Ann approached another mother at a school function recently and happily introduced herself. Not only were their younger kids in kindergarten together, she explained, but their older sons played in the same weekend soccer league.
"She said, 'Oh,' and just walked away," Ann remembers. "That was it. 'Oh.' It was a school event. It wasn't like it was the steam room at Bliss where she was naked."
Ann is certain she knows why her fellow mom dissed her, if in fact she did. It has nothing to do with Ann's confusing on-again-off-again marriage, or the disparity in their net worths. (Ann is middle-class; the other woman is profoundly wealthy.) No, as far as Ann is concerned, the reason the other woman turned tail is that Ann works full-time. Her adversary, on the other hand, is a gloriously full-time stay-at-home mom -- with all the attendant benefits that implies not only to her youngsters but also to the life of the school. A stamp licker, an envelope stuffer, an active member of the parents association, a person who can always be counted on to bring not one but two or three dishes to the annual potluck dinner -- even if, as Ann suspects, she buys them at E.A.T. and passes them off as her own.
"In the school directory, you can see who has a job and who doesn't," Ann says, imagining the woman taking a black marker and banishing her to oblivion.
With all the world in strife, one might think the moms of New York would cut each another some slack. That our playgrounds, our schools, our schools' class cocktail parties would be a refuge for our better angels. That motherhood, in short, would serve as a safe house where civility and mutual respect rule. Think again.
Motherhood, for all its well-documented joys, has become a flash point for envy, resentment, and guilt. "Everybody struggles, and everybody envies what the other has," says the stay-at-home mother of a 9- and a 14-year-old. "The working mom wishes she had more free time to be available to her child, and maybe have coffee after drop-off. And the nonworking woman would maybe like to have something that's a reflection of her as an individual -- a label that says she's a capable, creative person who knows about more than just baby formula or after-school programs."
The anxiety seems to fall hardest, or at least most dramatically, on the shoulders of working moms. Two books published this month chronicle, with varying degrees of humor, their pain -- The Bitch in the House, an anthology of essays about work, motherhood, and marriage, and I Don't Know How She Does It, a novel by a British journalist, Allison Pearson -- and both are headed for the best-seller list. The working mother's plight is further exacerbated by the fact that they're no longer celebrated as the heroines of feminism they were back in the seventies and the eighties. Who cares about Having It All? Working has become deeply ordinary. "There's status to not working," observes the novelist Dani Shapiro. "In the last generation, there was status to working."
For some working moms, the disenchantment is doubled by the fact that in the current economic downturn, they went back to work not for the excitement or glory but simply for the money. The romance of accessorizing a Calvin Klein business suit and pumps with a T. Anthony briefcase is long gone.
On the other hand, it's not as if nonworking mothers are completely confident of the choices they've made, either. While their own mothers, who serve as their role models (whether positive or negative makes little difference), were hailed for staying home and raising their kids, their daughters were educated to help run the world. Those who have chosen to make a career of motherhood wonder whether the brilliant life that was dangled as their birthright is passing them by. Conversely, many of those who are running the world worry they're sacrificing their families on the altar of their own ambition.
Instead of directing their anger where it belongs -- say at corporate America's stingy, unpaid maternity leave and refusal to countenance flex-time -- working and nonworking moms are dividing into opposing camps and unleashing their resentment and suspicion on one another.
"If I was in a pinch, I'd only turn to another working mother," confides a journalist who is the mother of two young boys. "I'd never turn to a stay-at-home mom because she'd be able to lord it over me -- that I was failing as a mother. I wouldn't want to give any ammunition to the mother who doesn't work."
Shapiro recalls the "glaring resentment" she would encounter from stay-at-home moms as she arrived to pick up her son and his nanny from their local Brooklyn playground at 5 p.m: "A lot of families moved to Park Slope so that the women would not have to work. Lots of those women gave up their careers ambivalently. When I came in a suit and high-heeled boots, I felt I had a billboard over my head that said WORKING MOTHER."
"Nonworking mothers are much more judgmental of working mothers than vice versa," adds a TV executive. "Nonworking mothers assume they're better mothers because they've made the choice to stay home. A friend of mine once criticized our nanny and told me I should spend more time with my child. I didn't say anything, but I was furious; I would never have told her what I thought was wrong with her parenting skills."
"Women have all sorts of subtle ways to express their aggression," explains psychoanalyst Lucy Holmes. "If you were a working mother and called a nonworking mother and asked if your daughter can stay a little bit longer, she'll tell her friends you're a bad mother. It's human nature to feel a little envious. That enviousness is expressed by 'Can you believe she asked if her child can stay until seven o'clock?' "
The arena where these opposing camps most often tangle is their kids' schools. What especially galls the working moms is their belief, right or wrong, that the schools side with the stay-at-home moms. Those cooperative troupers seem to have endless amounts of time to hit up corporate sponsors for the goody bags at the annual fund-raiser, and they utter not a word of protest over the impracticality of late-morning parent-teacher conferences and helping out in the classroom.
Ann had one confrontation with her son's uncompromising homeroom teacher. "I couldn't take the day off to make Play-Doh sculptures," she recalls. "We were issuing warnings at work because the stock was in the tank. But she said, 'Every parent has to do one project.' I said, 'I'm not saying I won't do it, just not tomorrow.' It's not like I've got to get my nails done."
"They're really aggressive about you doing safety patrol," says another working mother, "without thinking what your life is like and if you're working. It's almost competitive, as if you're made to feel you're not giving enough to your child.
"Any spare time I have I want to spend with my children," she adds defiantly. "I have a 3-year-old. I don't want to start soliciting donations for the silent auction. I'd rather spend time with my little boy."