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A Mother’s Day kiss-off

LESLIE BENNETTS, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of "The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?"

THIS MORNING, millions of proud mothers will be presented with special, homemade breakfasts by their beaming children. There will be Mother’s Day presents and cards, including precious handmade creations from the kids and joking or romantic ones from Dad.

But then the world, having made its annual perfunctory nod to the contributions of American mothers, will move on, leaving us once again to cope with our inordinate responsibilities, largely on our own.

Those responsibilities -- and the personal sacrifices they typically entail -- generate a permanent state of simmering anger in all too many women. Some deny it even to themselves. But the evidence is everywhere.

Last month, a Washington Post review of my new book asked why it is that so many mothers are so angry. After noting that lack of sleep doesn’t fully explain this pervasive phenomenon, the writer suggested that motherhood represents the first time most women run headfirst into fundamental inequities -- not just the biological differences between men and women but also the disproportionate burdens imposed by a culture that still regards the raising of children as the mother’s responsibility.

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The result is often a painful collision between family needs and workplace realities. Even all these years after the women’s movement emerged, working mothers must still confront the intransigence of a corporate culture whose extreme hours, inflexible structures and hostility toward caretaking needs can make the juggling act very difficult. Most husbands still view child care and household chores as women’s work, even when those women are working full time.

Stressed and resentful, the majority of women nonetheless continue to work, many out of financial necessity. Others quit their jobs to stay home, although the price may include conflicted feelings about having had to make such a “choice.”

Both working mothers and stay-at-home moms have good reason for resentment, but it’s the latter group that is most at risk. Although our culture tends to romanticize full-time motherhood, forgoing an independent income can make mothers and their children profoundly vulnerable to economic hardship, among other problems.

If a breadwinner dies, divorces his wife or becomes unemployed, homemakers often cannot find decent jobs to support their families. Years later, they often remain shocked and furious as well as grief-stricken, feeling deeply betrayed.

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But even among women who enjoy stable marriages with employed spouses, many wives who give up their careers to stay home are also angry. While researching a book about the dangers of economic dependency and the rewards of work, I interviewed a woman who had wanted to be a lawyer since she was in second grade. As a successful commercial litigator, she regarded stay-at-home wives with disdain -- until she had children and found that her employer’s unforgiving demands made it impossible for her to continue to excel at her own job, and that her husband’s heavy travel schedule and brutal work hours made it equally impossible for him to share the child-care duties with her.

“It was horrible,” she said. “My husband understood my stress level, but his answer was, ‘Then you leave work.’ It was my problem.”

So she became a stay-at-home mother, even as she continued to seethe about the sacrifice she had been forced to make. Months after our interview, when she received a pre-publication copy of my book, she was so upset by the explosiveness of her own words on the page that she asked me to change her name, which I did.

But her decision made me sad. Having given up a career she loved to accept domestic responsibilities she often found to be thankless, she then gave up even her right to sound off about it without hiding behind a pseudonym. Her retreat seemed like a powerful metaphor for the ways in which women sacrifice parts of themselves that they shouldn’t have to give up. Frightened by the toxic feelings that result, they then sacrifice their own voices, feeling that they must even refrain from admitting how angry they really are.

But their resentment often festers just below the surface of their lives, erupting into full-blown rage at the slightest provocation. Sometimes it’s directed against their husbands for not sharing the domestic burdens in a remotely equitable manner. Often, however, this anger is directed against other women, as in the vicious back-and-forth of the so-called Mommy Wars.

Since publishing my book, I have been pilloried in print and in cyberspace by hundreds of enraged stay-at-home mothers who have attacked everything from my appearance to my marriage and children. Their rage is genuinely frightening, as is their choice of targets. Ridiculing my weight or writing that my kids must be “scarred and dysfunctional” because I’m a working mother doesn’t exactly advance the public debate over important work-family issues.

And yet the real problems are systemic, not personal. Women are indeed giving up too much, which may be why so many are so angry.

We accept unacceptable inequities in the workplace, quitting and retiring to our homes instead of organizing to demand reforms. Why do any of us accept the fact that childless women earn 10% less than their male counterparts, or that women with children earn 27% less, or that single mothers earn up to 44% less?

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We accommodate our husbands’ careers at the expense of our own interests, thereby leaving ourselves and our children vulnerable to future hardship. Can any of us defend the fact that women’s standard of living drops by 36% after divorce, whereas that of men rises by 28%?

We put up with elected officials who pay lip service to family values but do little or nothing to address the real needs of American families, from flexible work schedules to affordable, quality child care.

Compared with other Western nations, the family-related policies of the United States are a disgrace. The United States and Australia are the only industrialized countries that don’t provide paid maternity leave by law.

But nothing will change here until we insist on it. And men won’t truly commit themselves to the effort until they too must be responsive to family needs. It’s only when fathers as well as mothers get the call from the school nurse at 11:30 a.m. that their 6-year-old is vomiting and has to be picked up immediately that men will understand the need for workplace flexibility -- and the imperative to make it happen.

It’s long past time for women to stop venting their anger on each other and redirect it to changing the institutions, policies and practices that oppress us all. We need solutions, not scapegoats.

Mother’s Day would be an even happier occasion if it didn’t leave so many women feeling that their most important concerns had been kissed off by a greeting card holiday.


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