Fueling the mommy wars

She’s smart, privileged, by all accounts a great mom and guess what, she didn’t have to go to work! But is it really true, as one Republican National Convention delegate said yesterday, that we needed Ann Romney to "make motherhood honorable again." (M. Spencer Green / Associated Press)

Are the Mommy Wars - the running battle between moms who work outside the home and those working inside - over? Not with Ann Romney, a whopping new “salary” estimate for stay-at-home mothers (it’s in the six figures) and a pair of happy-scary health studies in the headlines.

Living in a world of working moms, I first encountered the mommy wars at a preschool ballet class. It brought together the daughters of stay-at-home mothers and those of us who whooshed in from the office and daycare minutes before the 5:30 class began. Like me, this second group of moms got busy jamming little legs into pink tights and little feet into ballet flats seconds before the girls were supposed to start skipping around in the studio. I was feeling pretty good about making it on time one night, when I stepped outside and overheard two moms in the middle of a nasty rant about ... us. I know this was just two rude women jawing, but I did feel betrayed, wary and a little guilty.  

Not for long. Mostly I felt angry. I thought we were all in this motherhood thing together. We’ve got plenty of common ground and plenty to fight for, together, for our kids. But the division between stay-at-home moms and those who have to show up for paying jobs while raising kids and keeping house persists. Four new factors fueling it:

#1: Hijacking Ann Romney. She’s smart, privileged, by all accounts a great mom and guess what, she didn’t have to go to work! But don’t tell me, as one Republican National Convention delegate said yesterday, that we needed Ann Romney to "make motherhood honorable again." The delegate claimed that “people look down on people who want to stay home and raise their children. And it's the greatest job on the planet."  

Bottom line. Cut out the whining. If you’re fortunate enough, or brave enough, to forego a paycheck to stay at home and raise your kids is anybody really looking down on you?  Not other moms. In one recent survey, six in ten working moms said they WISH they could go part-time to get a better work-life balance. Motherhood’s the greatest job on earth no matter what else you have to, or want to, do.

#2: The $112,000 job. A recent survey by Salary.com says the average stay-at-home mom puts in 94.7 hours a week. Add up the earnings she could expect in the same jobs outside the home - from cook (average wage, $13 per hour) to family therapist ($36 an hour) - and you get $112,000. A working mom with a job outside the home also puts in 57 hours a week inside the home doing many of the same jobs. This second shift, the site says, is worth $66,000 a year.  Bottom line: It’s valuable work, no matter who you are.

#3: New study: Working moms are healthier. Working moms striving to "have it all" now can add another perk to their list of benefits - health. New research from University of Akron and Penn State says that mothers who work full time are healthier at age 40 than stay-at-home moms, moms who work part time, or moms who have some work history, but are repeatedly unemployed.

The researchers followed 2,540 women who became moms between 1978 and 1995. Accounting for pre-pregnancy employment, race/ethnicity, cognitive ability, single motherhood, prior health conditions and age at first birth, the research reveals that the choices women make early in their professional careers can affect their health later in life. Women who return full time to the workforce shortly after having children report better mental and physical health, i.e. greater mobility, more energy, less depression, etc. at age 40. "Work is good for your health, both mentally and physically," says the lead researcher. "It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control and autonomy. They have a place where they are an expert on something, and they're paid a wage."

Bottom line? There’s a twist to this one. The researchers say the real story here is that "persistently unemployed" moms deserve help and attention. These women are in and out of the workforce, often not by choice, and experience the highs and lows of finding rewarding work only to lose it and start the cycle again. Bottom line: Not all stay-at-home moms want to stay home. Not when they need a paycheck. "Struggling to hold onto a job or being in constant job search mode wears on their health, especially mentally, but also physically," the researcher notes.

#4: New study: Working moms spend less time on healthy food and exercise for their kids. American moms with full-time jobs spend roughly three-and-half fewer hours per day on grocery shopping, cooking and playing with their kids compared to stay-at-home and unemployed mothers, says a new Cornell University study.

The guilt-inducing part: To make up for this time deficit, working mothers are significantly more likely to spend time purchasing prepared foods - takeout from restaurants or prepackaged, ready-to-eat meals from grocery stores - which are generally less nutritious than home-cooked meals. 

Bottom line? Maybe we need a crash course in bagged salad and rotisserie chicken, not another helping of guilt.