I always wince inwardly just a little when I tell a new acquaintance I’m a stay-at-home mother, that I don’t send my kids to preschool, that I breastfeed my 18-month-old, that I allow frequent desserts, etc.
Not because I think they’ll make disparaging comments–they never do.
Not because I think they might be thinking something disparaging–everyone is entitled to think what they want, and getting worked up about what others might be thinking but aren’t saying is silly.
No, what I worry about is that in expressing a decision we’ve made, I am automatically forcing them to justify their own, different decisions, which can tank the conversation. Mothers who work outside the home generally tell me that I’ve got the hardest job, that I’m doing something amazing and worthwhile, and other affirmations; occasionally one will tell me that she just couldn’t do it. We then exchange compliments and supportive comments. It’s rather stilted and artificial, though, because we’re afraid of coming across as judgmental to the other person.
This is probably more of a female problem than a male problem. I doubt very much that my husband worries about these things when chatting with other men. It represents progress, too; open Mommy wars are not fashionable, which is surely a good thing. What I have described, however, is still a set of constraints imposed by our inability to distinguish “something that is beneficial” with “something that should be normative.” When I say, “I love having time to take walks with my children,” there is a whiff of “I am giving my children a benefit that you, Working Mother, cannot.” When a working mother says, “I’m glad I can help provide for my children,” there’s a hint of “And you are not providing for your children.” For this reason, we usually do not say these things to each other.
Most of us recognize in other contexts that there is a substantial difference between “This is good” and “This is good in a way that nothing else can be.” We also recognize that most decisions are made on the basis of many factors, and that one answer is not right for everyone. We are, moreover, not usually so emotionally invested in choices that aren’t related to parenthood. “I used to live there, but the traffic was too bad for me,” we say breezily to someone who’s moved to our old town because of the great amenities available. We have different values and priorities, as well as different ways of living out our values and priorities, and we don’t really think it’s a slap in the face to make known these differences.
At some point, perhaps, a couple of parents watching their kids on the playground will need to feed their babies. One starts breastfeeding the baby; the other pulls out a formula bottle and says, “Ah, I didn’t want to be the kid’s only source of nutrition; it really helps that my husband can do some of the nighttime feedings.”
“Yeah, it is annoying getting up a few times a night,” agrees the breastfeeding mother. “But I like being able to feed the kid wherever, whenever, without worrying about what sorts of supplies I brought, or cleaning up bottles.” And they go on with their conversation, happy to share what works for them.