What will become of the mommy wars in the flailing economy? My fantasy (and it is just a fantasy) is that they will eventually fade into obscurity like, say, the Punic Wars -- relics from a past that seems to have taken place a very long time ago. The idea of working mothers pitted against non-working mothers in a sort of mud-wrestling championship -- in which the winner gets what, exactly? -- has a kind of luxury about it that many people, whether they work or not, suddenly no longer feel. While motherhood and work questions have special urgency and relevance in this crisis -- What happens when women leave the workforce to stay home with their kids? What are the financial implications down the line? etc. -- the rush to judgment is something for fatter, softer times. I haven't seen an appreciable increase in hostility or smugness on anyone's part. And I haven't heard about the publication of a new, lacerating non-fiction book called Ha Ha I was Right, or one called Even If I'd Been Working All This Time I Might Have Been Laid Off Like My Husband.

Maybe, instead -- and a girl can dream -- a kind of tolerance is taking over, fueled by the sense that the family of the woman who works and the family of the one who doesn't are both in trouble. A friend of mine says that she's been paying attention at drop-off at her daughter's school, trying to figure out whether or not different parents are working, and what their stories are, based on how they're dressed and other cues. The formerly suited-up man in his early thirties who now appears every weekday morning on the sidewalk in front of the school in casualwear: did he lose his job, or is he working from home? And the woman who until very recently spent hours volunteering at the school library, and who now hurries into the subway: has she traded Laura Ingalls Wilder for, say, Morgan Stanley? Or is she just out there looking? It's really hard to know what's going on in the enclosed world of anyone else's family, unless they're willing to talk.

And many people, right now, are talking. There's a new jabber in the atmosphere. You barely have to say anything at all, on a street corner or on line at the bakery or in a phone conversation, and the other person immediately knows what you're talking about: "Yes, things are terrifying," and "I know, I know." The financial crisis belongs to one-income and two-income families, as well to the families of the suddenly unemployed, who all share ownership of this strange new thing they don't yet understand.

Though the mommy wars have addressed real and powerful questions, even dipping lightly into those conversations could leave you shaking and defensive. It's still true that, even now, there isn't only one definitively right way to have a life. Regardless of this crisis and its cautionary-tale elements (of which there are many), I think it's a given that people still want to find some way to make their own individual decisions about work and home and motherhood.

Women who work full-time or part-time and those who stay home with their kids (as well as those who now spend their days answering help wanted ads on craigslist) may not experience Helen Reddy solidarity. It may be way too soon to speak about the mommy wars in the past tense, for no one has solved the problem of ambivalence about staying home versus working, or the lack of good, cheap daycare; and no one has found a way for some women not to feel they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't. Maybe not even the full-scale meltdown of the economy can keep these particular, familiar wars from raging. But it can try.

©2009 Meg Wolitzer, author of The Ten Year Nap: A Novel

Author's Bio: 

Meg Wolitzer is the author of seven previous novels, including The Position and The Wife. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York City.

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