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Mom Vs. Mom


MUSCLE MOMS: "The pressure to be thin is brutal," says a stay-at-home mom.

Which isn't to say the working moms are shirkers when it comes to pulling their weight. In a spasm of self-abnegation, they also volunteer to be the class rep or to chair the book fair. "I pushed being a supermom past where it should be," admits an investment banker who's the mother of two young children and has chaired her school's auction three years in a row. "I really clung to it in part to stay connected to other moms. It's easy otherwise to feel pretty isolated. You can't have coffee and walk the reservoir and go to yoga class.

"This year, they're trying to find someone else to chair the auction," she adds. "Still, I'm afraid to let it go. I don't want to not have friends at school."

However, when the working moms do enlist in school projects -- "If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person" is their mantra -- the controversies in which they find themselves embroiled only confirm their suspicions that full-time motherhood causes brain damage.

"There were all these moms who didn't work," says a working mom about a recent class-representative breakfast she attended. "And it was like they were discussing Bosnia when they were discussing which footnoting system their kids should be learning in sixth grade."

A surgeon with a busy practice remembers the marathon meetings that she, in an effort to do her school duty, was forced to attend to choose prizes for the school carnival. "It was a group of ten or fifteen women, and they were happy to spend two or three hours discussing what catalogue they should use and every nuance of these cheap little prizes," she complains. "I was willing to give it ten minutes of my time. After two meetings, I volunteered to run my own booth with my own prizes."

After working mothers at one school complained about the insensitive way the stay-at-home moms would conduct school business over late-morning kaffeeklatsches and elegant little lunches, the school ordered that such meetings should be held promptly after drop-off and no farther away than the coffee shop around the corner.

One might think the stay-at-home moms would have welcomed this effort at broadening their talent base. Not entirely. "A couple of working moms complained they can't make it -- which is ridiculous," says one stay-at-home mom. "They can make it. I think sometimes the mother isn't making enough effort with her boss or is afraid she won't look as serious if she asks."

This mother believes her working peers wouldn't have raised any protest a mere four or five years ago, that they've become more vocal and self-assertive as their ranks have swelled. "Schools are much more sensitive to the working-mother syndrome," she sighs. "That's what's changed. The schools have become much more politically correct."

None of this would probably much matter if the meetings were limited to picking door prizes. But what worries some working mothers is that while they're off in Phoenix or Palo Alto trying to soothe a difficult client, the stay-at-home moms are fixing the system in their kids' favor.

"You're not as connected to the school," the surgeon says. "You're not as familiar with who's the best teacher. Some of these mothers have made it their job to advocate every week for their child. As you get into high school, it can become pressuring teachers over a grade and planting themselves in the college-admissions office, demanding more face time."

An attorney with children in both public and private schools says that one of the things she found so refreshing about P.S. 6 was that it was virtually impossible to lobby the administration for preferential treatment. She recalls fondly when, at a parents assembly, a mother stood and challenged Carmen Farina, P.S. 6's formidable principal at the time, over a matter of Board of Ed policy.

"Carmen said, 'The Board of Ed said no money. This is the number of kids in the class; this is the amount of money. But things won't be changed for your child.' It was like she'd pulled out an Uzi. I liked that. At Dalton, they'd organize a committee to discuss it."

If the working moms detect an annoying level of smugness and a lack of self-examination among some of their nonworking sisters, perhaps it's because most stay-at-home mothers don't think of themselves as unemployed. Many have part-time jobs in careers such as real estate, public relations, and interior decorating. Besides, rare is the New York woman these days who didn't once have a job, and probably a rather stressful, responsible job, before she decided to make motherhood her career. In her mind, she's simply on extended sabbatical from the 9-to-5 world.

"I should be having a six-figure salary based on what I've done," boasts one stay-at-home lawyer who raised half a million dollars for her kid's school last year.

"I worked for twenty years," says a former special-events planner who currently lends her expertise to four high-profile charities in the city and the Hamptons. "All these not-for-profits get all this incredible talent from these women who used to be high-powered executives. That's why these charities are blockbusters. Any one of us could have a special-events company."

??$L side, according to one laid-back nonworking mother, is that some consider their children the cherries atop their careers. "There are mothers who rechannel their ambitions from the workplace onto their children," she says. "When you have these at-home mothers who are worrying about test scores and start micromanaging their kids' school careers, it's a recipe for disaster."

Part of the pressure on all moms, but especially those forced to juggle family and career, is that it's no longer considered acceptable to be a laissez-faire parent, as more than a few of our moms and dads were. Today, everyone sweats the details.

"There's pressure on everybody to be a supermom," says Shapiro. "You have 1-year-olds going to French lessons and 'Mommy & Me' classes before they can crawl. One has to feel one's getting it right, and it's impossible to feel you're getting it right."

Another mother revealed, as evidence that she'd done the right thing by abandoning her career, that she found a stolen $20 bill in her 8-year-old daughter's jeans. She exacted a confession and reprimanded her severely. "I thought, What if somebody else had washed her pants and not noticed? You're paying attention to every odd piece of crap that happens in their life." She does occasionally long for a little more excitement, like that of a fellow mom in her daughter's class who is half of a glamorous media couple. "She's got a glitterati life, yet she's never there for pickup.

"These are things I tell myself to make me feel better," she adds. "They didn't realize there was an assembly where the kids were doing their talent show. You can't get that back."

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