Remember the “mommy wars”?
The term started to gain popularity in the early 1990s and was the subject of magazine features, blog posts, and even a 2006 book with essays by high-profile writers like Jane Smiley and Susan Cheever. In the beginning, the term referred largely to conflicts between moms who worked for pay and those who stayed home with their kids.
But over time, it expanded to include a whole host of “rivalries between mothering philosophies and practices,” from sleep training to breastfeeding to screen time to discipline, Jenna Abetz, a professor of communication at the College of Charleston who has studied American motherhood, told Vox. “More than ever, it feels like moms are fragmented into these smaller and smaller camps and forced to sort of justify and defend their own parenting choices.”
Indeed, while the phrase “mommy wars” now feels dated, conjuring up stock photos of white women carrying babies in briefcases, the wars themselves have perhaps never been more intense, especially since the pandemic has upped the ante of parenting pressure. At many points in the last year, parents have been confronted with the fear that “the choices that I make are going to be the difference between my family staying alive and dying,” Angela Garbes, author of the book Like a Mother, told Vox.
And seemingly every week, there’s been a controversy that has parents splitting off into factions, whether it’s a recent New York Times column about having kids in one’s 20s or accusations that parents who are struggling during the pandemic are just whiners who want someone else to take care of their kids.
While each of these disputes may seem unique and individual, there’s a systemic reason they come up so frequently — why American parents, despite what might seem like common interests and goals, so often seem to hate each other.
Essentially, the culture and politics of parenting in America all but guarantee unending conflict by setting up impossible (as well as racist and classist) standards for good parenting and then giving people absolutely no help to meet them. The “ideal mother” in America, for example, is someone who is always there when her kids need her, but who also makes sure her kids have food, clothes, and a roof over their heads — which means she might have to work for a living, which means not only can she not be with her kids at all times, but also she has to find a way to pay for child care, which in many places costs more than college. All told, parenting in America makes enemies of would-be allies as families fight for their slice of what feels like an ever-shrinking pie.
“If American family life was better,” Garbes said, “if people had the support that they needed overall, we really wouldn’t care what other people were doing.”
American parents are measured against an impossible ideal
Parenting norms in America are far from static. In fact, a hundred years ago, fathers were widely expected to take the lead role in raising children, making decisions about rules and practices that mothers would merely execute, Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of the book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, told Vox. “Parenting was considered so important that it was a job for men.”
That changed over the years as various approaches to child rearing gained and lost favor. For example, the idea that parents should be careful not to be overly affectionate with their children — “if you showed a child too much love then you were a smother mother” — eventually gave way to concerns that children weren’t getting enough attention, Schulte said.
But many of today’s parenting conflicts have their roots in the social and economic changes of the 1970s. At that time, the feminist movement was pushing previously male-dominated fields to open their doors to women. Meanwhile, the kinds of jobs that had propelled many white families into the middle class in the ’50s and ’60s — jobs in which a man with a high school diploma could earn enough money to support a family — were disappearing or paying lower wages, Schulte said. That meant that in many cases, white middle- and upper-class women weren’t just allowed to enter the workforce — they had to if they wanted to maintain their family’s standard of living.
This led to a “massive backlash,” Schulte said, “a huge fear that this was going to destroy the American family, and that mothers were working out of a sense of choice, and they were selfish, and they were putting themselves in front of their kids.”
Criticism and stigma had a big impact on moms themselves, potentially fueling the rise of intensive parenting, in which parents center their entire lives around the care and enrichment of their kids, Schulte said. Working parents began spending more time with their kids, perhaps in an effort to prove that they were not the self-absorbed, heartless people they saw criticized in media coverage of moms’ entry into the workforce. By the 2010s, working moms were spending as much time with their children as stay-at-home moms had in the 1970s.
And while the trends of the ’60s and ’70s haven’t reversed themselves — it’s even harder to support a family on a single income now than it was then — a large segment of Americans remain skeptical of working motherhood. As recently as 2013, a Pew Research Center survey found that 51 percent of Americans thought children were better off if their mother stayed home.
Of course, Black women, other women of color, and working-class women of all races had been working outside the home long before the 1970s. But public conversations around parenthood in America have consistently held up white stay-at-home mothers as the ideal. By contrast, Black women have often not been seen as mothers at all, Kimberly Harper, an English professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and author of the book The Ethos of Black Motherhood in America, told Vox. Under slavery, Black mothers were “seen as animals” and “producers for the slave economy,” and those dehumanizing narratives persist today in the idea of the “welfare queen” and other stereotypes that “essentially say Black women don’t nurture and care for their children in the same way that white women do,” Harper explained.
The idea of the perfect white mother doesn’t just stigmatize Black moms, Harper said, but any mother whose life falls outside a certain, very narrow, set of circumstances. “Whether you adopted or if you had a child by IVF or if you are non-gender-conforming or in a same-sex marriage, is your motherhood still valid?”
Fathers, too, can experience judgment or stereotypes around parenthood. Some employers, for example, assume that new dads want to work more in order to provide for a child, Schulte said. But women still do the majority of child care in American families, and there’s a reason moms are the focus of parenting “wars”: “We live in a patriarchy,” Schulte said, “so women are always going to be second-best.”
Unrealistic expectations and a lack of support lead to a culture of “combative mothering”
And cultural stigma against working moms — indeed, against any parents who fail to fit a white, middle-class ideal — also translates into policy. Efforts to expand child care assistance in America have been stymied by conservative claims that they would harm nuclear families, with the result that the US doesn’t really have a child care system — more like a patchwork of programs that leave many working parents spending more on child care than they do on rent, or forced to cobble together a series of informal arrangements because they can’t afford formal child care at all.
The US is also the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with no guaranteed paid maternity leave, meaning as many as one in four working moms are back on the job two weeks after giving birth — not enough time to heal physically, let alone bond with or care for a newborn.
Overall, “a country shows what it values by the policies that it has,” Schulte said. By failing to provide support in the form of paid leave and child care, the federal government is basically telling parents, “you’re on your own, and we don’t know how you’re going to do it, and we don’t really care.”
This isolation, in turn, pits parents against each other. “We’re all competing,” Garbes said. A lack of funding for everything from paid leave to public school leads parents to feel like they “need to hoard resources because there’s not enough to go around.”
And when all the responsibility of raising children is put on individual nuclear families, not shared communally, it leads to an intense focus on individual parents — often moms — and their perceived failings or shortcomings. Abetz, the communication scholar, has identified what she and her team call an ideology of “combative mothering,” which reframes being a mom as a “competitive exercise in very personalized decision-making.”
And while the “mommy wars” of the 1990s may have been about anxiety over moms going back to work, today’s combative mothering is about more than work versus staying at home. The practice of attachment parenting, for example, which promotes practices like baby-wearing, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding beyond babyhood, has been a topic of heated debate for years, perhaps peaking in 2012 when a Time magazine cover showed mom Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her 3-year-old, accompanied by the headline, “Are You Mom Enough?”
But combative mothering is going on all the time, not just when it makes headlines. In 2018, Abetz and her team studied the phenomenon through “mommy bloggers,” one of whom refers to “the ‘everyday’ mommy wars,” which “are about methods of baby feeding, sleep training, working mothers and sometimes even screentime.” Another blogger (whose post is no longer online) wrote:
“A ‘mommy war’ happens when a mom or a few moms think that their way of parenting is better than another mom’s way of nurturing her child. Instead of quietly disagreeing, moms debate with one another on why their parenting way is ‘best.’ Mothers are then often left hurt and upset: this is what could be the beginning of a ‘mommy war.’”
These conflicts raged for years on blogs and message boards like the now-defunct Urban Baby — and, of course, in real life — but they have only proliferated with the rise of social media. Facebook can encourage the fragmentation of parents into smaller and smaller groups according to parenting ideologies — Abetz herself was recently invited to an anti-mask group for moms. “You can really silo yourself into those different communities,” she said.
Meanwhile, the confessional quality of many early mommy blogs has been replaced, to a degree, by the carefully curated aesthetic of mom influencers on Instagram. “The economic model of social media platforms has rewarded glossy renderings of motherhood over the grittier stuff,” Kathryn Jezer-Morton wrote in the New York Times in 2020. “Consequently, the most influential moms in pop culture today tend to reinforce old norms about what it means to be ‘good’ and attractive.”
Instagram can fuel comparison and self-loathing (Jessica Grose wrote in the New York Times about reaching a breaking point after watching another mom make crackers from scratch on her Instagram Story) and provide a new forum to fight over parenting choices. If Abetz were to conduct her research on combative mothering today, she said, she’d go straight to the comments on popular Instagram accounts.
People who participate in such combat, then and now, often blame themselves or other parents for its prevalence. “We are horrible to each other online, in playgroups, and in tight little huddles in the preschool parking lot,” Kim Simon, a blogger at Scary Mommy included in Abetz’s research, wrote in 2013. “Our parenting beliefs are not as easy to hide as religion and politics, so we use them as weapons when we need a release.”
But moms aren’t turning on each other in a vacuum. Instead, Abetz says the proper blame lies with a patriarchal society that ensures moms remain divided against each other. Combative mothering “undermines female solidarity,” Abetz said. “It positions women as their own worst enemies.”
America divides parents. The solution is community.
If this was the status quo prior to the pandemic, it’s only gotten worse during a time when parents around the country are under unprecedented stress. For more than a year, parents have been faced with the challenge of caring for kids while schools and day cares are closed, navigating their own work during a dangerous pandemic or their unemployment in an economic crisis, and trying to keep their whole families safe from a potentially deadly disease. And until recently, they’ve had to do it with relatively little help, as the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress for months resisted calls to provide additional aid to workers, child care centers, or schools. “We’ve all been abandoned,” Garbes said.
Add to that the politicization of Covid-19 precautions from masks to vaccines, and you have a recipe for a new round of combative parenting. Jesse Curatolo, creator of the Facebook group Bad Moms of Long Island (the name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the constant shaming moms get), told Vox she quickly banned any discussion of Covid-19 from the group. But in the culture at large, she’s heard parents judging one another’s choices continually during the pandemic, questioning everything from sending kids to day care to taking them to the beach.
And more than a year into the pandemic, the “mommy wars” are back in the public policy realm again, with arguments about President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, which would provide many of the supports American parents lack, including help for lower- and middle-income families to pay for child care. This provision, in particular, has sparked conservative backlash, with some, including Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, arguing that what working-class families really want and need is to be able to stay home with their kids.
Ultimately, though, many say the only thing that can stop the endless cycle of battles over parenting approaches is a more collective understanding of child rearing. “We need better support in terms of raising our children,” Harper said. “We need to rethink how we envision parenting and have a more communal approach, if that’s possible, where the stress just doesn’t fall solely on the mom.”
That could look like supporting the work of mutual aid and community groups who already come together to help new parents by providing food and informal child care, Harper said. It could also look like changing some of the narratives around parenting. Instead of focusing on and feeding combative mothering and the ideology of the mommy wars, “How can we create new metaphors of relating between mothers?” Abetz asks. “What would a metaphor of something like kinship look like?”
A more communal approach to parenthood in America could also mean a stronger social safety net. Supports like an expanded child tax credit, which will send money directly to parents, could decrease the feeling of competition among parents, Garbes said. “That will take a lot of pressure off of some people, and I think that will also make them less concerned about what other people are doing.”
After all, “nurturing children is a social responsibility,” Garbes said. “It’s good for society to invest in children and to invest in families.”