That's a pretty literal translation of what would be the logical title of this post, something along the lines of "The Mommy Wars Revisited: Women's Work in a Historical and Economic Context." That would make a good dissertation or something, if I wanted to write something that long. But I don't. That's why I blog.
It strikes me that the ammunition on both sides of the Mommy Wars tends to ignore most of history and the world at large. Zooming out a bit gives some thoughts for some more to be said on both sides.
So let's start with the Other Side (from me, that is)--the working mom. Mothers laboring to support their families was not something invented by Second Wave Feminism, as is sometimes insinuated. Actually most people capable of walking have, throughout human history, faced a basic choice of Work or Starve.
It is very traditional for Mom to be out working in the fields while Grandma, too old for field work, watches the kids. If Grandma isn't handy, the kids will probably be helping out themselves. It is also very traditional in many cultures for women to do practically all the hard physical labor. (Though this itself may suggest that the much-maligned distinctions between men's work and women's work may be less a legacy of male repression and more a secret and successful plot by our foremothers to get the men out of the forum/lodge/village square/pub and have them Do Something Useful. In which case it should not be lightly discarded.)
The difference in modern times is that work has, for the most part, been severed from the home and community. Before rapid forms of transportation, pretty much everyone (men and women) except for sailors worked in or very close to their homes. This meant children even of working mothers were unlikely to spend most of their waking hours in idleness supervised by strangers; they were integrated into their parents' world at the first opportunity.
The other difference is that the modern standard of living has risen drastically, making it much more open to debate whether a mother's work is necessary for survival. Few of us are living at subsistence agriculture levels, but then few of us could get away with it without CPS investigating. A job requires a car and houses have to have electricity and plumbing and so forth and so on. But just how much of these things is needed is open to debate, leaving lots of room for guilt-tripping and hand-wringing on either side.
Another thing that is not a feminist innovation is mothers preferring to hand over much of the child-rearing duties to others. Those model homemakers, the middle-class Victorians in their elegant tea gowns, were not raising their own children. They had nursemaids and nannies and governesses. (And in an era before the invention of waterproof diaper covers, one can sympathize.) Throughout history, most people rich enough to hire or buy someone else to change the diapers and wipe the runny noses have done so. Small children are hard, unglamorous work. It's much more fun to show up in the nursery for a couple of hours and tell stories.
Now for some things to be said on the side of the stay-at-home mother. Many of the charges laid against her seem to boil down to her role being unproductive (or underproductive). Even the psychological charges that her work is boring and unrewarding reflect this.
A book on the Middle Ages pointed out that the lady of the manor and the peasant woman both filled their days with activities as challenging and productive as those of their husbands: the lady running a nearly self-sufficient micro-economy occasionally enlivened by defending against a siege; the peasant woman doing essentially the same work as her husband. However, the wife of the emerging merchant class had little to do with her life except spend the money her husband made. How dull.
The life of a consumer only is, ultimately, a boring and unfulfilling life. People were made to be productive. The caricature of a stay-at-home mom is that she is only a consumer, a leach on her husband's productivity. In reality, few of us are rich enough for this to be so. Clean clothes in the drawers and hot meals on the table are, in fact, goods, even if they don't get calculated in the GDP. So, of course, is child care. Their status as goods is not so obvious as when mother spun the thread and milked the cow herself, but the modern mother is in fact providing a luxury level of goods compared to her industrious eighteenth-century predecessor, with multiple changes of clothing and meals that actually vary.
Whether the mother is being as productive as she could be is a rather personal question. Nobody criticizes a man who decides to give up the corporate fast-track to hand-carve trivets, if he values such a life over the more productive (in dollars) corporate job. Surely it is just as legitimate for a woman to decide she would rather produce the goods of her home life herself rather than outsourcing them, that she places a value on time with her children over potential economic advantages, or simply that she and her family prefer a slower-paced life. We are born to be producers, but not to be slaves to the economy.
And of course there are women (whom I applaud from a respectful distance) who also produce things for the GDP--and family cash flow--while at home. This is valuable, not because women should never set foot outside their doors, but because the real problem is the fragmentation of modern life. Children are not just separated from their mothers, they are separated from the adult world entirely. We work with one set of people and live with and among others and often enjoy our leisure with a third set, few of whom have more than the most casual contacts with each other.
This fragmentation, in turn, makes being at home with children isolating to a degree that would be unheard-of in past eras. A lot of the work is really gross, too, and not every mother naturally has her greatest gifts in standard domestic realms. That doesn't mean raising her own children is not essential work, but it can be nice to do something else once in a while. The challenge is finding ways for the mother to remain connected to the world and to work she personally enjoys without simultaneously disconnecting the children from her life.
It is a reconnection of life--of family life with leisure life and work life (not the annexation of all of life by work), of children with the adult world, of mothers of small children with the community--that ought to be the goal. Finding ways to reconnect life will require thoughtful choices on everybody's part, not just on mothers.