Home vs. job: Are you fighting a losing battle?

With motherhood comes one of the toughest decisions of a woman’s life: stay at home or pursue a career? The dilemma not only divides mothers into hostile, defensive camps but pits individual mothers against themselves. Rather than just watch the battles rage, Leslie Morgan Steiner of The Washington Post decided to do something about it. She commissioned 26 outspoken mothers to write about their lives, their families and the choices that have worked for them. Steiner visited “Today” to discuss her book, “Mommy Wars.” Here’s an excerpt:

Our Inner Catfight A few months ago, I celebrated a friend’s fortieth birthday at the Sulgrave Club, an elegant old mansion in downtown Washington, D.C. Dressed in a vintage black cocktail dress from my mother-in-law’s party-girl days, I stood chatting with a neighbor, a mom like me who works part-time in news­paper and magazine publishing. I told her about my idea for a book exploring the tension and confusion between working and stay-at-home moms today.

Another neighbor, a stay-at-home mom whose kids go to school with mine, joined us. This woman is the head of the parent-teacher association at our public elementary school, as constant and welcoming a presence on the playground as a greeter at Wal-Mart. My friend, a former Washington Post reporter who makes her living posing provocative questions, asked our neighbor what she thought of my book idea. Specifically, what she thought of moms who work. Without breathing, the stay-at-home mom answered, “Oh, I feel so sorry for them.”

My cheeks flushed like a child with fever. Fortunately, the guest of honor turned on the microphone and started thank­ing her husband for the party, so I didn’t have to disguise my response. This woman felt sorry for me? For all the moms at our school who work to support their families, to show their kids that women can work, who work to change the world, who work to keep their sanity?

My reporter friend was watching me closely. “She doesn’t feel sorry for me or you,” she leaned over and whispered in my ear. “She feels sorry in theory for women who work. It’s why she doesn’t work. Because she imagines that if you work, you don’t have time for your children, your husband, life. She doesn’t know what it’s really like to work. Just like you and I don’t know what it’s really like to stay home full-time. That’s why you’re writing this book — so we can end this catfight.”

She’s right, that is why I created this book. Motherhood in America is fraught with defensiveness, infighting, ignorance, and judgment about what’s best for kids, family, and women — a true catfight among women who’d be far better off if we accepted and supported all good, if dis­parate, mothering choices. For years I struggled to end my own personal catfight over career and family balance — and I tussled mightily to stop myself from disparaging other women’s different solutions. I still strug­gle. Along the way, I’ve perplexedly watched working women transmog­rify into happy (and not so happy) stay-at-home moms, and seen others continue doggedly working, some happily and others with deepening re­sentment and anger over the drudgery and missed opportunities both at home and at work.

Nearly every week someone tells me how lucky I am — that I have the best of working and stay-at-home motherhood. Until two-thirty every day, I’m a working mom in the advertising department of The Washing­ton Post. Then I tear down the office stairs (late, always late), speed-walk home, rip off my business suit and pantyhose, and pull on yoga pants and my Merrell Jungle Slides just in time to grab our two-year-old and pick up the older kids from school. But the truth is I feel like a hybrid — neither working mom nor true stay-at-home mom.

I don’t understand moms who find happiness staying home all the time, without work and their own incomes (however large or small). I can’t fathom why some working moms stay stuck in too-demanding jobs or careers that they openly resent because of the quality (and quantity) time they miss with their kids. But what I know for certain, because I see it almost every day from each side of the battlefield, is that the two groups misunderstand and envy each other in the corrosive, fake-smiling way we women have perfected over the eons.

Before I tackle how this book came to be, let me explain my own choices. Three observations during childhood convinced me early on to combine work and motherhood:

  • I loved children madly and knew I wanted several of my own one day.
  • My father, a lawyer, was immeasurably rewarded for his work (he got to buy nice ties, choose whether or not our family went to Florida for spring break, decide when to divorce my mother, et cetera).
  • My mom, a Radcliffe graduate and one of the smartest women I know, sipped rum and Coke from a little glass starting at 5 P.M. every day, threw shoes at us from across the living room, and at times became unhinged by the frustrations of staying home rais­ing four children.

During my early childhood, I wore my mother’s unhappiness like an invisible cloak. I brought her handpicked daisies on May Day, tried to bring her breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day (she refused to stay put long enough), bought a trio of garish painted parrots for her birthday, cooked dinners and made my bed every day, brought home report cards filled with A’s, and took care of my youngest sister to lighten Mom’s child-care load. As I grew up, I abandoned my campaign to make her happy; I grew dismissive of her flaws and determined to never, ever, repeat the sacrifices that seemed to lead to her inescapable unhappiness as our mother.

Nothing was going to stop me, an optimistic Harvard student in the 1980s, from cherry-picking the best of my mom and dad’s worlds. My senior year, Judsen Culbreth, mother of two and editor in chief of Work­ing Mother magazine, spoke on campus about the benefits of working motherhood. “The most important factor in a child’s life is a happy mom,” she said. Her advice flashed like a traffic light turning green; work would be my Route 66 to happiness, freedom, and good mother­hood. I could and would have it all.

After graduating, I got a job in New York City at Seventeen maga­zine. My salary, though significantly less than a year’s college tuition, covered the rent on a shabby-chic basement apartment in Chelsea, the subway uptown to Seventeen’s offices, and five-dollar dinners at the In­dian and Israeli restaurants lining St. Marks Place. I was deliriously happy. School was out for good. I was finally working — and at a ridicu­lously fun, engaging job writing and editing a publication every woman in America has read at least once in her life.

After two years love intervened. I fell (hard) for a brilliant young man I met on the New York subway, a man from a welfare family who dreamed of blue-chip business success. I knew exactly where he could get it. In college I’d organized alumni reunions for Harvard Business School and met dozens of graduates at all stages of their careers. All of them seemed more in control of their lives than any other adults I knew. I se­cretly wanted to get an M.B.A. too, despite feeling like a traitor to my lit­erary ambitions. My lover figured this out and convinced me to leave the job and city I adored to run off to business school with him.

Despite my Ivy League background, in my world the feminine Holy Grail, no matter a woman’s IQ or accomplishments, was attracting men. As a child, I’d watched my mom in the space of one afternoon transform herself from a tear-stained, dirty-apron-clad wretch into a ravishing cocktail-party hostess in full makeup, gleaming black hair, and gorgeous halter dress greeting partners from my father’s law firm at our front door. Presenting a perfect front to the outside world of men clearly mattered tremendously. My primary quest had always been getting men to notice my legs, staying skinny, looking pretty at parties, in class, and on subway trains.

But I also craved economic independence. I simply did not want to be my mother. So I traded my glamorous, underpaid pink-collar publishing world for b-school.

Those first months I found myself dumbfounded by the academic mater­ial. I nearly broke down in accounting listening to professors discuss credits, debits, and accruals. The droves of former Wall Street analysts intimidated me to the point of muteness. What had I gotten myself into?

Toward Christmas, I went to New York with a study group to inter­view the founders of Wasserstein Perella, a renowned Wall Street invest­ment bank I’d never heard of. On the train back to campus, three men in suits sat next to me. One tried to start a conversation. The two others joined in the mindless pastime of “Who can pick her up first?,” a game I’d played with decreasing enthusiasm for over a decade. I was no more real to the men than a Playboy centerfold. The closest one asked where I was heading. “Business school,” I said.

I will never forget what happened next. The men sat up in unison, like marionettes. They leaned forward. One actually kicked me by accident. At once they dive-bombed me with questions. What did I think of the economy? Was a recession looming? Should they pull out of the stock market? Was it a good time to change jobs?

I held forth on the filthy commuter train, rattling off macroeconomic explanations that would have been gibberish to me three months earlier but sounded good now. When we arrived, the men hovered around me, wished me good luck. No one asked for my number. As I watched them go, a new cloak of equality settled over me. I’d become real. To my sur­prise, it felt good.

Would anyone understand my excitement? My mother? My Harvard classmates? My colleagues from Seventeen? I realized I already knew the women who understood — my female b-school classmates. I headed back to campus to find them. At that moment, like clay being hardened in a kiln, I joined the working-woman tribe.

A year later, I realized what I got in return. Before coming to business school, I’d married my subway lover. To my complete astonishment, this man who had worshipped me poured coffee grounds on my head one morning when I woke him too early. In a deserted corridor on campus he slapped me after I joined an all-male study group. Inside our Volkswagen he yanked the car keys out of the ignition as I drove sixty miles an hour down an interstate highway.

One December night during our second year he became so enraged following a discussion of where we were spending Christmas that he bar­ricaded me in our bedroom. He punched me, kicked me, shattered a wedding photo over my head, and strangled me until I blacked out. When I came to, I saw in his reddened eyes that my own husband was on the brink of killing me. A terrified neighbor pounded on our front door until his fists started splintering the wood. My husband fled just before the police showed up. Rather calmly, they told me they might find me dead the next time.

I loved my husband, even then. But I left him. I hired a divorce lawyer, borrowed money from my mom, changed the apartment locks, and started sleeping with a dresser blocking the bedroom door. My husband began stalking me on campus and at job interviews. At night he paced the street outside my apartment. I thought I might have to leave business school just a few months before earning my M.B.A.

Then my female classmates began calling, asking how I was. My mar­keting professor took me aside after class to tell me she’d survived an abusive relationship as a young woman. Groups of women paid for my lunches, surrounded me at parties, gave me rides to recruiting interviews, never let me walk home alone. Soon I had five great job offers, three of which were hundreds of miles from my ex. My women friends, along with my mom’s support and the wallop of an Ivy League M.B.A. degree, formed an underground railroad to safety and financial independence, far out of reach of my ex-husband’s anger.

At twenty-seven, in possession of both an M.B.A. diploma and a divorce decree, I tried to focus on work and rebuilding my personal life. The ca­reer part came pretty easily. Outside of work, I felt like a debt-ridden fallen woman. I never blamed myself for being beaten, but there was no denying that of the millions of single men in New York, I’d selected one of the sickest to be my supposed soul mate. Dating again felt like tiptoe­ing on cut glass, trying to put my foot on the shards that would hurt the least.

I still trusted men as a species. The problem was that in my determi­nation not to make the same mistake twice, I aimed a hot police search­light on every potential Romeo. Three years following my divorce, after many brief romantic fiascos, I started dating an investment banker whose blue eyes and happy-go-lucky ways made my heart pitch to my toenails. He never balanced his checkbook, wore a Malaysian sarong on the weekends, and shook off my first-marriage confessions with gentle curiosity.

After a year, he proposed in Prague at midnight on the steps of the Jan Hus monument in Old Town Square. He got down on one knee. Tears streamed down his face as he explained that I was the most wonderful woman he’d ever met.