We’re All Bystanders to the Sandberg-Mayer Mommy Wars

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Photo: Getty and Corbis

It seems like I’m exactly the sort of woman Sheryl Sandberg wants to “lean in.” I’m professionally hungry, under 40 years old, creative and entrepreneurial, with no kids or spouse, and I work in an industry (journalism) in which the upper echelon is male-dominated. But I’ve already decided Sandberg’s campaign isn’t for me. And after reading dozens of interviews and op-eds, reviewing her PowerPoint slides, and rewatching her TED talk (although, I admit, not having read her book yet), I’m clearly not alone. We’re already in the backlash-to-the-backlash, and the book isn’t even on sale until Monday.

The premise of Sandberg’s exhortation to “lean in” is that too many women do the opposite — they subtly pull back their work responsibilities in anticipation of getting hitched and having kids, or after the fact, and in doing so they undermine their chances at professional success before they’ve even hit their stride. Sandberg is not as tone deaf as has been charged; she repeatedly acknowledges that her advice is directed at privileged, professional women and admits that we need big policy changes, not just small consciousness-raising groups. So why all the vitriol? It’s because the conversation about Sandberg’s nascent “movement” has become yet another battle in the interminable mommy wars, a broad term for the ongoing fight about how women reconcile the demands of work and childrearing, and how those choices affect our collective equality.

Last year's annual mommy wars mega-flare-up was sparked by an Atlantic cover story by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who argued women still can’t “have it all” — which she defined as a successful career and children. This time around, outlets from the New York Times to the tech site PandoDaily have set up Sandberg as a foil to Slaughter (much to Slaughter’s chagrin), even though Sandberg bends over backwards to acknowledge how hard it is to be a working mom. “If you took out her caveats and provisos — that she respects stay-at-home mothers and knows she writes from the pinnacle of privilege and is aware her advice might not help a single mother in a minimum wage job and understands that many women don’t aspire to climb the corporate ladder and she doesn’t judge anyone, except probably Hitler — the book would be at least a quarter shorter, and a better read,” wrote Joan Walsh at Salon. Even the unmarried women in this discussion are still mothers: “Sandberg barely mentions the millions of single mothers in the workplace,” wrote Connie Schultz in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, Caitlin Flanagan argues at Time.com that Sandberg isn't paying enough attention to any moms: "In her view, staying home with children is simply a lifestyle choice, one that can be resisted by crafting a more attractive option in the workplace."

Last month, while many feminists were lambasting Sandberg, recently appointed Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines for eliminating her company’s work-from-home policies. It was instantly portrayed as an affront to working mothers. A male CEO may have come under some fire for making this decision, but likely would not have been called a hypocrite. Mayer, after all, is building a nursery adjacent to her office in order to care for both her newborn and her flagging tech giant. This was another fascinating debate, one that should have resonated with me as someone who works from home, yet it became mostly about motherhood. Here I’ll add some Sandberg-style caveats of my own: I know that most women, unlike me, want to become mothers, and that the dual demands of parenting and work have a disproportionately negative effect on them. U.S. work culture is highly unsupportive of parents, and I want that to change. But I’m sick of every conversation about women and work subtly morphing into a conversation about corporate-track moms.

This default has effects that reach far beyond the op-ed pages. Many corporations now strive for a veneer of family friendliness, so it’s not likely a woman will get the stink-eye for leaving early to catch her kid’s soccer game. Which is a feminist victory. But if a childless employee cops to the fact that she’s ducking out for a yoga class? It’s seen as downright indulgent and may even show up on a performance review. In interviews, Mayer has suggested that the professionally ambitious woman pick one thing — one thing! — that helps them unwind, and do it every week. (In other words, it’s okay to go to yoga, but only yoga.) I want all working women to have opportunities — and all working men to have life balance, too — but have caught myself thinking, why is it easier to ask me to work during my three-day weekend than it is to demand my co-worker check e-mail while on vacation with her kids? “Work-life balance” has become synonymous with “upper-class working moms,” and that’s a problem for everyone. 

Systemic solutions like more flexible family-leave policies and subsidized childcare would be game-changers for mommy warriors. But, ironically, when such policy solutions are on the table, the people on the front lines agitating for them aren’t professional-track mothers. They’re usually low-wage workers of all genders. Case in point: New York City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn is single-handedly blocking a bill that would ensure paid sick days for all workers in the city. This news item, which should be at the heart of the work-life balance conversation, has rarely been noted as we huff and puff about Sandberg’s circles and Mayer’s nursery. “While we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement,” British feminist Laurie Penny once wrote, “and the basement is flooding.” Have you read much about the domestic workers’ strike in California, much less participated in a Twitter debate about it? Me neither. The “mommy wars” is like a discourse borg that manages to absorb and distort all conversations about women and work. 

While “having it all” has become shorthand for “professional success and a fulfilling family life,” the definition of “all” is highly individualistic. Some women want to work from home with their kids, some want time to volunteer and travel, some want basic sick-day protections. This is perhaps what Nora Ephron meant in her 1996 commencement speech when she assured every young woman in the audience at Wellesley, “of course you can have it all” as long as you “embrace the mess.” The trick is in the definition. There are some women for whom “it all” is a living wage and a paid day off when their kid is sick. My mother — a stay-at-home mom — made her own quiet commentary on the mommy wars with a refrigerator magnet that said “Every mother is a working woman.” And a true movement for flexible workplaces has got to acknowledge that not every working woman is bound for the C-suite. Or even wants to be there — nursery adjacent, or not.