A friend and fellow millennial mom was recently telling me about her experiences with "baby ballet" — that is, a baby and toddler group where children are encouraged to learn 15th century dance from a semi-professional ballerina while Tchaikovsky plays on the stereo. My friend takes her 16-month-old to the class so she can play with other tots. It also gets them both out of the house. Unfortunately, baby ballet is a front for the unavoidable mommy wars.
My friend, who's one of the most laid-back people I know, often feels ill-at-ease around the other "ballet moms." Where they don full faces of makeup, have hair hand-painted to catch the light, and never seem to allow their children to repeat outfits, my friend rarely applies more than eyeliner to her own visage. Neither her daughter nor mine can make it past 10 a.m. without spilling something on their ensembles. We're perfectly capable parents, but we don't always have our sh*t together, and that's sort of part of the fun. Except that to these other moms, it's seemingly not part of the fun at all — and my friend feels ridiculed whenever she's in leggings, or rocking a messy 'do, or carrying a sticky toddler under her arm. It's a feeling of judgment I am familiar with.
No matter your choices, activities, or country of residence, you will have felt the crossfire from the mommy wars, raging since before time. As with any civilized conflict among women, these wars aren't a full frontal assault — rather, shots are fired through silence, passivity, and side-eyes.
One might argue that the cruelest trick of the patriarchy is getting us to turn on each other.
From my experiences, a mommy war can manifest when older moms question my age and abilities. When mothers the same age as myself, but who are doing things differently, frown upon the path I've chosen. Maybe they left their jobs to be full-time, stay-at-home parents. Maybe they went back to work as soon as they could — their ambition and professional aspirations never wavering. Sometimes mommy-judgment comes from non-parents, too. From women, in particular, who cannot fathom why I would "give up my 20s" to nurture a "parasite" when I could be "living it up" and partying and killing it in the office and eschewing taking care of anyone other than myself.
To most women and feminine people, it is no secret that our choices — whatever they may be; no matter how "traditional" or "radical" they may seem — will always be scrutinized. One might argue that the cruelest trick of the patriarchy is getting us to turn on each other: Spawning woman-on-woman hate (and mommy-on-mommy hate) because when we are fighting one another, we simply won't have the time to fight the powers that be. The true opponents.
It is possible to opt out, though. To stop buying into contrived mommy wars, and all the other gal-on-gal battles we're encouraged to participate in along with them.
The real "mommy wars" we should be waging are not against other women, but against the regulations, institutions, and individuals preventing us from fully realizing our choices. The Trump Administration's refusal to endorse a World Health Organization resolution to promote breastfeeding recently stirred up formula versus breastmilk fervor, and The Cut's Jen Gann rightly called out the move as an attempt to fuel yet another inter-mom war and deflect attention from the true issues facing mothers. For example, the U.S. provides zero federally mandated paid leave to new parents, as compared to Ecuador's 12-week, fully paid leave for mothers and 2-week, fully paid leave for fathers. Russia offers 20 weeks of fully paid leave to moms. In the UK, mothers can take up to a year of maternity leave on full pay.
We are all too often quick to turn on each other, rather than on the systems that keep us boxed in.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., mothers who go back to work as soon as days after birth are encouraged to buy into the "stay-at-home parent" versus "working mom" palaver. Maybe those of us who return to work, be it for financial reasons or personal preferences, carry guilt over "abandoning" our children. Maybe those of us who manage to be full-time caretakers carry guilt over "abandoning" our jobs. In either case, we are all too often quick to turn on each other, rather than on the systems that keep us boxed in.
The true mommy war needn't be rooted in claiming that we, as individuals, know "what's best" in the formula for motherhood — whether that be having kids in our 20s versus 30s versus 40s; going back to work or staying home; maintaining our childfree aesthetics (in all their revealing and bold glory) or opting for more modest wears; bed sharing or crying-it-out. Instead, the true mommy war should be fought against those encouraging us to fight each other in the first place. We should recognize that, as Finn Mackay writes in The Guardian, the biggest threat to a pro-family agenda is, at least partly, "a version of feminism known as 'choice feminism," basically the idea that you can be on the wrong or right side of issues as a feminist.
We too often condescend those opting for different techniques and methods in order to further reassure ourselves that 'we've got this.'
There are no legitimate guidebooks for "how to be a mom" or "how to raise a happy kid" or "how to win at parenting." This undoubtedly makes a lot of us feel insecure. In turn, we hold onto our ways of doing things, going so far as to uphold them as "the right ways" in an attempt to assuage those insecurities. We too often condescend those opting for different techniques and methods in order to further reassure ourselves that "we've got this."
In doing so, however, we encourage others to do the same: To mistreat us, to question our choices, and sometimes even to try to eradicate our sense of options in the first place. In her New York Times piece "I’m In My 40s, Child-Free, And Happy. Why Won’t Anyone Believe Me?" Glynnis MacNicol describes an encounter with an older male writer. Upon telling him of her memoir proposal — what would be a story about how "exhilarating life could be" on her own — the man said, "Glynnis MacNicol, you have a terrible life!”
He wanted to "help" MacNicol. To help her see the error of her ways, and the loneliness she was setting herself up for. He wanted her to understand that, really, there was no way she could be happy without a partner and children of her own. After all, marriage and reproduction are our prime directives as a species — especially if we are women. What was even more discouraging about the exchange was that, for MacNicol, it was not at all uncommon.
She surmises, "As a culture, we seem to thrive on judging other women, whether it’s their appearance (see every best-dressed list, ever) or what they should be allowed to do with their bodies (cast a glance at the headlines regarding the precarious future of Roe v. Wade). We are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of women on their own, navigating their own lives, let alone liking it."
Judging women for their clothing, their bodies, their relationship statuses, their occupations, their sex drive, their parenting, their diets, and more may all be part of a grander cultural phenomenon: One upheld by mainstream media, by legislations, and by our educators, presidents, and bosses alike. Dismantling the notion that this is all OK, however, starts with our own refusal to participate in the established narrative.
For some of us, this may look like putting a stop to the mommy wars: To our day-to-day interactions with other mothers that are characterized by silent or verbal critiques. To our cynicism over choices that look different to our own, and our assumptions about how those choices do or do not correlate to happiness. To the projection of our own insecurities onto others.
If we show no interest in targeting each other, we ultimately foster environments that instead target actual issues. We help create environments that may someday make womanhood and parenthood easier for our own kids. We challenge the actual perpetrators of mommy wars: That is, the "powers that be" continually making mothers (and all women, for that matter) feel like every choice they make is the wrong one.