Mommy wars — a false battle

IN HER MUCH-DISCUSSED new book, “Mommy Wars,” Leslie Morgan Steiner likens the tensions between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers to “a catfight.” Personally, I think it’s more like dueling roosters: a cockfight.

In a classic ethnographic essay on Bali, anthropologist Clifford Geertz described the Balinese cockfight as a form of “deep play.” For the Balinese, Geertz argued, the “meaning” of cockfights went far beyond the surface conflict between the birds. Cockfights formed “a symbolic structure” that both reflected and affected every aspect of the Balinese social structure.

When you apply Geertz’s insights about deep play to the alleged mommy wars, the Balinese cockfight and the mommy wars have a lot in common.

Most obviously, both are staged. Cockfights involve a bunch of birds that basically want to be left alone while they peck at bugs in the dirt. Cockfighting aficionados tie metal spurs to the birds’ legs, put them in a ring and force them to fight while a group of bloodthirsty people stand around and cheer.

In the case of the mommy wars, it’s a similar story. “Mommy Wars” makes a nifty title, but as Steiner admits, the phrase suggests a false divide between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers. In reality, many mothers work part time, or work from home, or go back and forth between full-time paid employment and periods at home with the kids. Anyway, in contrast to cats, which fight of their own accord because they have nothing better to do, most mothers barely have time to manage their own lives — much less judge the lives of other women.

Still, if you inform a select group of women that there’s a catfight going on, then pay them to share their perspective on it, some of them will obediently tie spurs to their legs and start kicking. (The bloodthirsty audience is supplied by the morning TV talk shows.)

That’s not to say that mothers experience no important differences between staying at home and working. As Steiner’s book notes, many working mothers struggle with the stress that comes from playing dual roles — and the guilt that comes from seeing less of their children than they would like. Meanwhile, many stay-at-home moms struggle with feelings of isolation, exhaustion and irrelevance. Each pathway has both benefits and costs for the children. But whether one pathway is “better” is impossible to answer in the abstract.

Of course, just as cockfights don’t really have much to do with the choices made by the hapless fighting cocks, the mommy wars also have little to do with the choices women make. When it comes to the decision of whether to seek paid employment or stay home, most American mothers face virtually no choice at all.

Some mothers find that working makes no economic sense because the cost of commuting and child care would exceed their take-home pay. Most mothers face the opposite problem. Even if they want to spend more time with their children, their paychecks are the only thing that keeps food on the table. Women with the luxury of choosing are in the minority.

Yet as Steiner’s book makes clear, even this privileged group — whose stories are at the heart of the book — find that motherhood is no bed of roses. “Mommy Wars” contains essays by 26 mothers, most well educated and affluent. These are women with as many options as women can get in this world. Most came of age after the first wave of feminism and assumed that they would combine motherhood with a meaningful career — until their early aspirations collided agonizingly with the twin brick walls of the typical American workplace and typical American males.

Their bosses scowl when they ask for more child-friendly work arrangements. Their male colleagues have wives who handle snow days, birthday parties and children who throw up at 3 a.m. But with rare exceptions, their husbands are bewildered or resistant when asked to take on more of the child-care duties. In the end, exhaustion and frustration force most into choosing between family and career.

This is the book’s deep, painful message: When it comes to work and family, it’s still very much a man’s world.

Like the Balinese cockfight, the spectacle of the mommy wars tells us very little about how women feel about each other — but quite a lot about men, gender relations and the cold, corporate world of work.