Leslie Morgan Steiner is the editor of the best-selling anthology Mommy Wars  and the author of "On Balance ," The Washington Post's popular online column on work/life issues.
Leslie Morgan Steiner is a graduate of Harvard University and Wharton Business School. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband and three children.
Updated to add: In May 2008, several months after this interview, Leslie Morgan Steiner  joined the Mommy Tracked team as one of our featured columnists! Leslie now writes Two Cents on Modern Motherhood . Leslie also recently published her second book, Crazy Love .
Can you tell us about your book Mommy Wars ?
Mommy Wars  is a collection of 26 essays by working and at-home moms exploring their choices (and lack of choices) as they combine work and kids. The essays are brief, funny, sad and totally candid.
I wrote Mommy Wars because as a working mom with three kids, I was very curious about — and jealous of — moms who seemed happy “just” staying home. I was also puzzled by working moms who seemed stuck in jobs that didn’t give them enough time with their children. Mommy Wars is about what life is really like for working and stay-at-home moms, according to the experts on motherhood — moms.
The contributors range in age from 26 to 72. The writers include an ambitious working mom with an MBA from Harvard to a Latina single mom whose cancer taught her the joys of being home with her kids to a typical stay-at-home mom demoralized by never-ending volunteer projects. The essayists include famous moms like Jane Smiley and Susan Cheever to moms who’d never published anything before Mommy Wars.
My hope is that Mommy Wars will make you laugh, cry and at some point throw the book across the room — because moms are opinionated about work and kids.
My goal is for every mom who reads this book to feel better about being a mother. Because we all struggle with how much of our lives to give to our families, our work and ourselves.
How do you manage to balance work and family?
I grew up in a very messy family of six that included several cats, snakes, turtles, fish and a skunk. I believe that work and family are the two great joys of life. My way of combining the two is fairly chaotic but it’s the only way I can do both at once and stay (mostly) sane. I’ve always enjoyed the challenges of working motherhood — tremendously — but combining both has turned out to be far harder than I ever imagined. I work in my kitchen, which is inconceivable to a lot of people. I get up from my computer every three or four minutes to resolve disputes, get someone a glass of milk, or turn down the TV. Somehow I manage to get a lot of work done.
Has balancing working and raising children been a struggle for you and your family all along, or has it been an evolving process over time?
It’s been a never-ending battle. The most difficult part is that for much of my life as a working mom, I felt very alone. As if I were the only one fighting my inner mommy war — that endless, sometimes infuriating voice that questions whether I’m making the right decisions about how much time to spend with my kids, my husband, and my work. My husband doesn’t fight the same battles. Until I wrote Mommy Wars, I didn’t realize that almost every mom has the same “war” in her head, and that I’m in very, very good company. Many women today, especially women in their 30s and 40s, are very conflicted about how to be a good mom. We are the first generation to have watched our moms struggle with the question of working motherhood. Some of us feel caught between our mothers’ generation — when there weren’t so many choices — and our daughters’ generation — where there is not so much anxiety about what choice is right.
What are the “mommy wars” really about?
In writing Mommy Wars, I saw three primary sources of tension in the daily lives of almost every mom that played itself out in disparagement of women who’d made different choices about how to combine work and family:
Whether to work or not once you have children is a profoundly different life and parenting choice. However, the most profound mommy war is inside each woman’s head as she struggles to find her own solution to balancing work and family, and feeling good about her choices. Nearly every mother has high — usually impossible — standards for the kind of mother she wants to be. In Mommy Wars, Terri Minsky writes about how, during one year as a stay-at-home mom, she SEWED her child’s birthday party invitations. This striving for perfection makes us vulnerable to always feeling we’ve fallen short. Add to that all the media messages that say we are not doing enough and it becomes really hard to feel good about being a mom in America today — no matter what your choice about working or staying home. When you feel insecure, natural response is to put down others, to make yourself feel better.
Our society worships personal achievement and financial success. Our society also worships an unrealistic, all-sacrificing ideal of motherhood. These two values directly contradict themselves once a woman becomes a mother. It is very hard to be a mother in America and live up to either of these ideals — and yet we have a lot of moms out there today trying to live up to both at once – to be a loving, hands-on mom, and a success at work. And moms who don’t work feel shunted aside and ignored by people who still work; and in a very real sense, their lack of financial freedom limits choices for themselves and their kids. No wonder moms feel overwhelmed.
Women are naturally competitive. We all want to be the finest moms we can be. So some degree of judgment of other moms, competition with other moms, is normal – even healthy. But for many women, their natural competitiveness gets out-of-control — when you see a mom staying up all night to plan a five-year-old’s birthday party, or crying when she forgets to make cookies for the school bake sale — there is something out of whack, not just in her but in our society overall, that we push moms until they feel such a ridiculous kind of failure. It is really hard to feel good about yourself as a mom in America today. The next best thing is feeling better than someone else. So at-home moms feel superior to working moms. Working moms feel superior to at-home moms. The “mommy wars” are not a typical WAR where one side wins and the other loses. Women are not looking to defeat other women. We are looking to feel good about ourselves as mothers — which is a pathetically difficult task in the US today. We do nothing as a society to make moms — at home or working — feel good about themselves.
Where are men in all this?
Fathers caught in a bind — they feel they are doing a lot, because they are more involved in their children’s lives than their dads were. But fathers are still doing far less than mothers are, in terms of household chores and childcare. Men face a lot of hostility from their wives as a result. Women have earned a great measure of equality at work due to discrimination laws. However, fathers need to do even more — and be willing to make sacrifices at work — for women to have true equality at home. Also, in addition to be important change agents because of their roles as dads, men are critical to making life better for moms because most of the key decision makers about employment issues and political changes are still MEN. As Susan Cheever asks her in her essay, Baby Battle: “What happened to the good old days when women used to fight with men?” What this means to me is — why are women fighting among themselves, when MEN are part of the problem — and the solution.
What do you think about this On-Ramp phenomenon — women that have been out of the workforce for some period of time endeavoring to go back?
I recently wrapped up some fascinating research about stay-at-home moms who return to work, which was reported in the June issue of More Magazine (“Back in Business”), the May 28 issue of Newsweek (“Trying to Opt Back In”), and the May 24 Huffington Post (“Can Stay-at-Home Moms Return to Work?”). Contrary to books such as The Feminine Mistake and Get to Work, my research showed that the majority of women who take 3-10 years off to care for children have little difficulty returning to work when the time is right for them and their families. “Opting Out” permanently is a myth. This is great news for moms who stay home or want to stay home — you can go back at very high levels of responsibility.
How will the next generation of girls — our own daughters — handle work/life balance?
Many younger women (and girls) take today’s freedom for granted. And I think that’s wonderful. To be a teenage girl today, with her life in front of her, and to be thinking – I can go to college and maybe graduate school and work for a few years, stay home with my kids, and then go back to work — that kind of freedom is a luxury that I and many other feminists worked extremely hard to achieve. A lot of young women today feel they have nothing to prove. They don’t have a chip on their shoulder about showing the world that women are as capable as men. They are living in a kind of feminist peacetime. I say — let them enjoy this freedom, this range of choices about how to combine education, career and family. It will be interesting to see what those young women have to say about work and family 20 years from now. I’d also love to see these same questions asked of young men today — change is good for them, too.
What are some general words of wisdom that you would like to pass on?
First: Happiest moms tend to be the ones who have time with their kids AND paid work — they work for companies that give them the flexibility they need to be good employees – and good moms. Second: We moms need each other — whether we work or not — and we’d be FAR better off if we supported all good mothering choices. Think about it: when was the last time you told someone you thought she was a good mom? We need to stand up for other moms, and stick up for ourselves. Motherhood has the power to unite women if we let it. Rather than dissecting and disparaging other moms’ choices, accept that we all have the right to embrace our unique approaches to motherhood, one of the most personal things we’ll ever do in our lives. Tell another mom she is a good mom — and don’t forget to tell yourself you’re a good mother, too.
If you enjoyed this interview with Leslie Morgan Steiner , don't miss her Mommy Tracked column, Leslie Morgan Steiner's Two Cents on Modern Motherhood !