The mommy war myth

The media-fuelled strife between stay-at-home and working parents doesn't reflect reality. It's time to call a ceasefire

Anybody else out there tired of the alleged “mommy wars”?

The media regularly dredge up and promote the idea that packs of mothers are at one another’s throats over whether a “good” mom stays home or goes back to work after having kids.

The most recent revival came last June after an off-hand comment by Alberta Finance Minister Iris Evans. “Raising children properly requires stay-at-home parent: Alberta Minister,” howled CBC online.

OK, so ill-considered statements by public officials are fair game for media finger-wagging. But what I couldn’t stomach was the implication that Ms. Evans had somehow reignited the smouldering mommy wars.

Deconstructing the myth

I have yet to hear any stay-at-home mom verbally duking it out with a “working” mom, except in the media, of course. One can always find ideologues willing to debate any point — particularly about parenting — with shrill enthusiasm. The mommy wars myth is built on the wobbly premise that there are two entrenched, monolithic groups of mothers — those who work outside the home for pay and put their kids in daycare, and those who relinquish all ties to the world of employment.

The reality is far messier. All kinds of mothers (and fathers) go back and forth between being at home and working, and a fair number occupy a sort of no (wo)man’s land in between. Many moms are part-time working/stay-at-home mothers, while others work flexibly from home, six to eight hours a week as a telemarketer or artist, two evenings a week teaching piano, or various hours here and there operating a home business.

Revised definition

We have to revise our notion of what a stay-at-home parent is these days because it ain’t what it used to be. Few today stay home as long as moms in the 1950s and ’60s.

Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey suggests that soon there may be only one-third as many mother/father families with an at-home parent (with no income) as there were in 1976 (1.5 million in 1976 compared to 596,000 in 2008). That does not include parents on paid leave, or who are unemployed and looking for work.

That precipitous drop has led some to proclaim the death of the stay-at-home parent. But the statistics can’t possibly capture certain nuances of family life. Say you stay home with the kids but bring in income, or you are on parental leave — you’re classified as being in the workforce rather than as a stay-at-home parent. So a lot of people who think of themselves as stay-at-home parents aren’t included in statistics. I was in that category myself for eight years. I called myself a stay-at-home father, and I looked after our three kids during the day when my wife was at work. But I had part-time income in all but one of those years, from playing music at night to (guess what?) writing for Today’s Parent.

In my experience, most parents have sympathy for their peers in a different caregiving/work arrangement, and many, I suspect, are not entirely content with the proportion they themselves have.

There you have it: The mommy wars, deconstructed and put to bed forever. Yeah, and pigs will fly. Really, the best thing to do about annoying media-created controversies is to ignore them. Just go about your business and do what your family needs. And laugh at the silliness of it all.