- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The “Mommy Wars” are back. Actually, there has hardly been a lull, much less a cease-fire in the decades-long battle over how women can reconcile careers, marriage and motherhood in contemporary America.

The women’s movement often is seen in terms of a power struggle between men and women. But the Mommy Wars — debates over what arrangements of jobs and parenting roles are best for children, best for marriages, best for women — are an internecine struggle among women, generally divided into camps of traditionalists and careerists.

Volleys are fired between the two camps in the forms of research studies, magazine articles and books, including the new book “Seven Myths of Working Mothers,” by traditionalist Suzanne Venker.

“Motherhood is a career, not a sideline occupation,” says Ms. Venker, a mother of two from St. Louis. “Being successful in the workplace and at home simultaneously is impossible. This is not anti-feminist, nor is it a matter of one’s politics. It is just a fact.”

But where Ms. Venker sees full-time motherhood as essential, careerist author Sherry Argov sees it as a choice that leads to disastrous dependency, because husbands come to view a non-working spouse as an “expense,” she says.

“Before long, he’ll feel as though she’s an added responsibility instead of an asset,” says Ms. Argov, host of the Los Angeles-based radio program “Dating Dilemmas.”

But the working mom route has its own problems. Mothers who try to work full time outside the home “get depleted and exhausted, and they eventually have to choose,” the Los Angeles writer-broadcaster says. “The system is not set up for women to succeed. It just isn’t, and add to that women get paid less.”

Such views may explain why Ms. Argov, who is engaged to be married, says she does not plan to have children.

C. Margaret Hall, professor of sociology at Georgetown University, sees similar problems with the traditional route.

“I’m not sure traditional families can adapt to society. Men at the workplace and women at home is not always functional,” Ms. Hall says. “It’s better to have the flexibility of coming and going and sharing of parenting tasks. Otherwise, you tend to feel trapped, routinized in everyday behavior.”

Ms. Venker disagrees.

“The traditional family structure is not something that holds women down,” Ms. Venker says. “The traditional family structure simply keeps women from having to worry about producing an income while they work on the most important job of their lives. And most men — even if they keep it to themselves — want to support them.”

Twenty-seven percent of mothers are home full time, 32 percent work part time and 41 percent are working mothers, Ms. Venker notes. Mothers still can work, she says, but they either should work on a part-time basis or work from home during their children’s primary years.

Women’s “career ambitions have nothing to do with their desire to raise children,” Ms. Venker says. “Being at home does not mean they do not want to be successful in the workplace; it just means they can’t do both at the same time.”

The women’s movement, however, does not view full-time motherhood as a worthy ambition, Ms. Venker says.

“They want men and women to be treated as though they are exactly the same, as though biological differences have no implications,” she says.

Those differences, in fact, are important, say Bill and Pam Farrel, authors of “Why Men and Women Act the Way They Do.”

Citing research on the differences in men’s and women’s brains, the Farrels — who have three sons — theorize that men process life in boxes and compartmentalize their thoughts and activities, while women connect their thoughts.

Women “have an innate ability to see the relationships between the various areas of their lives and to connect them together,” the San Diego couple argue in their book. “Rather than separating everything into individual components of life, they can make a unified whole out of the parts.”

In an interview, Mrs. Farrel says these differences point to different roles in parenting.

“If you look at genetics, the mom is the one who can nurse the baby,” Mrs. Farrel says. “Naturally, women are so nurturing. Our lives are tied to relationships.” On the other hand, her husband and co-author points out, “Kids look to their dads to make life decisions.”

Yet parenthood can cause conflict between couples where both parents have previously worked full time, says Christy Tirrell-Corbin, director of undergraduate early childhood education at the University of Maryland.

“Once she becomes a mother, the perception on her career changes,” Ms. Tirrell-Corbin says. “A women’s right to pursue her potential is not as important as the man’s right to do that.”

Having two paychecks is important for many families, says Roger N. Lancaster, professor of anthropology and director of cultural studies at George Mason University.

“In most cases, it takes two incomes to support a family, so both parents work outside the home and, increasingly, both also perform some share of the housework and child care,” Mr. Lancaster says.

A woman who stays at home is viewed as being maternal and self-sacrificing until the child is in school, when she “is apt to be viewed as lazy, or as not pulling her economic weight,” he says.

Ms. Argov agrees. In the course of conducting nearly 1,000 interviews for her book, she says she encountered several men who wanted their stay-at-home wives to work, but the wives refused.

“He wants to talk to someone about something besides burping babies, and he wants a woman to understand the contribution he makes when he goes out and works his tail off every day,” she says. “He wants to be stimulated by a woman who has her own dreams and her own goals.”

If the wife does not contribute financially, these husbands eventually look at their wives as “an expense,” Ms. Argov says. “They want an equal partner, a partner in life that won’t weigh them down.”

Equality is the final consideration, says Ms. Hall, despite men and women’s differences.

“In the end, men and women are very different biologically and culturally,” the Georgetown professor says, “but they have the same right to enjoy their lives, to be fulfilled and to follow their dreams.”

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