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Reviewed by Randi Sider-Rose


Life, Work, and the Mommy Wars

A book about real choices.

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Nothing brings on unwanted advice like becoming a parent. From binkies to breastmilk, suddenly everyone is an expert, whether they have kids or not. And when it comes to the issue of whether to work or stay at home, the opposing sides are usually ready to take up arms against each other. Childrearing choices speak to our deepest convictions about gender identity, family, and the structure of work in America. Will daycare cultivate violent, needy children, incapable of intimacy? How can we structure a society where mothers have the same opportunities as fathers? And while we're figuring this all out, how should I live my life now?

Most people must make vocational decisions amid competing claims. A wider spectrum of people can actually choose how to spend their days than ever before. But making fundamental life decisions is a complex process and hugely contingent on individual personalities. Even successful and capable women like author Catherine Wallace find themselves "juggling cinderblocks," as she puts it, in the attempt to balance the pressures of work and family.

Wallace's story begins 20 years ago. She was then a newly tenured English professor who, having just given birth to twins, was also the mother of three asthmatic children under the age of two. Faced with the prospect of paying high fees for an R.N. who could deal with respiratory ailments and was willing to be a nanny—if such a person could be found—or dropping out of the academy, Wallace chose the latter. But she continued to keep her eyes wide open and her pen working as a freelance writer, requiring her to try every trick in the book—from working only during naps to daycare, from working part-time to overtime.

Regardless of her choices, she found, each action brought a barrage of condemnation, placing her in the midst of the Mommy Wars. (Wallace sharply observes that while no one has criticized her for continuing to subject her family to the asthma-inducing Chicagoland area—a much more quantifiable risk—any childcare decision would induce anger and derision from someone or other.) The relentless questioning was not merely coming from others. Big inarticulate anxieties faced her in the night, gradually forming themselves into one overarching question: Why has compassion—toward our kids, our spouses, our friends, and our larger community—been marginalized as simple-minded, sentimental, and private, instead of being recognized for the tough-minded resilience it requires, the key role it plays as the bedrock of society? Why does paid work tend to trump all other activities?

The notion of vocation lurks behind our society's esteem of work, often at the expense of unpaid endeavors such as acts of compassion. Since the Reformation, Christians have sought a sacred significance for their mundane jobs parallel to monastic or priestly callings. Martin Luther's concept was radical: All are called to their station in life, accountable to God and neighbor in the shape we give to our days, hours, and minutes. This makes sense for those who both like their jobs and imagine them to be important. But the notion of a sacred vocation can run into two basic problems. First, as John Calvin—and Betty Friedan a few centuries later—argued, some work is simply drudgery. To name such tasks as someone's vocation, the means by which they are to work out their salvation, is to degrade them. Second, with the rise of capitalism, the sacred transcendence of work is seen increasingly in terms of spending power. But excess money does not bring the satisfaction it promises. Soon the mansion becomes merely "the house," the Mercedes "the car," and everyone is working overtime to pay off the loans.

All the big reads informing the Mommy Wars, from Joan Williams' Unbending Gender to Juliet Shor's The Overworked American and Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood, endeavor to retrieve the unpaid realm of life from the jaws of work. Wallace treads previously covered ground carefully, though, resisting the elevation of all unpaid activities to the status of "family work." As feminists have been saying for decades now, tasks such as toilet-cleaning are drudgery, Wallace argues. Just because such work occurs under the same roof as interaction with a child does not make the two commensurate. Wallace borrows Miroslav Volf's definition: Work is something we do for a purpose outside the activity itself, such as for a paycheck or to keep the Hecaptionh Department out of our bathrooms. Toilet-cleaning is an admirably clear example.

Non-work tasks that maintain a family, whether reading to a child or tucking that child into bed, are also valuable. But they do not become valuable only if or when they are financially compensated, however indirect the "compensation." So, while reading to a child might be passing on "middle class capital" (Joan Williams), Wallace resists the assumption that such calculating cost-benefit analyses go into every human endeavor. Instead, she categorizes reading to a child together with tucking in that child. Such tasks are part of "life": activities that are intrinsically valuable.

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