Mom Vs. Mom

STROLLER STRIFE: Everybody envies what the other has, says one mother. The working mom wishes she had more time to spend with her child; the stay-at-home mom wants to be recognized as a capable, creative person.
Photo: Ben Baker

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.”

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

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.”

Kathy claims to be one of those rare stay-at-home moms who are completely happy. She’s convinced she did the right thing when she gave up her career as a landscape architect – not an especially promising career, to hear her tell it – to raise her son, now 3 and a 1⁄2. Besides, in her mind she deserved a break. She’s 45 and worked twenty years straight before she had her child.

“I love being home,” she says of her family’s little cottage with its postage-stamp lawn in Pelham. “I’m very intense about playing with my child. I’ll set up the paints or the Play-Doh. Or I’ll carve and peel the apples so all he has to do is throw them in the pie.”

There is, however, a somewhat unsettling cloud on the horizon. Kathy’s husband is a magazine publisher, his industry is in an advertising slump, and his future doesn’t look all that rosy at the moment. He wouldn’t mind if she found a job while he goes apple picking with their son.

“My husband is saying, ‘How about I don’t work and stay with him?’ Why do I feel entitled to this relationship with my child?”

Her response – and it’s hardly the first time it’s been used – is that if she went back to work, she’d make only a fraction of what he’s earning; if they both worked, the cost of a baby-sitter would virtually negate her salary. It’s an argument that resonates, reluctantly, with some husbands.

Ann’s spouse, for example, describes her public-relations career as a “loss leader” by the time you calculate what their baby-sitter is costing them. He fantasizes about firing the nanny, moving to the suburbs (over his wife’s dead body), punting their two private-school tuitions, and having her stay at home while he commutes.

One such Westchester dad, who’s already living that modest dream, admits he’s the last person who thought he’d be happy in an Ozzie-and-Harriet marriage. “The sad thing is, I’m not sure I’d prefer it any other way,” he says. “I feel one of us should be taking care of our kids. The only bad thing about it is, it’s a god-awful job. I’m not man enough to stay home with my kid – I’ve got a very spirited little child, it’s exhausting – so if my wife is willing to take it on …”

The stay-at-home moms who most infuriate the mothers who board the No. 6 train five days a week aren’t those doing the heavy lifting with a couple of toddlers. No, it’s the ones with the full-time help who claim to be so busy they can’t see straight. “I know one stay-at-home mom who referred to herself as ‘a full-time mom,’ ” fumes a lawyer who works for the legal department of a media conglomerate. “I thought I was going to vomit. Because, let me tell you, I may work outside the home, but I’m a full-time mom.

“A couple my husband and I know,” she continues, “were having financial difficulties. So we asked him, ‘Have you given any thought to having your wife take some of the pressure off yourself and let her get a job?’ And he said, ‘No, her place is with the children. That’s what they need.’ We thought it was the most preposterous thing we’d ever heard, because this wife doesn’t spend any time with her children. She works out a lot. She shops a lot. She gets her hair and nails done a lot.”

For some husbands, or so it would appear, being able to afford to have wives who spend their days in relentless pursuit of the perfect yoga butt passes as the quintessential status symbol. “They’re all dolled up,” observes a dad of the moms he sees at morning drop-off. “It’s not as if they couldn’t have worn something else. It’s not like they just rolled out of bed. They got out of bed and pulled on some Lycra.”

Nonworking mother is an oxymoron,” counters a stay-at-home mom who takes her workouts seriously. “I raise two children, manage a household, keep my husband going. I’m already full-time occupied with other people’s needs. You try raising two kids and staying fit.”

Ah, staying fit. One simply can’t overestimate the pressure to be svelte. If you wanted to stay thin back in our parents’ era, you smoked a couple of packs a day. And if you had a secret thing for Oreos and ballooned to size 14, you had lots of company at PTA meetings. But these days, moms (particularly those in the 10021, 10028, and 10128 Zip Codes) are expected to look like ex–ABT dancers. “The pressure is intense to be thin; it’s just brutal,” says one Upper East Side mom. Another says that now that she’s not working full-time – she has an interior-design business – she finds herself in greater spiritual alignment with her abs. Asked the biggest difference between her days as a working stiff and today, she doesn’t have to think hard before offering an answer: “I had a much bigger ass.”

She continues: “When I was working outside my home, I was downstairs at 5 a.m. or 5:30 a.m.,” referring to the gym in her Park Avenue building. “I’d be up, dressed, hair dried, makeup on, and then I’d wake my kids up.

“The time I could donate to exercise was 30 minutes maximum. Now I can take one and a half to two hours. I can swim for an hour, or go to the gym, or take a yoga class. If I decide this is a yoga morning, I’m not going to meet a client until 10:30 or eleven o’clock.”

Sleep is what suffers most, several working moms report. And romance. “When you exercise at 5:30 a.m., you’re comatose by ten o’clock,” the interior designer explains. “Are you going to have sex? No. Good night. You never think you’re going to be too tired to have sex when you’re younger.” Since she left the rat race, her sex life has changed: “It’s definitely better.”

Yet even the most blissfully content, physically fit, sexually satisfied stay-at-home mom will eventually be compelled to seek employment or come up with a good excuse for failing to do so. If the toppling economy doesn’t send them back to the grind, their children, especially their daughters who have been raised on the limitless possibilities of their gender, will start asking unsettling questions.

One working mom who announced she’d be off the workforce for a few months was greeted by delighted whoops from her younger daughter, but an embarrassed frown from her teenager. “Can’t you at least write a novel or something?” she grumbled.

“Sophie always says, ‘Why can’t you go out and get a job even if it’s in a store on Madison Avenue for two hours a week?’ ” says another stay-at-home mother of a teenage daughter. “I’m totally flipped out right now. What am I going to do? Where am I going to go? You give up all these years to be there for them, and they say, ‘Mom, why don’t you do something? You’re so lame. Everybody else’s mother does something.’ “

She felt her “insuperiority,” as she puts it, most acutely on Take Our Daughters to Work Day. “There were so many working moms,” she explains. “I realized a lot of my kids’ friends’ mothers weren’t just working but had superior positions, not just a cubicle. My kids came home and shunned me. They said, ‘All you’re good for is schlepping us around in the Navigator.’ “

A 3-year-old even got on her stay-at-home mother’s case. “She said, ‘Daddy goes to the office. Mommies don’t go to the office?’ I feel it’s not setting a good example,” her mother worries. “She says, ‘There are no women in daddy’s office?’ I spent so much time at the office before she was born.”

Over the long term, forced together by a thousand school picnics and holiday pageants, working and nonworking mothers can eventually make their peace. “There were a couple of cocktail parties at people’s homes where I found I had to break into conversations with the nonworking moms,” remembers a corporate headhunter of her teenage son’s earlier school years. “They seemed to have so much in common. They’d work out together, have late breakfasts with each other. There was always something being said that made me feel out of the know.”

She felt more comfortable hanging out with the dads, some of whom she knew professionally. “The path of least resistance was to the men,” she says. But after ten years at the same school, she’s gotten to know the stay-at-home mothers and finds several of them far more entertaining than most CEOs. On the other hand, some of the full-time working moms become increasingly guarded and chilly as they reach the upper echelons of corporate power.

“At this point in my life,” she says, “I just like cool people. I don’t give a shit if they work or not.” Besides, friendships are often decided by children, not their parents. If your kid loathes a classmate, it’s hard to cultivate his parents, no matter how much you’d like to see their apartment.

Believe it or not, Ann and that high-priced mom who allegedly walked away while Ann tried to make nice have even become something resembling friends. “She’s very nice to me now,” Ann admits. “Because her kid likes my kid.”

At a recent school event, they found themselves sitting next to each other. “She said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ ” Ann recalls. “I thought, Is she really talking to me? Now she’ll call and ask for a play date. She’ll call at the office. I have respect for the ones who call me at work, because they know that’s where they’re going to find me.”

Mom Vs. Mom