Jill Byington reports from the trenches of the Mommy War.

WHEN I QUIT WORK to stay home with my son I was, for the most part, congratulated by my co-workers for making the “traditional” choice. I began to feel a bit like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, hands in the air, leading the entire cast in a rousing chorus of the song “Tradition.”

My dictionary defines the word “tradition” as a mode of thought or behavior followed by a people continuously from generation to generation.” By that definition, the fifties’ housewife-in-pearls-and-stockings role hardly makes the grade. I was loathe, however, to correct the kind people at my unusually supportive company who were influenced by the powerful modern myth that mothers have always had only two narrow and simplistic choices: being a stay-at-home mother or a mother who goes to work every day. The choice depends in part on whether the mother is a traditionalist or feminist.

Hours of research time, millions of dollars, and miles of newsprint have gone into debating which is the better choice for the woman and the children. The media would have it that mothers on both sides fire salvos across a vast, unbridgeable chasm in what has become known as “The Mommy War.”

What I knew when I made my choice, and what I’ve never seen mentioned in the media, is that all combatants in this media-hyped “war” are wasting their energy fighting over a side issue. The fact is–and it galls me that this might sound wishy-washy–that in this so-called war both sides axe equally right and equally wrong.

The Original “At-home” Mother

UNTIL THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION of the nineteenth century, most mothers in Europe and America not only stayed home to tend children and house, they also did other important work that made a quantifiable financial contribution to the family. They worked side by side with their husbands and their children from their homes in literal cottage industries. The entire family worked to maintain home and business, and the borders between the two were often blurred.

There was a division of labor based on childbearing and strength, but without women, the crops would not have been harvested, food wouldn’t have been properly stored for the winter months, and people would not have had clothes to wear.

Entire segments of the economy rested on the capable shoulders of women. The sturdy pioneer women who drove the oxen, slopped the hogs, birthed the babies, and helped found town after town did so not only out of necessity, but out of long, “real” tradition and great skill.

The Original “Working Mother”

DURING THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION large industries sprang up that were able to manufacture goods more quickly and at a better price than the cottage industries. People left their farms and villages to work in the growing mills, factories, and mines. Sometimes they left by choice; more often they left because the family could no longer support itself at home or in the village. Entire families began to work outside the home because no single job paid a wage that the family could live on, and industries took advantage of tradition, the whole family working side-by-side.

The people who paid the greatest price for industrialization were often women and children who were viewed not as human beings to be cherished but as cheap sources of labor. Unlike the family businesses, mills and factories made no allowances for pregnancy or sickness, and women and children often worked in deplorable conditions.

Children who were too young to work were kept by relatives, if they were fortunate, or they were left at “baby farms.” According to author and lecturer Mardi Keyes, these farms (which I think of as daycare from hell) had an infant mortality rate of 60 percent. The choice for poor mothers at the time of the Industrial Revolution was not between in-home or commercial daycare; the choice was often between baby farms and child labor in horrid conditions.

There is no better way to give a sense of what it was like to be a working mother during the early days of industrialism than to quote the words of one who lived it.

Betty Harris was thirty-seven and worked in a coal pit in England during the 1840s. Her account of working conditions is preserved in the parliamentary papers of Great Britain:

I was married at twenty-three, and went into a colliery when I was married. I am a drawer and work from six in the morning to six at night. Stop about an hour at noon to eat my dinner; have bread and butter for dinner; I get no drink. I have two children, but they are too young to work. I worked when I was in the family way. I know a woman who has gone home and washed herself taken to her bed, delivered of a child, and gone to work again under the week.

I go on my hands and fret. There are six women and about six boys and girls in the pit I work in; it is very hard work for a woman. The pit is very wet where I work, and the water comes over our clog-tops always, and I have seen it up to my thighs; it rains in at the roof terribly. My clothes are wet through almost all day long.

My cousin looks after my children in the daytime. Jam very tired when I get home at night; I fall asleep sometimes before I get washed

The Rise and Fall of the Family Wage

ACCORDING TO BRIAN ROBERTSON, author of There’s No Place Like Work: How Business, Government, and Our Obsession with Work Have Driven Parents from Home, it was in reaction to such horrors as Betty Harris described that the leaders of the early women’s movement and labor unions began to lobby for a “family wage.” This is a wage that allows one parent to sustain the family economically with one income. The family wage gradually became a reality, and by the 1960s more than 80 percent of industrial employers paid a wage that could support a family. Thus was born the “traditional” family that we all speak about today–with much of the credit going to proto-feminists.

By 1987, however, the family wage was effectively dead, with only 25 percent of all jobs paying a family wage. What happened in the intervening years to destroy the family wage and send both parents out of the house to seek wages?

The seeds of its destruction were planted at the very moment that people began lobbying for the family wage. During the Victorian era, it was largely the new upper-middle class men who could afford to keep their wives and children at home, usually with servants. It was then that at-home motherhood

was raised to a cultural ideal: a symbol of success and superiority. People began to speak with almost religious tones about the helpless, delicate woman at home in need of the support and protection of a man.

There were a lot of nice things about the Victorian era. Who wouldn’t want a house with a turret or affordable household help (assuming you weren’t the one being the household help)? But the fainting female role was mind-numbing and dull for a large number of women. It also meant poverty for families whose men, though they couldn’t earn a family wage, insisted that their wives and daughters stay home to preserve the men’s vanity.

Not surprisingly, there was a backlash. Feminists of the 1960s began to denigrate at-home mothers as women who were wasting their brains on the supposedly inferior duties of child rearing. Ironically, instead of following the path of the original women’s movement, which sought to cope with industrialization by keeping at least one parent in the home, the new feminists did an unremarked upon about-face and sought again to remove both parents from the home.

Over three short decades millions of women listened and found jobs. Prices as well as people’s expectations and definitions of “success” adjusted to dual-income family standards. According to Brian Robertson, “The price of family necessities now reflects an economy in which most wives work.”

In a backlash-to-the-backlash, mothers who made the increasingly unpopular choice to stay home also displayed their lack of historical knowledge by declaring their roles to be “traditional”–and the only way to raise children correctly.

Is There a Better Way?

As AN AT-HOME MOTHER, I have chosen to view my role as a good way of coping with a flawed society–but not as the only way to cope. I refuse either to be pushed into a mold by the Little-House-on-the-Prairie League or to be intimidated by those who regard a woman who’s not climbing the corporate ladder as a loser. I choose to see my role as that of ensuring the best passage through childhood for my son and, in today’s economy, that means having a mother at home, particularly for his early years. Any way I twist the research, that is the only rational conclusion I can find.

But I haven’t had to give up work. In order to earn money for the family and to have my voice heard, I enjoy working as a freelance writer. Like the sturdy pioneer woman, I have an instinctive need to contribute to the family economy. This need is most likely the reason that a lot of at-home mothers feel guilt and loneliness when home alone with small children all day in neighborhoods emptied by the dual-income mindset.

Oddly–and I say this because some have called my opinions odd–we may be returning to a point where a family economy is again possible. We now have the opportunity to combine the best of the old and the best of the new.

Computers and telecommuting mean that some of us can choose again to stay home and do paid work without going to an office or leaving the children in the care of paid professionals for large segments of their lives. Our children can watch us fill the multiple roles we were meant to fill without some bizarre artifice in which we haul only our daughters to work one day a year. They can see what it means to participate in the family economy and, at the same time, have access to at least one (ideally two) parents all day long. In the best of circumstances our children may even be able to work with us, shoulder to shoulder.

Until we return to some semblance of a family economy–if we ever really do–all mothers must keep a healthy perspective about the difficult choices that people make today. Neither side in the Mommy War can claim it is “traditional” in the true sense of the word; neither has a superior historical claim. It is best to let this manufactured war die in the media and work instead toward the superior choice.

Jill Byington is a Bellevue, Washington, writer whose one constant is that she can count on her creative flow being interrupted regularly by an inquisitive six-year-old son.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Independent Women’s Forum