When I first became a mother, I believed that this notion of “Mommy wars” had to be a media fabrication and couldn’t possibly be a real problem. Women are too smart to be so small-minded, I told myself with confidence. To a certain degree, the media does perpetuate the “war” that is raging between mothers who choose to stay at home with their children and those who continue to work outside the home; but the sad truth is, over the years I was proven wrong: it is real.
It’s as if our society sees parenting as a simple, cut and dry issue - as if it is empirically either the right thing to do to stay home or the right thing to do for a woman to stay at her job, not taking into account the long list of factors that make it an enormously personal decision - when a woman is even lucky enough to have a choice. If we look at this issue in such simplistic terms, we effectively ignore the family’s culture, finances, a mother’s temperament, quality and cost of their child care options, the level of mother’s job satisfaction, and so on. As far as I’m concerned, women need to make choices that will work based on what will make themselves and the rest of their family as happy as possible. If a woman is content with whatever choices she’s made, I’m content, too. End of story.
But. As if parenthood is not already difficult enough already, a great many mothers make strong judgments about each other’s choices. I recall the painful moment when one of my stay-at-home-mom friends said to another – in front of me, a working mom – “I don’t see why anyone has kids if they aren’t going to stay at home and raise them!” Are we all so insecure about our own parenting choices that we can only feel good when we put each other down? Frankly, it disappoints me. I imagine sometimes what we could accomplish if we transformed the time and energy spent judging each other into productive work on national issues that would benefit all of our families.
Therefore, when I read the review by Harlan Coben on the back of Gwendolen Gross’ new book The Other Mother that read, “The Other Mother is sure to keep the ‘mommy wars’ raging”, I felt a pang of disgust. Great, that’s just what we need, I thought.
Thankfully, The Other Mother takes the issues deeper than that. Ms. Gross’ story thoughtfully weaves together the stories of two women living next door to one another in a suburb of New York City. Thea, who stays at home with her three children in the home where she grew up, suddenly acquires a new neighbor when pregnant Amanda moves in next door. The two women imagine that perhaps they have found a friend in each other until the quiet rumblings of typical American “Mommy war” issues begin. Thea is restless at home and living in the shadow of her late mother’s apparent perfection, but is nonetheless unable to hide her shock that Amanda won’t be staying home with her child; ambitious Amanda suggests that she would be bored if she stayed at home and wonders aloud why Thea has “given up her life” for her family. The relationship between the two women as mothers deteriorates from there, even as their families become more and more closely intertwined.