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At the Back Fence Issue #220

April 3, 2006

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Does Romance Take a Side in the Mommy Wars?

A few weeks ago Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America had a segment on something called “The Mommy Wars.” There was a follow-up on Friday. I’ve forgotten most of the first segment, but the gist of it was that there are two groups of mothers, those who have jobs, and those who stay home full time taking care of their children. Further, each side disapproves of the way the other group raises their children—and one of each group’s favorite things is putting down the other side. Sawyer introduced the segment, talked about a book on the subject and introduced a number of women who seemed determined to insult each other as viciously as possible. We had, on your left, a feminist who decried the fact that “more and more college educated women are leaving the workforce to stay at home,” implying that such educated women are fools to trust their husbands (“where will you be career-wise when he runs off with that floozy from the office?”) and, that children are always much happier and better off with the happy successful career mommy than they are with one makes homemade Halloween costumes and chaperones the kindergarten field trip. (Oh right.) Here was a woman who had supported “choice,” all of her life, but only respected women who made the one she approved of.

But she underestimated her adversaries. The full time stay-at-home mommies were not to be outdone and took no prisoners. They had verbal daggers just as sharp and possibly more deadly, using arguments that appeared to support choice but made it clear that they were the better mothers. These women were experts at the subtle put down, “I suppose it is sometimes necessary for children to be irreparably damaged by babysitters and daycare, but that would not be my choice.”

Yikes! As I watched this battle, it struck me how important it is to almost everyone I know to be a good mother, and that women, regardless of what choice they make, are under tremendous stress. Apparently it is necessary for some women not just to explain their choice, but to justify it by claiming that innocent children are being irreparably damaged…by women who disagree with them. Nice. Who would guess from this argument that, for most women, this is a choice of just a few years? Listening to both sides you get the impression that the average baby toddles off to kindergarten at age 25—leaving a wrinkled, old woman with no job skills, in his wake.

I have yet to see any woman come up with a truly easy solution. Most of the women I know consider all the choices and pick the one they can deal with. A baby is an astonishingly expensive little item and the most expensive thing about it is that somebody has to spend most of their time taking care of it. Stay-at-home moms are stressed with the crushing expense of losing an income, taking on a 24-hour-a-day job, and sometimes dealing with a husband who cannot understand why the house is not as clean as it was when nobody was in it from eight to six. Moms who work in offices or try to earn an income from home are stressed from the crushing cost of child care. Added to that is the stress of dealing with just about everyone cross-examining them on how the children are being taken care of. This includes in-laws, disapproving mothers, and a squad of other supposedly well meaning interrogators, such as male co-workers who wax prolific on what good stay-at-home moms their wives are, brag about their heroic performance in the delivery room and occasional diaper duty. These guys never call in sick because their baby is sick, never get a dirty look for leaving at five to get to daycare and never, ever come in with a suit spattered with baby cereal.


Okay, so what does all this have to do with romance novels?

Good question. Harlequin? Are you listening out there?

The publishers of series romance have taken a stand in the Mommy Wars and there is nothing subtle or complex about it. If you walk down the aisle of Waldens Books you can’t miss the message: good mommies stay at home. Good daddies make enough money to make that happen. Handsome men find the mothers of their children irresistible. Nothing is all that hard when you have a beautiful baby.

In 2002 I wrote an ATBF called Unwed Mothers. In that column I asked romance readers to consider whether so many accidental pregnancies in romance was a good thing. Yes, accidents happen, but they usually don’t. Birth control can fail, but if you are single and really, really don’t want to be pregnant, you can usually be safe using or method of birth control or a combination of two. The point of this was not to bash unwed mothers or mothers of unexpected babies (one woman on Canwetalk told us that people say unbelievably personal and rude things to women who get pregnant before the wedding), it was to address the question of whether there should be so many books about accidental pregnancies.

I asked the folks on Canwetalk to revisit this discussion and talk about how they felt about having so many books about accidental pregnancies. I also stated my feeling that the books bother me. It’s not that I don’t want romance writers to be able to write whatever plot they would like. Individual books are fine. But creative freedom is not the force behind so many accidental pregnancy books. Accidental pregnancy books in series romance are a sub-genre all in themselves. A whole sub-genre simply does not happen without the encouragement of the publisher.

A few women on Canwetalk came forward and explained why they like baby books. This was a fairly brave thing to do and I have to say I respected it. What did they like about them? Some readers just really liked babies. One reader explained that she did not have any but she loved reading about them. There were other readers who had gotten pregnant by accident. One talked about how great it was when something so stressful can ended with something wonderful.

Much of the talk centered on the accidental pregnancy – this is a hot button with a lot of us. Some women felt that pregnancy, if you have sex, is a major possibility. Others, like me, felt that birth control almost always works. In fact, I went further than that. Not only does birth control, if used properly, almost always work—the message that birth control is a hit or miss proposition, is not really one that an entire sub-genre of series romance should be sending.

One thing that is interesting about baby books though is how few women on-line admit that they read them. Yes, we had a few brave souls on Canwetalk, and I’m glad we did. Over the years Laurie has said that she thinks that the average romance reader and the average AAR reader are different. This could account for the lack of baby book enthusiasm that we see from AAR readers, as well as the Cassie Edwards/Connie Mason/Fern Michaels phenomenon – ie. books that sell to loyal romance readers but get a thumbs down every time from AAR reviewers.

When I discussed the subject of unwed mothers in the 2002 ATBF column I discussed, in-depth, two very good romance novels that dealt with unplanned pregnancy: Suzanne Brockmann’s Everyday Average Jones and Judith Duncan’s Murphy’s Child. These two books are very different. Brockmann’s story focuses on the hero’s attempts to woo the pregnant heroine. Duncan’s book concerns a hero’s growing love for the heroine who is struggling to take care of a newborn. My feeling is that even readers who usually avoid baby books, like me, might well enjoy them.

But why? Why are baby books so popular? Here are my theories:

  1. A man who loves his child is lovable.
  2. A man who wants to protect and love the mother of his children is almost irresistible. He doesn’t need to be a thirty year old CEO, a sheik, a police detective, a reformed jewel thief, a U.S. Navy SEAL or a Duke. He doesn’t even need to be handsome, though that helps.
  3. Women feel most vulnerable both economically and physically when they are pregnant and have small children. They are afraid of poverty for themselves and for their children. They also look different: more tired, heavier, less able to dress well. Men who want to take care of them, and their children, at this point in life and want them sexually, are a dream.

And here is the thing – it doesn’t matter which side of the Mommy Wars you side with. They are a dream to feminists, to women who work outside the home voluntarily and those who don’t have an alternative. They are a dream to women who take care of their children at home.

And they are a dream to women who do not have children but want them, both married and unmarried.

So if these books are bound to appeal to a vast array of women, why do I say that series romance novels have picked their side in The Mommy Wars?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this and I do think that the answer is more complicated, and more politically incorrect, than I ever thought it would be. So here goes.

While I know lots and lots of women who have worked outside the home (including yours truly) with a young baby, I do not know any who did not find it wrenching. I am not talking about working in an office outside your home when you have school-age children, though that is not easy either. Being in an office with a baby or toddler at home or at daycare is extremely difficult, even if you are not the kind of woman who is not happy taking care of a baby all the time. You miss your baby and feel the awful guilt of leaving every day. You are constantly defending this difficult decision to all kinds of people, many of them judgmental strangers who should mind their own business. To make matters worse you often feel the need to tell everyone at work who is not a mother, how happy, happy, happy you are being out of the house. In fact the need to constantly fake your emotions about being at work, may be the worst. In the early 90s I worked at a major Wall Street bond firm. There was one other woman in the office with a baby under two. The two of us were constantly commiserating about how tired we were, and about our need to fake it to virtually everyone else in the office. The need was not imagined. Both of us were up half the night with our children. At one point my boss (a single woman who wore real Channel suits to work and had her dry cleaning delivered to her doorman building twice a week) asked me if I had a “tired personality.”

Similarly the lot of the mom at home is no less stressful. Gone are the days when a woman at home could let her children play in the yard while chatting with a neighbor over coffee. The neighbor is not there, nor are the neighbor kids. The mommy who is home doesn’t have the benefit of twenty other mommies on the street looking for predators and asking her kids in for lollypops and games of Shoots and Ladders. Nope, the new mommy is on her own with a house full of books that tell her her kids should not be watching television. Even with a husband she’s broke. (But maybe not more broke than the working mommy who’s paying for daycare.) Grandma and Grandpa, the freebie standby babysitters of old, live in Florida. Her pre-baby cloths may or may not fit. New clothing seems like a luxury with a baby who needs a new wardrobe every six weeks.

Series romance novels don’t focus on the Mommy War. They focus on making a very tough time in a woman’s life romantic. And they focus on the joy. And that is the thing. In spite of all the stress, the bills, the dealing with judgmental strangers, and critical husbands who won’t fix dinner, there is an amazing amount of joy in this period. On a Saturday morning, you pull yourself out of bed and there is your baby, glowing with life, smiling wide and standing in her crib. You cannot believe how happy you are.

Series romance novels side with the stay-at-home mommy’s argument. Daycare tends to be vilified with the same claims that the Good Morning America stay-at-home’s used – ie. that though working is sometimes necessary, the child is damaged.

On Canwetalk we did have our share of women, both mothers and non-mothers, who began their arguments with “my mother stayed home…”. This of course is hardly a testament to said mother. Before 1970 almost all middle-class mothers stayed home. There was no daycare. I remembered those days and its worth remembering that, while some mothers were absolutely wonderful—others were worse than the worst daycare or nanny. As a kid in rural Rhode Island I remember our house crowded with kids on freezing days. Sometimes those kids had nowhere else to go, as mommy did not want them home “dirtying up the house.” Some kids practically lived outside for this reason. My own mother, who always kept the door open, used to point out that when all women had to stay home and be mommies, some women made an awfully bad job of it.

But the romance novel stay-at-home mom is as unreal as the working one. She has none of the problems that affect real new mothers at home. She is seldom appalled at her new body, She is not broke, nor is she living on credit cards. She doesn’t wonder if she has morphed into a new, very depressing person since leaving her professional job. Her baby keeps her up, but, though she is tired, she doesn’t suffer from the kind of sleep deprivation that has her thinking about Chinese torture methods.

Exhaustion is a common denominator for all mothers regardless of where they spend their days—but I can’t help but think it’s ten times as bad if you are single and without help. Few romance novels describe the level of resentment a good mother, with support, can feel from being completely sleep deprived. Some books describe the mommy walking around the house at 3:00 in the afternoon in her nightie. Though I do know some friends who did that, many new mommies take a shower every morning at the usual time, put on make-up and go to park in a semi-conscious state—looking normal, but feeling like torture victims. The loneliness I felt during those days was unexpected. I struck up conversations with any parents in the park, just to be able to communicate with another adult. I loved my baby, but sometimes I was very cranky. Was this good for my baby? I doubt that it mattered a whole lot. Like most mothers I was enough of an adult to realize the baby is innocent and needy. It was my husband who got the brunt of it.

But even worse than the exclusion of the working mommy from romance novels is the idealization of the situation of the new mother who tries to work at home. Hard as it was for me to work in an office, and hard as it was to be a full time mom—nothing touched trying to do both at the same time. Professional people may say that they support new mom’s working from home, but the real test is how they react when they hear a baby screaming his lungs out in the background while mommy tries to do business. Of course, in romance novels most of the assumptions about working at home or working part time are never realized. They are plans the heroine has; plans that are neatly shelved when the hero steps in to get married and pay all the bills.

To me, series romance novels fit the fantasies of both stay-at-home and working mothers of young children, which is why they work. All new mothers, regardless of whether or not they are employed outside the home, hunger for more help, more sleep and more financial security. They would also like to think of themselves as sexually appealing, something that can seem incredibly unrealistic after a baby is born.

But my concern is that, in fulfilling these fantasies, they tend to trash the reality of most women. They vilify daycare, make it look easy to stay home and work part-time from a home office with a baby, and usually avoid the financial problems. Most of all they romanticize accidental pregnancy and make these things, which are tough with a husband, look easy for a single mom.

So that’s my rant. I am looking forward to hearing what all of you have to say on the At the Back Fence Message Board:

  1. Have romance novels taken a side in the Mommy Wars?
  2. How do you feel about the fact that so many series romance novels deal with accidental pregnancy?
  3. Do you read baby books? What do you feel is the root of their popularity?

Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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