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Cease-fire for moms

Local advocacy group asks why mothers can't stop feuding and support one another's lifestyle choices

These women are sick of the ''Mommy Wars."

They've had enough with bickering over formula feeding, day care, cosleeping, and going back to work. They have no patience for mothers who deliver play-group lectures about how their way -- stay-at-home or full-time work -- is the only way.

Stop the guilt trips and playground mind games, says the 135-member Framingham chapter of the advocacy group, Mothers & More.

They have a new slogan: Why can't we just get along?

The chapter, one of 200 nationwide, is a mix of working and stay-at-home mothers who pride themselves on supporting everyone's choices. About 20 of them gathered a few weeks ago. The topic: Why do mothers snipe so much at other mothers?

For several hours, women talked about how they felt marginalized -- even ostracized -- for deciding to stay home full time with their toddlers. Others described feeling guilty and defensive about returning to work or just thinking about doing so.

Chapter leaders Kim Comatas and Julie Fokema say that such conflicts skirt the real problems -- stress, exhaustion, and workplaces inhospitable to mothers with young children.

''With the way women treat each other, we can't get to the next level, and we're all really working for the same thing," Comatas said.

That's the approach advocated by Miriam Peskowitz in her recent book, ''The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars."

''We turn inward because we still have very little external power," said Peskowitz, who gave up a tenured professorship to become a full-time mother. ''It's much easier to vent on the woman next door than call your local politician and ask, 'What are you doing for mothers and families right now?' "

Powerful media messages exacerbate the problem, said Mothers & More member Deb Aijo. Advertisers barrage mothers: Buy this educational toy or watch your toddler struggle in preschool. What's $350 for a stroller when your child's safety is at stake?

Pricey clothing and accessories are marketed to project maternal images, from fitness-obsessed ''yummy mummies" to Martha Stewart-esque ''domestic divas."

The upshot is that women feel pressured to live up to standards they can't possibly meet.

''It plays on our interior conflicts and plays on our anxieties," said Aijo, who moderated the discussion. ''It puts women on edge and makes money for corporate America. But we don't have to perpetuate it."

The Framingham women's call for unity is occurring as part of a national backlash against ''Perfect Madness" syndrome, named for the best-seller by Judith Warner that depicts affluent American mothers as anxious, guilt-ridden control freaks who treat child-rearing as a competitive sport.

But to work, or not to work, remains the most divisive issue.

''How can some moms stay home? Why is it that others, like me, so clearly cannot?" asks Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of the just-released essay collection, ''Mommy Wars."

''Do we all fight our own private battles about whether to work or stay at home? Does that explain why we're so bitchy to women who've made different choices?"

Some mothers are caught right in the middle -- wanting to work, but crippled by child-care problems or inflexible workplaces.

One Framingham member, Lisa Joy, said that a few years ago she worked out a part-time schedule for her marketing position that looked ''just perfect on paper."

But her infant daughter sustained seven ear infections over a six-month period, requiring frequent trips to the doctors and recovery time at home. Although she pulled more than her own weight by doing makeup work on her own time, Joy said her supervisors never valued her as much as co-workers who put in 9-to-5 face time.

''It was awful," Joy said. ''It came down to, what's my priority -- my sick child or my job?" She eventually quit.

''We really have to ask ourselves, 'Do the decisions we make really come about because of choice or because of an inability to combine work and motherhood?' " Aijo said.

Mothers & More recently launched a wide-ranging Mothers at Work campaign to highlight issues facing full-time at-home moms and those working outside the home. The National Organization for Women -- most commonly associated with employment and abortion rights -- has stepped up its work on child care issues and Social Security rights for at-home mothers.

Motherhood advocates got a boost this month when compensation specialists from the Waltham-based Salary.com released a study estimating that one of the nation's 5.6 million stay-at-home mothers of children younger than 15 would earn $134,121 annually if paid for her work as day-care teacher, housekeeper, cook, driver, janitor, and child psychologist. (A mother working outside the home would earn an extra $84,876 in addition to her regular wages for domestic duties, the survey stated.)

But those checks won't be in the mail anytime soon. Mothers will have to band together to demand paid parental leave and job protection, flexible work arrangements, prorated pay, better benefits for part-time workers, and more quality child care, Peskowitz said. ''That's how the 'Mommy Wars' finally end. We don't take it out on each other, and we ask for real social change."

Less fret, more fun
Along with its political agenda, the unity movement has a softer side.

Mothers should have more fun, less anxiety, and take time to develop their own hobbies and interests, said Devra Renner, coauthor of ''Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids."

It's a dramatic turnaround from the parenting pressure-cooker that practically demands children train for Ivy League careers beginning at birth.

''Parenting for pleasure can be such a joyful thing to do, but people don't think of it that way," Renner said in an interview. Parents have sunk into an anxious funk, worrying incessantly that their children will be failures in life. ''The reality is that Mozart and Einstein did not have [the videos] 'Baby Mozart' and 'Baby Einstein,' and they turned out OK."

This more lighthearted approach may be catching on. Dozens of women turned out last weekend in Ashland and Arlington to meet Amy Tiemann, author of ''Mojo Mom: Nurturing Yourself While Raising a Family."

''It's the first mom book I'd seen that addresses the loss of identity when you have a child," said Lisa Cerquiera of Watertown, a publicist for WGBH-TV and mother of a 3-year-old boy. ''Whatever your credentials and accomplishments were before, now [the world sees you] as just a mom."

Cerquiera, who saw Tiemann at Isis Maternity in Arlington, was impressed when the author asked the assembled mothers to complete the sentence, ''Before I had a child, I . . . "

''She really encourages people to focus on their own identities," Cerquiera said.

Carrie Duarte of Ashland didn't know about the book before Tiemann visited her public library, but had already made it a priority to keep up with her hobbies in the nine months since her daughter was born. A partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Boston, she manages to take piano lessons and join neighborhood friends for morning walks.

''I think it's important to focus on those things, too. Women are in all different places in their work-, home-life balance. We have to recognize that each person is trying to work it out for themselves."

Mothers & More member Sue McGrann, a Framingham mother of three and part-time physical therapist, confessed that she sees the group as a small gift to herself, a respite from taking care of everyone else's needs.

''I came thinking I'd maybe find a play group for my kids, but I came home and told my husband, 'This is my play group.' "

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

Guides to happier mothering

For more on motherhood today, check out these books and websites:

''The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want -- and What to Do About It" by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner (www.momsrising.org). What do moms want? Flexible hours, affordable health care, fair wages and high-quality child care.

''Mojo Mom: Nurturing Yourself While Raising a Family" by Amy Tiemann (www.mojomom.com). Why mothers should care for themselves as ardently as they care for their children.

''The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?" by Miriam Peskowitz (www.playgroundrevolution.com). Digging beneath the surface of the conflict between 21st-century feminist expectations and the age-old duties of motherhood.

''Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids" by Julie Bort, Aviva Pflock, and Devra Renner (www.parentopia.net). You decide if the book delivers on the title.

''Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute Of It" by Andrea J. Buchanan. Funny, honest memoir about adjusting to motherhood.

''The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting" by Christie Mellor. Lighthearted antidote to gloom-and-doom mothering how-to guides, with chapters like ''Bedtime: Is 5:30 Too Early?"

A website, www.mothersandmore.org. Mothers & More, an international advocacy organization for mothers.

ERICA NOONAN

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