Mommy Wars are still raging

Published 4:27 pm Wednesday, April 11, 2007

“Something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives,” the late Betty Friedan wrote in “The Feminine Mystique,” her groundbreaking 1963 book attacking the idea that a husband and children were all a woman needed for fulfillment.

That book effectively launched the modern women’s movement. But more than four decades later, writer Leslie Bennetts is trying to sound a very similar message. In “The Feminine Mistake” — the title’s no accident — she argues that many young mothers have forgotten Friedan’s message, embracing a 21st-century version of the 1950s stay-at-home ideal that could imperil their economic future as well as their happiness.

Needless to say, the book isn’t going down smoothly with everyone — especially mothers who’ve chosen to stay home with their children.

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“She’s stereotyping stay-at-home moms,” says an annoyed Debbie Newcomer, mother of a 14-month-old baby in Richmond, Texas. “This is my personal decision. I’m a better mom by staying at home.”

Bennetts says she never intended to issue the latest salvo in the “Mommy Wars” — that long-running, angst- and guilt-ridden debate over whether mothers should stay home with their children. And she says she’s surprised by the reaction.

“The stay-at-home moms are burning up the blogosphere denouncing me,” she mused over coffee this week. “They’re saying I must be divorced, childless, bitter, lonely and angry to be writing this.” (Bennetts, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, has two children with her husband, a fellow journalist.) “Clearly, I’ve struck a nerve.”

Bennetts says she merely wanted to present factual evidence that there are great risks involved when a woman gives up economic self-sufficiency — risks she may not be thinking of during those early years of blissful, exhausting parenting.

Divorce. A husband losing his job. A husband dying. All of those, Bennetts warns, could be catastrophic for a woman and her children. And if the woman decides she’ll get back to her career later, once the kids are ready? Stop dreaming, Bennetts says — a woman takes a huge salary hit after a relatively short time of being absent from the work force — that is, if she can get back in at all.

The author’s arguments ring true to Anita Jevne, a mother in Eau Claire, Wis. A medical technologist who’s worked for the past 28 years, Jevne says she’s tried to stress to her daughters, now 16 and 19, that they need to be financially independent: “You can’t assume a man is going to take care of you.”

When Jevne’s husband was hurt four years ago at the salvage yard where he’d worked since he was 16, the family had to depend on Anita’s income while he recovered and worked toward getting a new job. “If I hadn’t gone to school and gotten a degree, if I had stayed home, we would have been in big trouble,” she says.

Beyond the financial necessity, Jevne always enjoyed having a world outside the home to be part of. “You’re part of a community,” she says. “You’re giving something.” That’s the second message Bennetts says she’s trying to impart — that there’s a crucial sense of self-worth to be gained outside the home.

Some women find her views condescending, saying they deny the value of childcare in the home and assume that stay-at-home mothers haven’t put enough thought into their decisions.

“I objected to her saying we haven’t thought it out,” says Newcomer, the Texas mother who saw Bennetts interviewed on NBC’s “Today” this week, but hasn’t read the book.

A college graduate and a former financial analyst for a casino, she said she’s certainly considered the consequences of staying home with her daughter, and has made contingency financial plans. “And I completely understand that when I go back, it’s going to be a lot harder to get a job,” she says. “I know I’ll have to start from the ground up.”

Newcomer doesn’t buy Bennetts’ contention that because children are young for so short a time, it’s foolish to give up an entire career in exchange for, at most, 15 years at home.

“I look at it the other way,” says Newcomer. “They’re only young once. So, how much time can I spend with them and make them better for society?”

When Cara Boswell watched the “Today” interview along with her husband, they discussed it for a long time afterwards. “I found it kind of insulting,” she said.

Boswell, 30, of Lakeland, Fla., was in college when she became pregnant with the first of her four children. “I feel they need me now,” she says. But she’s optimistic she’ll have options in the work force down the road. “I don’t feel panicked,” she says. “I really feel the author was too bleak.”

One point Bennetts illustrates in her book is how money plays a role in the “opt-out” phenomenon (women choosing to leave the work force): some affluent, highly educated women are doing it because, essentially, they can — it’s a sign of wealth.

But Bennetts has also been criticized for speaking only about this small percentage of affluent women.

“The author and the writers who cover the book brand at-home moms as a bunch of Pilates-class taking, regular pedicure planning women with nothing else to do but pick out window treatments,” wrote Jen Singer on her blog for stay-at-home moms, MommaSaid.

Bennetts says her book is about all women — those who work at McDonald’s as well as those with Harvard law degrees. “The benefits of work were really clear at all levels,” she says.

She’s disappointed by how difficult it is to write anything these days about women’s lives. “Women are so defensive about their choices that many seem to have closed their minds entirely,” she says.

But Singer, of the MommaSaid blog, acknowledged the book has a point. “Too many at-home moms don’t have financial backup,” she wrote. “A friend of mine cashed in everything that was in her name to put into a home renovation. So if hubby leaves her, she’s got no liquid funds in her name to fall back on.”

Yet she added: “Why is there a ’wrong’ and a ’right’ way to mother in the U.S.? I will pick up the book and read it … but I’ll probably curse a lot.”