­ing the office quite quick­ly became report­ed as the lat­est trend.

Famil­iar as we are with trend report­ing it is worth re-re-vis­it­ing the notion as it goes hand-in-hand with the way the mom­my wars have been writ­ten about in both the British and Amer­i­can press. Trend jour­nal­ism “attains author­i­ty not through actu­al report­ing but through the pow­er of rep­e­ti­tion. Said enough times, any­thing can be made to seem true” (Falu­di, Back­lash 104). For exam­ple, Popcorn’s MBA fig­ure was tak­en from a 1986 For­tune cov­er sto­ry called “Why Women Man­agers are Bail­ing Out,” a sto­ry based on the “cock­tail chat­ter” of a cou­ple of female grad­u­ates who were over­heard talk­ing about their inten­tion to stay home and look after their babies. The sto­ry even­tu­al­ly went to print claim­ing that “After ten years, sig­nif­i­cant­ly more women than men dropped off the man­age­ment track” (qtd. in Falu­di, Back­lash 111). For­tune’s senior reporter Alex Tay­lor III neglect­ed to report, how­ev­er, that 10 years after grad­u­a­tion “vir­tu­al­ly the same pro­por­tion of women and men were still work­ing for [the same] employ­ers” (qtd. in Falu­di, Back­lash 110-111) and that even if 30 per cent of 1,039 women from the Class of ‘76 had dropped off the man­age­ment track, so had 21 per cent of the men. Taylor’s “sig­nif­i­cant­ly more women” boiled down to very few, and giv­en that women still bear most of the respon­si­bil­i­ty for child­care, the big news sure­ly should be that the employ­ment gap was so small.

Fast­for­ward to 2001 and both Amer­i­can and British par­ents were hor­ri­fied by news­pa­per reports of new US research, endorsed by a UK pro­fes­sor, argu­ing that even if par­ents chose very high qual­i­ty child­care, it would be detri­men­tal to children’s devel­op­ment (Sum­mer­skill and Hel­more).  The study involved only 1,300 chil­dren, but it caused enough of a furore in both British and Amer­i­can news­pa­pers for one tabloid to pro­claim that the “Mom­my Wars” had bro­ken out on both sides of the Atlantic. Two years lat­er and, accord­ing to Falu­di, the shock­waves of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Cen­tre meant that Amer­i­ca had become enfold­ed in an “era of neo­fifties nuclear fam­i­ly ‘togeth­er­ness,’ redo­mes­ti­cat­ed fem­i­nin­i­ty, and recon­sti­tut­ed Cold War­rior man­hood” (The Ter­ror Dream 4); a per­fect land­scape in which to re-ani­mate the thorny old issue of whether women should stay at home and look after their chil­dren or con­tin­ue to work in high-pres­sure careers. The New York Times, with a his­to­ry of this kind of report­ing, was quick to pub­lish “The Opt-Out Rev­o­lu­tion,” which spoke of the pres­sures felt by moth­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry and like the women inter­viewed for their 1980 arti­cle, fea­tured a select group of well edu­cat­ed women (Belkin).  Each had received first degrees from Prince­ton and some had gone on to Colum­bia and Har­vard and yet, like the women in the arti­cle 23 years pre­vi­ous­ly, once chil­dren came along all of these women had decid­ed to “opt-out” of high-fly­ing careers in order to stay home.   Jour­nal­ist Lin­da Belkin may assert that this is not how it should have been and that the gains of sec­ond wave fem­i­nism should have meant that women become equal part­ners in law firms, heads of busi­ness, and deans and Vice-Chan­cel­lors of Uni­ver­si­ties, but on the evi­dence of the women inter­viewed for this arti­cle, once they had reached a cer­tain point in their career, no mat­ter how long they had left it to have chil­dren and how good their careers had been, women seemed to stall.

There was an over­whelm­ing response to the sto­ry. So many “let­ters to the edi­tor” were received that for the first time in its his­to­ry, the paper ran the respons­es over a num­ber of weeks.[2] Could it real­ly be true that anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of women were reject­ing the work­place as if it was a real option?  Even if third-wave fem­i­nism told us that equal­i­ty and “girl pow­er” was all about choice, sure­ly there needs to be some kind of an acknowl­edge­ment that this is a choice that is his­tor­i­cal­ly born out of priv­i­lege and not one that many twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry fam­i­lies can actu­al­ly afford to choose, espe­cial­ly as the econ­o­my fal­ters and more and more moth­ers must work.  In keep­ing with the tenets of trend jour­nal­ism, the “trend” that Belkin iden­ti­fied in her arti­cle was based on the com­ments of only eight Ivy League women, and despite her sta­tis­tics about how many women grad­u­at­ed in 2003 (the num­bers are unsur­pris­ing­ly up on 40 years ago), and even though she takes care to out­line work done by social sci­en­tists on “how the work­place has failed women,” the relent­less thrust of the arti­cle focus­es on how women are “choos­ing” to stay home after child­birth and “opt­ing out” of the workplace.

At least, this is what we are led to believe. Going back to the issues under­ly­ing trend jour­nal­ism, it should be not­ed that the prob­lem not only lies in the “spin” giv­en to sta­tis­ti­cal evi­dence but the way, Falu­di argues, that “[a] trend declared in one pub­li­ca­tion sets off a chain reac­tion, as the rest of the media scram­ble to get the sto­ry too. The light­ning speed at which these mes­sages spread has less to do with the accu­ra­cy of the trend than with jour­nal­ists’ propen­si­ty to repeat one anoth­er” (Back­lash 104).

It is fair­ly safe to say that the idea of pro­fes­sion­al moth­ers “opt­ing out” of the work­place was stoked by the tone of the first few para­graphs of the “Opt-Out Rev­o­lu­tion.” Towards the end of the arti­cle Belkin goes into detail about the com­plex­i­ty of women’s choic­es, how they are not set in stone, and how moth­ers most often have to per­form a jug­gling act between home and work-life. In fact, rather than focus­ing on the dif­fer­ences between stay-at-home moth­ers and work­ing ones, the arti­cle clear­ly artic­u­lates the real prob­lem under­ly­ing women’s choic­es as to whether they would pre­fer to stay-at-home or work post childbirth—the lack of avail­able mater­ni­ty ben­e­fits and afford­able child­care. It was not long before the Amer­i­can media jumped on the “opt-out” band­wag­on and ran a great num­ber of sto­ries that not only sup­port­ed Belkin’s claims, but also empha­sized the alleged antag­o­nisms between stay-at-home and work­ing moth­ers. Sep­tem­ber 2005 and The New York Times added fuel to the fire with anoth­er sto­ry claim­ing that women at elite col­leges were reject­ing careers and choos­ing stay-at-home moth­er­hood.  The media focus on moth­ers reject­ing good careers and embrac­ing stay-at-home moth­er­hood per­sist­ed and trans­mo­gri­fied into yet more sto­ries about a full-out war between stay-at-home moth­ers and work­ing ones.

In March 2010 it appeared as if the British media was set to go down the same route as The Observ­er’s Lucy Cavendish who, writ­ing from the view­point of a “self-con­fessed ‘slack moth­er,’” report­ed “from the front­line on why moth­er­hood has become such a hot top­ic.” Cavendish argued that past moth­er­ing choic­es had been sim­pler. “Upper-class moth­ers farmed their chil­dren out.  Work­ing-class moth­ers took them in.” There was no pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the health or hap­pi­ness of chil­dren as they were “seen and not heard” and only since the Sec­ond World War had we become so obsessed with our children’s health and hap­pi­ness that we hold moth­ers to account for their offspring’s psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being. Indeed, for Cavendish, moth­er­ing has become  “one of the most con­tentious issues around.” She illus­trates this as follows:

Work­ing moth­ers can’t stand stay-at-home moth­ers; old­er ones think their younger ver­sions are too overindul­gent. Those who choose not to have chil­dren are mil­i­tant about those who end up hav­ing four or more. Hot­hous­ing moth­ers       with their end­less Kumon maths class­es look down on the more laid-back ones who think chil­dren should do what they want, when they want.

As a result, accord­ing to Cavendish “there’s a war out there.”  This is exac­er­bat­ed by the fact that “work­ing moth­ers … spend most of their lives in a state of mis­er­able guilt” looked down upon by a soci­ety that con­tin­ues to laud “tra­di­tion­al” fam­i­ly group­ings in which the moth­er stays at home and the father is the breadwinner.

News­pa­per reports were begin­ning to sound depress­ing­ly famil­iar. For every sto­ry inform­ing us that “[c]hildren of work­ing moth­ers tend to have a less healthy lifestyle” (Hope), there is one reas­sur­ing us that “moth­ers can go back to work months after the birth of their child with­out the baby’s well­be­ing suf­fer­ing as a result” (McVeigh and  Asthana). And the man­ner in which the press spins these reports has an increas­ing­ly neg­a­tive effect on moth­ers who, accord­ing to Cavendish, use them to jus­ti­fy their own moth­er­ing choic­es, adding fuel to the fire of the media’s mom­my wars.  Accord­ing to fam­i­ly ther­a­pist, Suzanne Fleet­wood: “There is a com­pet­i­tive streak in this gen­er­a­tion of mid­dle-class par­ents … many women have giv­en up high­ly paid jobs to look after their chil­dren, and so their child becomes their job” (qtd. in Cavendish).  One of the prob­lems with this kind of high­ly com­pet­i­tive mothering—in today’s cul­ture where moth­ers are held to account for their children’s psy­cho­log­i­cal happiness—is that “if the moth­er is deemed as doing a ‘good job’, then all of her frus­tra­tion at giv­ing up the pow­er she held … is worth it.  If, how­ev­er, her child turns out to be not very bright … then her frag­ile con­fi­dence will be shat­tered” (qtd. in Cavendish).

The not-so-hidden Agenda

This may well be true but it does not explain how news­pa­per head­lines about choic­es made by women become trans­lat­ed into an out­right rejec­tion of fem­i­nism and a war between moth­ers. This issue is made clear in Miri­am Peskowitz”s 2005 pub­li­ca­tion The Truth Behind the Mom­my Wars in which she argues that the mom­my wars have turned moth­er­hood into an iden­ti­ty issue and that this focus on “choice” “diminish[es] the par­ent prob­lem by express­ing it in the triv­ial terms of cat­fights” (6). No one even ques­tions the gen­der bias that is rein­forced in every news report inter­ro­gat­ing the effect work­ing moth­ers have on their chil­dren while dis­re­gard­ing the role fathers may play. For Peskowitz, there is some­thing deplorable at the core of the media’s mom­my wars as she argues that “[f]ar from help­ing us under­stand the social and polit­i­cal stakes of moth­er­hood, the media’s Mom­my Wars … transform[ed] par­ent­ing into a style war” (6). More­o­ev­er, it is a style war that has obscured the real issues fac­ing work­ing mothers—like those of the gen­der pay gap, the pro­hib­i­tive cost of reli­able child­care, and the con­tin­ued reliance on women to not only look after the chil­dren, but to pro­vide the major­i­ty of domes­tic sup­port as well. A sta­tis­tic evi­denced by a 2002 study by Phyl­lis Moen, direc­tor of the Cor­nell Employ­ment and Fam­i­ly Careers Insti­tute, puts the expe­ri­ences of fam­i­lies into a wider con­text. Out of 1,000 mar­ried mid­dle-class fam­i­lies sur­veyed, 40 per­cent had fall­en back into the “neo-tra­di­tion­al” work­ing pat­tern of moth­ers either stay­ing at home with their chil­dren or work­ing part-time and fathers tak­ing the role of bread­win­ner. How­ev­er, this is not because women nec­es­sar­i­ly want­ed to leave their jobs once their chil­dren came along, but because, “Par­ents are at odds with the work­place, and moth­ers are bear­ing the brunt of this mis­match” (Peskowitz 70).  In fact, as Peskowitz argues, “today’s work­place makes it increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult for two peo­ple who are real­ly com­mit­ted to their jobs to also raise a fam­i­ly” (71).

The Observ­er’s polit­i­cal edi­tor, Gaby Hinsliff, amply demon­strates this point. Hinsliff gave up her high­ly pres­surised role as a jour­nal­ist after giv­ing birth to her first child. This was less about a choice than it was about the impos­si­bil­i­ty of com­bin­ing two equal­ly demand­ing roles. Hinsliff`s account is illu­mi­nat­ing, as she writes: “Sur­ren­der steals up on the work­ing moth­er like hypother­mia takes a strand­ed climber: the chill deep­ens day by day, dis­ori­en­ta­tion sets in, and before you know it you are gone.” Her arti­cle makes it clear that she did not feel that she had made a free choice to give up her full-time job, or one based on a need to spend 24-hours a day with her child, but a Hobson’s choice made with­in the con­straints of a sys­tem that “pulls fathers into the ide­al work­er role and moth­ers into lives framed around care­giv­ing.” It is a sen­ti­ment shared by the Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Law, Joan C Williams, who argues that the per­sis­tent gen­dered wage gap exists because the struc­ture of the work­place per­pet­u­ates the eco­nom­ic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of those car­ing for oth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly moth­ers.  In fact, for Williams, the organ­i­sa­tion of the mar­ket place and fam­i­ly work leaves women with only two options:

They can per­form as ide­al work­ers with­out the flow of fam­i­ly work and oth­er priv­i­leges male ide­al work­ers enjoy. That is not equal­i­ty. Or they can take dead-end mom­my-track jobs or “women’s work.” That is not equal­i­ty either. A sys­tem that allows only these two alter­na­tives is one that dis­crim­i­nates against women. (39)

We would do well to heed the words of Williams when she tells us that one of the main prob­lems fac­ing post-fem­i­nist women this cen­tu­ry is  “less about the obsta­cles faced by women than […] about the obsta­cles faced by moth­ers” (qtd. in Belkin). It is a point well made and high­light­ed in every news report about smart, inde­pen­dent women “choos­ing” to walk away from their careers after childbirth.

The spin in the tale

The Observ­er’s 2001 arti­cle warned read­ers not to pan­ic about sto­ries regard­ing the pos­si­ble detri­men­tal effect of child­care on their chil­dren as authors Sum­mer­skill and Hel­more argue that “the research trum­pet­ed around the world might not be right”.  The sto­ry behind the sto­ry was that fig­ures are “spun” to accom­mo­date the views of jour­nal­ists, politi­cians, and cul­tur­al com­men­ta­tors alike.  It seems that even aca­d­e­mics are not above adding an inflec­tion of their own as many of the co-researchers involved in this par­tic­u­lar study quick­ly dis­tanced them­selves from Pro­fes­sor Jay Bel­sky, the Birk­beck aca­d­e­m­ic who endorsed its find­ings. Sum­mer­skill and Hel­more argue that this is “not the first time that mil­lions of par­ents have been ter­ri­fied by claims from appar­ent­ly rep­utable researchers,” but there is some sur­prise that this time it is a respect­ed aca­d­e­m­ic that has “hijacked” the sto­ry and inter­pret­ed the find­ings “in a way that will advance his anti-child­care agen­da”.  Lead­ing sta­tis­ti­cian on the study, Mar­garet Burchi­nal, goes so far as to say that “Bel­sky inter­prets the find­ings very dif­fer­ent­ly from us … Our results do not actu­al­ly sup­port his con­clu­sions” (qtd. in Sum­mer­skill and Hel­more.).  This is a state­ment that should have served as a warn­ing in the ensu­ing decade of “mom­my wars” inspired news­pa­per reports and more par­tic­u­lar­ly in the light of the direc­tor of Day­care Trust, Stephen Burke’s, reas­sur­ance that “based on evi­dence in this coun­try, … good qual­i­ty child­care has ben­e­fits for chil­dren, not just in terms of learn­ing, but in terms of pos­i­tive behav­iour” (qtd in Sum­mer­skill and Helmore).

Back in April 2007 The Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished an arti­cle reveal­ing that “The bal­ly­hooed Mom­my Wars exist main­ly in the minds—and the mar­ket­ing machines— of the media and pub­lish­ing indus­try, which have been churn­ing out mom vs. mom news flash­es since, believe it or not, the 1950s” (Graff).  The sto­ry argues that despite claims to the con­trary, “75 per­cent of moth­ers with school-age chil­dren are on the job. Most work because they have to. And most of their stay-at-home peers don’t hold it against them” (Graff).  The Wash­ing­ton Post went even fur­ther, how­ev­er. They exposed yet anoth­er agen­da behind the mom­my wars, reveal­ing that bat­tle­ground ter­mi­nol­o­gy, which has noth­ing to do with moth­er­ing, was being delib­er­ate­ly used to manip­u­late read­ers into buy­ing news­pa­pers. Accord­ing to E. J. Graff, “every­one knows that a war, any war, is good for the news busi­ness,” and for author Caryl Rivers, the addi­tion­al turn of the screw is that it is well known that “mid­dle and upper-mid­dle class women are a demo­graph­ic that responds well to anxiety”(qtd in Graff).  With this in mind, it is easy to see how telling women “that work­ing will dam­age their mar­riages, harm their health and ruin their chil­dren” encour­ages them to “buy your mag­a­zine, click on your Web site, blog about your episode and write end­less let­ters to the edi­tor” (qtd in Graffn. pag.).

The Wash­ing­ton Post may well argue that the mom­my wars were just a cyn­i­cal ploy to sell news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, and books, but the truth is that it also suc­cess­ful­ly dis­tract­ed moth­ers from the real issues at stake.  This fact had been exposed in 2001 by The Observ­er when Stephen Burke stat­ed that research like that prop­a­gat­ed by Bel­sky not only caus­es par­ents to wor­ry about the choic­es they are mak­ing, but he also went on to explain the following:

[It] can be used to pro­mote an agen­da which con­tra­dicts the real­i­ty of women with young chil­dren play­ing a big­ger and big­ger role in the work­place.  It would be far bet­ter to pro­vide afford­able child­care which enables them to do their job and give their chil­dren a good start in life. This issue is about deal­ing with the real­i­ty of life today rather than some fic­tion­al world of yes­ter­year (qtd in Sum­mer­skill and Helmore).

It is a point well made, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the light of dif­fer­ences between British and Amer­i­can mater­ni­ty ben­e­fits.   In Britain women are eli­gi­ble for up to 52 weeks mater­ni­ty leave, and either eli­gi­ble for Statu­to­ry Mater­ni­ty Pay for a max­i­mum of 39 weeks or Mater­ni­ty Allowance of £136.78 per week (or 90% of the aver­age week­ly earn­ings – whichev­er is low­er) for up to 39 weeks.  We may well pay more for child­care than the rest of Europe but British moth­ers still do well com­pared to Amer­i­ca, which has the worst mater­ni­ty ben­e­fits in the West­ern world with no paid leave for moth­ers in any seg­ment of the work force and only 12 weeks unpaid leave in com­pa­nies with 50 or more employ­ees. In fact, America’s mater­ni­ty allowance is so poor that it is in the com­pa­ny of only 3 oth­er nations worldwide—Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swazi­land.  And yet despite this, both Amer­i­can and British moth­ers work because, like the major­i­ty of women with chil­dren, they can­not afford not to. Even with­out the dev­as­tat­ing effects of the recent glob­al reces­sion, as Coontz notes, “More than one-third of all two par­ent fam­i­lies today would be poor if both par­ents did not work” (260).   While there are, of course, women who do vol­un­tar­i­ly choose to stay at home after child­birth and make all kinds of sac­ri­fices in order to bring up their chil­dren (and this paper is not a crit­i­cism of that choice), it should be clear that the rhetoric of choice used by the mom­my-wars reports does lit­tle to expose the con­straints placed on women that need to work after child­birth, or indeed choose to go back into the labour mar­ket, and the lived real­i­ties behind those decisions.

Conclusion: Part 1

On 8 March 2012, Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day, the achieve­ments of women and the equal­i­ty they enjoy in the work­place and soci­ety should have been cel­e­brat­ed.  The day began depress­ing­ly, how­ev­er, with Pol­ly Toynbee’s col­umn in The Guardian con­firm­ing that women’s rights are slow­ly being erod­ed not only here, but also in Amer­i­ca.  Accord­ing to Toyn­bee, “Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day marks the first era in liv­ing mem­o­ry that the equal­i­ty dri­ve has gone into reverse” (‘Calm down dears?”)—a claim con­firmed by lead­ing British equal oppor­tu­ni­ties cam­paign­er The Faw­cett Soci­ety.  The gen­der pay gap may have been report­ed as nar­row­ing to 10 per cent in Britain, but this is only for women in their twen­ties. When it comes to British women with chil­dren that pay gap remains huge at 21 per cent (Thomas). Even if the pay gap has shrunk to only 10 per cent, should we real­ly be cel­e­brat­ing being val­ued 10 per cent less than our male coun­ter­parts and when it comes to women with chil­dren, 21 per cent less? In bald terms, for every £100 that a man earns, moth­ers are paid £79.  If one adds to this the increase in child­care costs in Britain and the cut in child­care cred­its under the lat­est aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, it is clear that British moth­ers are suf­fer­ing eco­nom­i­cal­ly. Sin­gle moth­ers are dis­crim­i­nat­ed against even more by los­ing child­care “ser­vices equiv­a­lent to 18.5 [per cent] of their income” (Asthana) while, at the same time being paid even less than their male counterparts—£194.4 com­pared to £346 for men (Faw­cett Soci­ety 2011).

Fig­ures show that there are still an esti­mat­ed 30,000 women a year los­ing their jobs as a result of preg­nan­cy in Britain (Faw­cett Soci­ety). Women with chil­dren are increas­ing­ly find­ing them­selves at the receiv­ing end of law break­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion with “more than a third of bosses—38 per cent—worry[ing] that moth­ers will not work as hard as oth­ers and admit­ting to not employ­ing them” (Doughty). Does it not then seem disin­gen­u­ous for fam­i­ly expert Jill Kir­by, writ­ing for the Cen­tre for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies (the think tank and advis­er to the British Con­ser­v­a­tive Gov­ern­ment), to argue that this “has noth­ing to do with dis­crim­i­na­tion,” but is due to “the fact that women become less com­mit­ted to the work­place at the point in their lives when they have chil­dren, … They want to spend more time with their chil­dren, and regard low­er pay as a trade-off for fam­i­ly time” (qtd. in Thomas). Under­ly­ing the mom­my wars and the end­less news­pa­per reports about whether women should work post-child­birth or not, is this notion of choice—a notion that is embraced by some in their need to feel empow­ered against wide­spread eco­nom­ic and work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion.  But this rhetoric of choice obscures the real eco­nom­ic facts con­fronting women and moth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the face of the recent glob­al reces­sion, the result­ing aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, and the his­toric gen­der­ing of child­care. The deci­sion to be a stay-at-home moth­er or a work­ing one is not black and white and not a choice for all as women strug­gle on unequal salaries, jug­gling bad­ly paid part-time work and fam­i­ly, and shoul­der­ing an unen­vi­able por­tion of domes­tic and child­care responsibilities.

In addi­tion, pol­i­cy deci­sions do not only impact on women and moth­ers, but on fam­i­lies and the future econ­o­my.  As more and more cou­ples delay start­ing a fam­i­ly and fam­i­lies increas­ing­ly choose to have few­er chil­dren, it will impact even more on an age­ing pop­u­la­tion that depends upon the younger gen­er­a­tion for sup­port. This fact is made clear by Toyn­bee when she states that fam­i­ly friend­ly poli­cies may be seen as lol­ly­pops for women vot­ers, but are, in fact, an eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty (“Calm down dear?”). Gov­ern­ments on both sides of the Atlantic would be wise not to ignore this as, accord­ing to Toyn­bee, “Mak­ing it easy for women to com­bine work and fam­i­ly is essen­tial for the nation’s stan­dard of liv­ing: babies are a long-term eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty too. Coun­tries that make com­bin­ing both easy, do best” ((“Calm down dear?”).

Conclusion: Part 2

March 2013 and it looked like the mom­my wars had leapt into action once again. Rush Lim­baugh, the right-wing host of the high­est-rat­ed and most lis­tened to talk-radio show in Amer­i­ca, used his plat­form to dis­par­age fem­i­nism and fem­i­nists (or, the fem­i­nazis, as he calls them) for hav­ing been wrong all these years. Limbaugh’s out­burst came direct­ly on the heels of the pub­li­ca­tion of a New York Mag­a­zine arti­cle claim­ing that fem­i­nists are turn­ing their backs on careers and inde­pen­dence once they have chil­dren (Miller).

Fig. 1

The Dai­ly Mail demon­strat­ed how trend report­ing is alive and well, only this time on a glob­al scale, when it ran a report on the New York Mag­a­zine sto­ry claim­ing that, “a new wave of fem­i­nists are giv­ing up their careers to stay at home because they WANT to” (“Rise of the Hap­py House­wife”).  This lat­est round was alleged­ly kicked off by the pub­li­ca­tion of Face­book COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and a MORE mag­a­zine poll, which strove to reveal the root cause of the mom­my wars.

Fig. 2

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, this lat­est round of report­ing obfus­cates many of the facts in an almost hys­ter­i­cal need to decry fem­i­nism and every­thing it stands for.  Although the New York Mag­a­zine makes clear that the mom­my wars con­tin­ue to be the domain of the priv­i­leged few that are eco­nom­i­cal­ly able to make a “choice,” this fact is skat­ed over in the sub­se­quent reports.  While not all of the stay-at-home moth­ers admit to fem­i­nism, nei­ther do they decry the move­ment, and yet, what is repeat­ed­ly empha­sised in these arti­cles is how women are turn­ing their backs on fem­i­nism as they eager­ly choose child­care over a career, as if fem­i­nism ever told women that look­ing after chil­dren was not part of the deal.

We need to be ever­more alert to what is being report­ed in the media and why. These “back to the home” news­pa­per reports depend upon a tra­di­tion of moth­er-cen­tred child­care, but it is clear that images of the “tra­di­tion­al” stay-at-home moth­er and bread­win­ner father ped­dled in the media come straight out of an ide­alised past. If it is true that the media has been in the throes of a post 9/11 reac­tion, a throw­back to Friedan’s fifties, “cocoon­ing our­selves in the cel­lu­loid chrysalis of the baby boom’s child­hood,” then it is easy to see how the notion of opt­ing out could seem so attrac­tive (Falu­di, The Ter­ror Dream 4). As appeal­ing as this Leace it to Beaver style dream seems, with its long­ing for clear­ly defined male and female roles and where women do not have to jug­gle mater­ni­ty leave and child­care with the relent­less demands of paid com­mer­cial work, we have to be clear that this is exact­ly what it is: nos­tal­gia for a bygone time when “unusu­al eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal align­ments” meant that fam­i­lies had real hope that their eco­nom­ic for­tunes would improve (Coontz 263). Even so, any nos­tal­gia for a tra­di­tion­al stay-at-home moth­er has to be based on inequal­i­ty and a loss of eco­nom­ic and soci­etal pow­er for women, how­ev­er much it is dressed up in the rhetoric of choice.

Image Notes

Fig. 1 Miller, Lisa. “The Retro Wife: Fem­i­nists who say they’re hav­ing it all – by choos­ing to stay home.” New York Mag­a­zine 17 Mar. 2013. 2 May 2013 <http://​nymag​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​s​/​r​e​t​r​o​-​w​i​f​e​-​2​0​1​3​-3/>.

Fig. 2 Dai­ly Mail Reporter, “Rise of the hap­py house­wife: How a new wave of fem­i­nists are giv­ing up their careers to stay at home because they WANT to.” Mail Online 18 Mar. 2012. 2 May 2013 <http://​www​.dai​ly​mail​.co​.uk/​f​e​m​a​i​l​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​-​2​2​9​5​2​3​6​/​R​i​s​e​-​h​a​p​p​y​-​h​o​u​s​e​w​i​f​e​-​H​o​w​-​n​e​w​-​w​a​v​e​-​f​e​m​i​n​i​s​t​s​-​g​i​v​i​n​g​-​c​a​r​e​e​r​s​-​s​t​a​y​-​h​o​m​e​-​W​A​N​T​-​t​o​.​h​tml>.

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[1] As Ali­son Woolf argues in The XX Fac­tor: How Work­ing Women are Cre­at­ing a New Soci­ety, this is truer than .ever in the 21st cen­tu­ry where pro­fes­sion­al or “career” women depend on paid child­care pro­vid­ed by their less well-edu­cat­ed and poor­er paid sisters.

[2] From two to four, depend­ing on which news­pa­per report is to be believed.

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