Recently actress Gwyneth Paltrow apparently charged head on into the mommy wars with some rather incendiary statements about how hard it is for her to be a mom compared to, say, ordinary “office workers.” The volume of media attention to the backlash has at this point far exceeded the attention to the original interview. But it’s possible that the mommy warriors, myself included (because I was pretty miffed when I first read it), have misunderstood Gwynee’s cry for help. It’s hard to be a mom for her, and for the rest of us.
I know all too well the sometimes overwhelming mommy guilt that can accompany one’s career. For me, the guilt is most crushing when I am not actively caring for patients. It is the sweetest thing that my little girl forgives me for not being home a lot because I am “helping people.” But in reality, when I am away from my children catching up on billing/coding or writing manuscripts/grants–or worse yet leaving town for professional meetings where patients aren’t even in the building–I am decidedly not helping sick people (at least not directly). While I do hope that my various efforts (fine, not the billing/coding which is simply an onerous task required of me in our messed up healthcare system–Argh!) will eventually result in better quality of care for surgical patients far and wide, the truth is that no human would suffer if I simply dropped those non-clinical professional activities in favor of being with my kids.
So it is a bittersweet cocktail of pride in being the kind of professional that I hope will someday inspire my kids and of guilt about achieving those professional goals at the expense of time with them. I know, I know, it is not the quantity of time but the quality of it. That said, there is always that dream of a guilt ridden mom that it is possible to make every minute spent with your children, whether it is 24/7 or just a few hours a week (as has been the case for me for the last decade), just awesome. No tantrums over broccoli. No bribing with screen time. No imprint of your child’s teeth in another child’s flesh. No consumption of toilet water. No vomit in your hair….
Yeah no, that is just a dream. An impossible dream. Parenting has its ups and downs for all moms (and dads). Don’t believe anyone who denies it.
For most of us, our life with our kids is the only ‘life with our kids’ that we have ever known. Clearly that is the case with Gwyneth Paltrow. And so it is hard for her sometimes to the only kind of mom she has ever been–a mom who is a successful actress whilst married (at least until recently) to a rock star. I can’t relate to 14 hour days on set with few financial limitations to excellent child care any more than I can relate to being at home all day, every day, without adult interaction with a needy child and piles of laundry that aren’t going wash and fold themselves. But, I do know what it’s like to work 120 hours in a single week, to be out of town for 15 days a month, to have my entire paycheck swallowed by childcare expenses and student loan payments, to be so damn tired (or so worried about a sick patient who might not make it through the night while I am at home) that, when I do get in the vicinity of my kids, all I want is for them (and the dog for that matter) to “Just shut up!!!!!”
Yeah, there’s no quality time to be had with me after a 40 hour stretch on call.
Here’s the thing. No matter who we are, how many kids we have, whether those kids are perfectly healthy or suffer from medical issues/developmental delays, whether we work or stay at home or do something in between, whatever our profession, we are all mothers. We are simply trying to do our best by our kids, and some days we will badger ourselves with mommy guilt for not attaining that. Failing to recognize that (as opposed to being seemingly ignorant of her wealth and privilege) is why Gwyneth Paltrow has become enemy number one at the front line of the mommy wars. She minimized, in a condescending almost pejorative way, the mothering challenges of moms with ‘regular work hours’ without having any clue as to what it must be like for them to balance it all.
Not cool Gwynee, not cool.
In the modern era, all of us mothers have had to make some tough choices when it comes to focusing on ourselves whether it is personal well being (e.g. that which is reaped by way of long runs, weekends away with friends or spouses, a Nordstrom shoe habit) or professional aspirations. For some, the latter has involved a conscious and deeply individual decision to stay at home full time after weighing many complex factors such as income, job satisfaction, availability of professional childcare, family support, presence of life partner…. For others who have weighed the exact same issues, it has meant going ‘all in’ to professional ambitions.
I did not fall into the latter by accident. My academic and extra-institutional activities have been bolstered by the support of a truly self-less spouse, amazing grandparents in very close proximity to my children, a boss who gets it, and a salary that allows me to support my family. (I think Sheryl Sandberg would say that I have been ‘leaning in’ but I confess between the work, and the wellness efforts, and the blogging, and the travel I haven’t read a book in a while.) And Gwyneth Paltrow, it seems, has decided to act in fewer films.
The trade-off(s) for her decision may be fewer chances to get another Academy Award or less time with the likes of Matt Damon. But I submit that there is not a single mother out there who has not had to negotiate away some aspect of herself in order to be the best mom she can be. And, I bet there is not a single mother out there who hasn’t at one point or another thought that her plight as a mom is much harder than that of anyone else’s. I know I have. I just wasn’t in a position to share it with a major media outlet.
Think before you speak, Gwynee. Think before you speak.
An so, what has really struck me as I have read about the mommy wars that ensued in the aftermath of this now infamous interview is that all of us moms would be better served if we propped each other up instead of putting each other down. Our sources of mommy guilt may be the same (which is abundantly clear to me whenever I commiserate with other surgeon moms, especially the traumamamas whose call schedules are particularly unforgiving), or they may be different.
Irrespective of the source of guilt, the reason we are ALL so prone to it is because, after all, we are all MOMS. We are torn between focusing on ourselves at the expense of our kids. We are afraid of what the future holds for them and how what we do (or don’t do) now will shape that future. We too easily question whether we are cut out to be mothers when things seem bad at home or at school or at the myriad activities our kids participate in these days. Rather than judging whose mommy guilt is more overwhelming than the other’s, we should embrace these similarities among us and encourage each other to drop the guilt no matter where is comes from.
Perhaps if we consciously uncouple ourselves from the bitchiness, we can reach also reach an easy truce to the mommy wars.