What’s missing in the ‘mummy wars’

NS March 29th, 2010

This article appeared in yesterday’s Observer magazine, about the so-called ‘mummy wars’ and why women are so critical of each others’ parenting choices. The journalist, Lucy Cavendish, makes the majority of us out to be guilt-ridden, shame-inducing, competitive bitches who stab each other in the back at any given opportunity in attempts at gross one-upmanship.

Mothers are each other’s nemeses, bickering among ourselves about our own particular style. Parenthood has become a fractured and fractious scene. 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.

Really? I can honestly say I’ve not seen this exhibited on a large scale. Sure, you get the odd control freak who has her kids enrolled in every class and activity under the sun and who loves to boast about their accomplishments, but I (and most of the other parents I know) just shrug it off as that mother’s particular brand of neurosis; after all, we all have one. Unless one’s self-confidence is so wrecked as to require the constant approval of every parent one comes into contact with, most mums just do the best we can and try to keep our noses out of other people’s business. Yes, there’s the odd twinge that says ‘Gee, am I doing it right?’ but that’s pressure we put on ourselves, not something that other mums made us feel. Can there really be that many women who feel like this?

Consequently, there’s a war out there. You may not see it, it may not kill you, but if you are a woman with children, you’ve had shots fired across your bows. I bet, like me, you’ve been questioned, taken apart, broken down, demoralised and criticised until you feel like crying.

If any ‘shots’ have been fired I either caught them and threw them right back at the offending person  so quickly that the dagger never pierced my armour of indifference or I’ve missed out on this ‘battlefield’ I’m meant to be dodging every day. I hate to break it to you Lucy, but using hunting references and telling us we’ve all been these predators’ prey won’t make it any more true for me. And the war clichés? Yawn. If I see one more bottle being wielded like a weapon by a woman wearing army fatigues, I may be induced to bash the unimaginative and collectively absurd media over the head with a weapon of my own choosing, though I suspect it will hurt a lot more than a rubber nipple would, and leave a much redder mark.

Justine Roberts, co-founder of Mumsnet (always held up as some magical portal into the ‘real world’ of parenting) is quoted extensively throughout the article and at one point she says:

“We are all trying to be ‘good mothers’ but sometimes we don’t feel we are doing very well at it. There is not a working mother alive who doesn’t feel pangs of guilt about leaving her children. There are probably very few stay-at-home mothers who don’t feel frustrated sometimes that they are not fulfilling themselves. It’s a culture of ‘having it all’ and yet very few of us can do this, which is why we get defensive about how we are seen as mothers.”

And then later, Lucy writes:

Every time I talk to another mother, they seem to be doing a better job of parenting. Their children play more sports than mine, they are academically more competent, they read books all the time, they are constantly on playdates, they are popular, witty, funny. Their mothers cook food from scratch, have coffee mornings with other mothers, help read in school, enrol them for extra tuition. I do none of this and it makes me feel useless.

At this point I would just like to say: Grow a pair! Stop feeling judged and just live your lives! It’s not that difficult to find judgment in every thing you do if you’re looking for it. Being hypersensitive to these slights and using them to ‘prove’ just how horrid and exclusive the other mummies are while you — dear, poor you! —  innocently attempt to peacefully co-exist with these pieces of work reeks a little of attention-seeking manipulation. Perhaps a big, fancy war in which two types of soldier (those on a mission to seek and destroy, and those there as peacekeepers) battle it out for the top accolade of Perfect Mum is a great way to keep one feeling important, hmm? Perhaps? Have a drink and think about it.

Finally, this nugget of information is imparted to us:

Why do we do this? Why do we criticise each other all the time? As Kate Figes points out: “When it comes to work-life balance, little has changed in 10 years. While the fact that many mothers want and need to continue working may be more accepted and talked about, practical support is thin on the ground. Few families can manage now without both parents earning a living. But it is the mothers who bear the brunt of this stress. Most would not want to have it any other way. They love being mothers to their children. But their expectations are still shaped by stereotypical notions of how ‘good’ mothers ought to behave and they strive to be perfect in both roles (as worker and mother), which in turn takes its toll on their sense of self and well-being.”

What kind of crap reporting is THAT? No follow-up, no further probing, not even a cursory investigation into why it might be that women have all this stress to be so ‘perfect’ and to ‘have it all’; no mention of the children’s fathers, social expectations, traditional gender roles or the capitalistic system that requires two incomes but few accommodations for childrearing. Absolutely no anger that, 40 years after the previous generation fought to get us some basic rights, we are still stuck at an infuriatingly unfulfilling crossroads of Self and Mother, where the only choices go off on divergent paths at right angles to one another instead of following a curve that can change and stretch and grow alongside our lives.

It amazes me, it really does. This is why feminism is not dead and why it can’t be laid aside. Can so many women truly not see how we have been pitted against each other by a patriarchy-constructed and media-peddled diversion that keeps us from paying attention to all of the ways in which the system and society still fail us? Have we been distracted that easily, lured in by breast-or-bottle debates and plastic toys vs. wooden?

We’re at war all right, but not with each other. So take that grenade of criticism you thought you just saw lobbed at the school gate by the mum who parents differently to you and throw it back where it really came from.

26 Responses to “What’s missing in the ‘mummy wars’”

  1. Lisa says:

    Damn straight.
    Lisa´s last blog ..On Not Giving A Damn My ComLuv Profile

    NS Reply:

    @Lisa, Glad you agree!

  2. Josie says:

    I completely agree. What scares me actually is that this feeling of criticism ISN’T for the most part coming from the outside. It’s coming from the inside. We are so insecure about our choices, about our roles and our ‘worth’ that everything externally seems to tap into that, leaving us feeling judged when actually WE’RE the person judging ourselves.

    At that leaves the question, what on earth are we doing to mother’s to make them feel like this? What kind of society are we that means that we devalue OURSELVES so much, even unconsciously? What’s making us feel like this?

    Making other mum’s out to be the enemy just feeds into that doubt and insecurity. Other mother’s aren’t the problem here, I’m really beginning to think that. It’s something else and something much bigger than a few arrogant mums at the school gates.
    Josie´s last blog ..Proud to be a MAD Blogger My ComLuv Profile

    NS Reply:

    @Josie, You’re absolutely right and that’s what I was trying to get across. What we often see as judgment from others is just our own paranoia and stress that we’re not doing it right. But a lot of that stress comes from much larger, more complex structures than a couple of mums at the school gates who like to comment on other people’s parenting methods.

  3. cartside says:

    Hear hear.
    And I also agree with Josie, that the pressure comes from the inside, not other mums (or dads). I’ve never felt criticised by other parents for my parenting choices and never criticised any parent for theirs. It’s all supportive and we’re rather careful to be sure not to be misunderstood as to be critical. So much so that sometimes a bit of discussion on parenting options is taking a short straw which is a shame.

    yet the real pressure is that of our current society, that is requiring women to be both nurturing mothers and high achieving career women. The new version of the Virgin Mary – Impossible to achieve, forever doomed to failure.

    NS Reply:

    @cartside, Yes, this idea of perfection we seem to have in our heads is not just realistic for 99% of people. And the thing is, even those who are doing everything in a ‘perfect’ or overachieving way probably feel insecure about the choices as well. Maybe they hear other parents’ mocking those who schedule their children’s activities every day and think, “Am I harming my children by organising activities for them? Should I chill out like the other mums? But what if that doesn’t work for our family, does that make me a bad mother? Why are they judging me?” It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or how ‘well’, there are always going to be doubts and insecurities because there’s so much pressure to get it ‘right’ when it comes to our children. It’s too much for any one person to bear.

  4. notSupermum says:

    I think mothers do tend to feel guilty if they don’t manage to ‘do it all’ and fit in with some idealist view of motherhood, and while that guilt does come from the inside it’s also from the continuous media bashing of mothers and their roles. As you say, father get off quite lightly, and manage to carry on as before by and large without criticism.

    Working women get it in the neck for working and having the audacity to have children, and the stay-at-home mum gets bashed for not working. A lose-lose situation if ever there was one. And don’t even get me started on the (mainly female) single parents who can’t win whatever we do.

    Feminism is misinterpreted by the people who want to show how badly women are doing. You want to have it all? they say, well stop complaining and get on with it. But of course, feminism is about choice. The ability to choose whether we work, stay at home or divorce feckless or abusive husbands.

    I think there is an element of mothers criticising each other, who hasn’t been subjected to the perfect mum who claims to have had all their children potty-trained at 12months and only cooks organic meals, etc. Personally I avoid that type of mum because I can’t, and don’t want to, compete. I’m the best mum I can be to my daughters, and I also work. Anything over and above that is great, but I’m not losing any sleep over it.

    Apologies if this is a bit of a ramble, this topic really gets my goat. Great post.
    notSupermum´s last blog ..Competition: Win a Deluxe Pamper Day! My ComLuv Profile

    NS Reply:

    @notSupermum, I completely agree with all of your points. And yes, ‘that mum’ does exist, the one who talks about how wonderful she and her children are and how early they reached every developmental milestone, etc.. but I’m certain that those claims and boasts come from a deep place of insecurity as well. I bet at least half of them don’t even realise they sound judgmental or that it’s hurtful and annoying to others. Maybe that’s all they feel proud of in their lives at the moment and are using that ‘accomplishment’ to make conversation or reach out to people, even if the end result is the complete opposite. I just feel sorry for those mothers most of the time. But yes, the odd truly horrendous, purposely snobby and hurtful woman does get through. I stay far, far away from her.

  5. Dara says:

    I am sooooo tired of the media harping on about the mommy wars. Yes, I do find other mothers to be judgmental and have engaged in some unfair judgments myself: the breastfeeders against the bottlefeeders, the waldorfs against the schedulers, the immunizers against the non-immunizers, etc.
    But these “fights” are always between two polarised camps and are fed by the polarised way parenting material and media are written (like the observer’s example). On the whole, looking at the whole mother, very few people will say “you’re a bad mother.” They may say “you’ve made the wrong choice there.”
    It is sad that as mother’s we are so insecure sometimes. It is a problem that our work is not valued like it once was. Or understood, even sometimes by other mothers.
    A while back I wrote a post about parents judging other parents and I tried to come up with all of the things I would be judged on. Most of them were silly – like letting my kids climb up the slide and going out without socks on. And yes, I have been judged for these things, suffered withering glances and cold shoulders. But there have been no shots fired!
    The things I have been judged on the harshest, with people insulting me and my intelligence in a “discussion” about my choices are those polarised issues. And I have to say I’m in both camps – I co-slept but I’ve also let me kids cry it out. I engaged in extended breastfeeding but I also force-weaned my middle child.
    I don’t think any mother, or parent, is truly in one “camp.” And if they are, trust me, something will happen and they will “cross over” even if just for a moment.
    Those moms that look all pulled together and have their kids scheduled in ten extracurriculars are often envying the moms who have time to just sit on a park bench cuddling their child. While the mom on the park bench is wondering why she can’t get it pulled together. Both love their children equally. Both are struggling with some of their choices and self-doubt. Neither is firing shots and neither feels truly inadequate, for if she did she’d take her children straight to children’s services and ask for some other care for them.
    The media loves to create controversy where there is none. That’s how they sell. And the mommy-wars has been a big money-machine for them.
    And once, again, a discussion on “parenting” that excludes all other caregivers and looks only at the moms. Yippee, we’ve come so far baby!

    NS Reply:

    @Dara, Great comment, thanks! I especially agree with your points that no person is entirely within one ‘camp’ (hate that word too!) and that each of us, no matter how we parent (Super-Scheduler or Benign Neglect, et al) are going to try and do a myriad of different methods until we find what works best for us and our children.

    And yes, it’s sick that the newspapers continue to hype up this ‘divide’ so gleefully and callously, with no regard for the harm it’s doing.

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mum4life, notSupermum. notSupermum said: RT @thenoblesavage: Do you feel judged by other parents? What's missing in the 'mummy wars'. http://bit.ly/9MtyBV [...]

  7. Mistress of Boogie says:

    I’m so sick of this! This whole idea that SAHM and working mothers hate each other is complete drivel in my experience because if there’s one thing all kind of mothers realise it’s how hard any kind of mothering is and that any type comes with its own rewards and down-sides. Whilst I have met mothers who will say ‘well, I think it’s important I stay at home full-time’ or ‘I think it’s important to show my children a working example’ I’ve yet to meet a mother who says either of those things with judgment – although looking at the other comments here, I’m starting to suspect this is only because I have a hide like a rhino! Sure, most of us think one way or the other is – in an ideal world – best (or dream of the days when we really can happily divide our time between the two without it simply amounting to two jobs), we’re all equally aware that other mothers can have equally valid different opinions. I know you’re not keen on ‘studies’, but you’ll like this one: studies have shown that there’s no quantifiable difference between ‘average’ parenting and ‘super-dooper’ parenting in terms of how your kids will turn out. The only type of parenting that does make a difference is active neglect (such as abuse of some kind) – i.e. massively crap parenting. Well, duh! I don’t know about you, but I’m too busy trying to retain my ‘average’ rating to spend time judging others!

    Of course, as with any ‘job’, there’s always one or two bad apples who are very dogmatic about parenting (who, as you say, are probably driven by insecurities which have little to do with what other mothers are doing or not), but the whole ‘mummy wars’ thing really is, by and large, a media-construct that has very little basis in reality. Eleanor Mills used it in a recent-ish article in the Sunday Times about maternity benefits, wherein she noted that the vitriol each type of mother threw at each other was ‘available on any mums’ forum you might care to visit’. So I did a quick search on Mumsnet and what was the first thing I found? A bunch of mothers discussing another article pitching mothers against each other and saying, without exception that I could see, how crap it was that the media was yet again trying to invent a divide between mothers. Any flying vitriol was entirely against this kind of article.

    http://mistressofboogie.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/the-sisterhood-is-costing-us-our-jobs/

    NS Reply:

    @Mistress of Boogie, Excellent post, thanks for the link! Your comment here was spot on as well.

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  9. Great post – I think one of the issues is the need some people have for continuous external verification so cannot just get on with living their life with their choices

    As a working Mum who has very few other working mum friends, I’ve always found my full time mum friends to be very understanding and there to be no battle lines drawn up between us – we accept we’re all women trying to do our best, just what’s best differs from one to another
    Muddling Along Mummy´s last blog ..I’m a Mummy but I’m a lot more too My ComLuv Profile

    NS Reply:

    @Muddling Along Mummy, Exactly. I really think it’s about that validation more than anything.

  10. Helen says:

    Excellent blog. I’m sure this is all dreamt up by the media who WANT this alleged war the same way they do with smokers vs non-smokers etc.

    I’ve never felt inadequate (apart from the rare occasional moment where it’s just been A Bad Day) and I’ve never stumbled into a battle in all the years I’ve had to dodge umbrellas in the playground. On ONE occasion another mother tried to make me feel like I was useless and in the end she offered an apology.

    I dislike the articles that you are referring to as the headline makes you want to read what you hope will be interesting yet they always turn out to be a half-hearted attempt at journalism (maybe they were close to their deadline and just bashed the keyboard in the hope something remotely intelligent came out).

    Would you mind if I put a link to this blog on my website? I found it via twitter and would like to share it with others.
    Helen´s last blog ..Twitter My ComLuv Profile

    NS Reply:

    @Helen, Hi Helen, yes, that’s absolutely fine. :)

  11. Blimey! I have to agree that going down a whole ‘war’ metaphor is a bit strong. Of course, there’s the usual feelings of guilt and am I doing this right – I think all mother’s feel this, but I’ve never had to dodge bullets or had hot tar thrown at me for not going to Gymboree. Each to their own, I say. Now, I must get back to my two year old who is struggling with a Chopin piece on the grand piano.
    Hot Cross Mum´s last blog ..The Delicious Mrs Hot Cross Mum: Cabin Fever My ComLuv Profile

    NS Reply:

    @Hot Cross Mum, Ha! That last line had me spluttering Diet Coke down my chin. :D

  12. Linda says:

    Fabulous post. I don’t feel guilty for going to work and never have. Why? because I um have to work and built up a company on my own terms. I certainly miss my daughters on the days I work but guilty for making a living, being able to welcome other mums into my company and lately welcome their dad to the team? No way.
    Linda´s last blog ..Why I’m backing the MADs – more celebration than competition My ComLuv Profile

  13. Nova says:

    Great post, food for thought there- from my experience of mothers who book their children into every lesson/club possible, there is a very competitive man pushing it.
    Great comments too.
    Thanks.
    Nova´s last blog ..The Plastic Joy Award My ComLuv Profile

  14. BoozleBox says:

    I honestly don’t know what planet some of these people are living on. It seems to me that Mumsnet et al (and blogs to some degree) are the only reason people think ‘Mummy Wars’ exist. It really is just the anonymity and the difficulty in communicating clearly online that causes all this bullshit. Face to face with other mums and it’s a whole different ballgame.

    I live in a fairly wealthy area and know alot of parents from a huge range of income brackets, working/not working, single/divorced etc etc. My friends exhibit a huge range of parenting behaviour but the only common factor in their approaches is the desire to do the best thing for their child – it’s not really about beating the Jones’ or winning a fictional competition.

    I’ve always received alot of help and support from fellow parents when I’ve needed it and I try an reciprocate when I can. Sure – I wouldn’t do the things some other parents do and vice versa but people have always judged each other to some extent in private surely? Judgement is not limited to mothers and parenting is it? Own your own choices I say and if you’ve got time to worry about what everyone else is doing then you need to get out more.

    And as the parent of an 11 year old I don’t need other mothers telling me I’m rubbish and doing it wrong – he’s quite happy to inform me of that himself!

  15. When I first started reading blogs is when I learned about the “Mommy Wars.” I admit it scared me. I thought, “Wow, are other mothers really judging me all the time??” I had no idea. Then I kept reading and waiting for something to happen and what I read never matched up with my experiences. Sure, I have friends who insist life is perfect, but they did that BEFORE they were mothers. All the other parents I’ve ever met have been frank, honest, and very supportive. The Mommy Wars exist entirely on paper (or 1′s and 0′s, as the case may be).

    And maybe those writers who (supposedly) are entrenched in these wars always felt embattled and victimized prior to motherhood as well. We never know how their lives went pre-parenthood, do we? Maybe they were writing about how college-educated woman were fighting amongst each other. You know, a Princeton v. Yale sort of thing. I don’t know…

    My point is, I agree with you. It’s bullshit, a red herring, inflammatory, and frankly, irresponsible for people to kick up shit that isn’t there. Mothers overwhelmingly support one another. It’s the media and writers who are trying to create controversy who cite otherwise.
    Jessica – This is Worthwhile´s last blog ..No day is an average day My ComLuv Profile

  16. geekymummy says:

    This drivel just keeps popping up doesn’t it?

    Maybe its a conspiracy by a male dominated media to keep women full of self doubt and blind them to the real problem. Men. Men don’t do enough to raise their children or keep their houses clean. They have had it too easy for too long. The game is up, we’re on to them, and they are valiantly trying to keep us at each others throats for a bit longer so they don’t have to give in, hand in the golf clubs and the season tickets and do their fair share of raising their families.

    Or maybe I’m over analyzing!

    PS. My husband is brilliant and is not included in this tirade.
    geekymummy´s last blog ..The view from my window My ComLuv Profile

  17. Delilah says:

    I think you do absolutely have a point here. To give Lucy some credit, she does allude to the fact that there are external pressures, quoting; “What we need, though, is real help – a family-friendly culture that gives us time and space to be good parents. This lack of flexi-working creates pressure and guilt.”

    But she does not expand on this, which I think is a real shame, and does not get to the heart of the matter. What she is talking about – this ‘competition’ and ‘war’ between mothers – probably does go on to a certain extent (she gives evidence of such in the article), but she does not explain that this is a consequence, as you say, of expectations and prejudices of society in general – beyond the sphere on mothers themselves. So it’s no good Lucy wittering on about mothers’ wars, because the real problem is what their employers/husbands/families expect of them and judge them for. And this makes them judge themselves and other mothers and to be unable to ‘stop feeling judged and just live their lives!’ as you would propose to them.
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