SMUMs the word

ERIKA SCHICKEL is the mother of two daughters and the author of the memoir "You're Not the Boss of Me," scheduled to be published in January.

THE LATEST SKIRMISH in the Mommy Wars is taking place in Britain, where American ex-pat journalist and mother of two Helen Kirwan-Taylor has confessed her dirty secret in a London tabloid. Hang onto your wigs! -- she’s bored by her kids.

In her engineered-to-inflame, first-person essay titled, “Sorry, but my children bore me to death!” Kirwan-Taylor brazenly confesses to blowing off birthday parties to get her highlights done, text messaging friends through Disney movies and using work as a means of escape from her two young sons: “To be honest, I spent much of the early years of my children’s lives in a workaholic frenzy because the thought of spending time with them was more stressful than any journalistic assignment I could imagine.”

The world has taken the bait, placing Kirwan-Taylor at the center of a recent blogosnit. Mommy websites are buzzing with angry responses, and the Daily Mail followed up the article with two pages of readers’ reactions along with the requisite weigh-in from a psychologist, Pam Spurr, who has coined the acronym du jour, SMUM, or Smart, Middle-Class, Uninvolved Mother.

So now it’s on between the SMUMs and the SCAMs (Smart, Child-Centered, Active Moms -- my coinage). SCAMs are the superachieving moms who hand-letter birthday invitations, spend their days in imaginative play with their toddlers, bake from scratch and joyfully embrace each moment spent with their supergifted offspring.


I know (and have been known to like) these women. I even have moments when I wished I had their game, but I can only be the SMUM that I am: distracted, well-meaning, ambitious for myself. But my kids know I’ll always be there for them when the chips are down, even if I’m not actually going to get up to serve them any chips.

We daughters of second-wave feminist mothers were raised to dream big and strive for goals beyond the hearth and home. We launched careers, gained the respect of our peers and defined ourselves as individuals. Then we had kids, and everything changed. Motherhood can be fascinating, challenging, life-affirming work. It can also be mind-bendingly dull. Having a child can feel like a sudden erasure of all that we have worked for out in the world.

Smart, educated, highly skilled women find themselves trapped alone in their homes with demanding, pre-verbal people, doing a fulltime job they have no training for. Our executive decisions concern snacks and toys, and our negotiations are about whether the 4-year-old is allowed to wear her tap shoes to the mall. We give up proximity to our friends and colleagues and substitute it with the all-too-often tepid conversation found in a Mommy and Me group. It’s enough to make any SMUM turn to retail therapy.

Kirwan-Taylor gets to the guilty heart of the matter when she asks, “What kind of mother hates reading bedtime stories? A bad mother, that’s who, and a mother who is bored rigid by her children.” (I would posit that the mother who wants to skip another Barney retread at bedtime isn’t so much a bad mom as a tired mother.)

Despite her strident confession, Kirwan-Taylor seems to have internalized the message behind this latest stroke of feminist backlash: Independent, self-determined moms who seek fulfillment outside the home are selfish and neglectful, and the quality of their love doesn’t measure up to that of moms who dote on their kids.

SMUMs, or Slacker Moms as we’re dubbed stateside, may be characterized as “bad” moms, but SCAMs have their critics too. They’re accused of mollycoddling, raising over-programmed kids who will be unable to function independently as adults. Nobody comes home from the Mommy Wars intact.

Like all media-fueled frenzies, this issue has been oversimplified, framed as a good-mother/bad-mother standoff rather than a debate about the real challenges facing real moms who fall somewhere between selfless and selfish. This cooked-up catfight distracts us from the real problem: We live in a society that still doesn’t accord the same value to women’s work as men’s, that leaves stay-at-home moms isolated and unsupported, criticized and guilt-tripped.

Until we allow women to be genuinely who they are and not force them into some outdated “good mommy” mold, everyone will lose -- SMUMs, SCAMs and the children we are all trying our level best to raise.