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Tuesday, November 9, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Moms on the front lines of America's culture wars

In the aftermath of an election that solidified divisions in America's culture wars, I'm predicting who's next in the crosshairs: working moms.

The war between stay-at-home mothers and those with careers is old news. But lately the battle has escalated beyond coffee-klatch sniping to the public-policy arena, where studies routinely make provocative pronouncements about day care's effect on children. Scores of books have emerged taking one side or the other. Mothers who work are either great role models for their children or guilty of all but abandoning them.

Last week, more than 62 million women went to the polls. They supported President Bush in higher numbers than in 2000. The issue for many was values. Take a peek under the values tent and you'll find a battlefield with stay-at-home moms on one side and working mothers on the other.

The presidential campaign got caught up in the mommy wars. Teresa Heinz Kerry wandered into the crossfire when she questioned whether Laura Bush had ever held a job. The Bush campaign returned the salvo, pointing out that the first lady holds a master's degree and is a former librarian. The context of Heinz Kerry's words — she was outlining the differences between two women who've led dramatically different lives — was lost. The issue of whether she had dismissed stay-at-home moms became the campaign's defining one for many women. Certainly, it cost John Kerry votes.

Call me paranoid, but lately I've heard people refer to working mothers with as much disdain as religious conservatives refer to gay unions.

Gratuitous nods are made toward single moms and poor families that rely on a woman's income. But for the woman who dares to work for reasons other than economic necessity, judgment rains down like a hailstorm. Lately, that judgment is joined by a direct call for a return to traditional values and back to a time when moms stayed at home.

I keeping wondering whose mom they're talking about? My mother worked all of her life, starting out as a clerk-typist and retiring as a top manager from the federal government at age 70. She juggled PTA meetings with night school. She stretched out maternity leaves, but when they were up she donned her good suit and headed out of the house without a backward glance.

Her mother — my grandmother — toiled in the homes of women who didn't work in the home or outside of it. And my great-grandmother? She worked too, initially for free as a slave and for not much money afterwards.

A new book, "Home-Alone America," ignores this part of history and moves directly to warning women about the perils of not mothering full-time. You can get the book's point without cracking it open. Just check out the cover. There's mom in a power suit and high heels striding out the door as Junior slides along the floor clinging forlornly to a silk stockinged-leg.

The author, Mary Eberstadt, is a mix of contradictions. She is an educated, affluent woman who advocates women give up their professions to raise children. But in her own life, Eberstadt simply moved her profession to her home and her children to another room with the sitter.

Eberstadt describes day-care centers as places where teachers ply children with sugary treats and then let them tear around the room unsupervised. No, that would be home when your child has asked for the 100th time for access to his Halloween stash.

The author takes social problems facing adolescents today — from obesity to early sexual activity to a growing dependence on psychotropics — and plants them firmly on the shoulders of moms. The message is, these moms work while their children wither. Despite how many psychiatrists and social scientists warn that there are too many variables in a child's life — from school to parents to home environment — to single out any one culprit, Eberstadt's words sting.

The other day, I found this frightening pronouncement from a stay-at-home mom writing for the Institute on Religion and Public Life's Web site: "If our society is to be revitalized, the committed, religious, stay-at-home mother will have to be at the forefront."

I'm not sure what I, the committed, religious working mom, ought to do? Pack my handbasket for that trip to hell?

I shouldn't joke. The reality is, I'm uncomfortable with the strict lines being drawn in our society under the pretense of a return to values. We're getting close to passing the kind of judgments and challenging the kinds of freedoms that made the Puritans leave England.

Well, I'm not leaving. Nor am I willing to conform to someone else's notion of values. I can see how cultural wars begin.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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