Sex Roles, Vol. 51, Nos. 9/10, November 2004 (
Moms Hating Moms: The Internalization
of Mother War Rhetoric
Deirdre D. Johnston
and Debra H. Swanson
Work status and mothering are culturally constructed as rigid binaries. The purpose of this
study was to explore the effect on mothers of these polarized characterizations of mother-
hood and to assess the social support mothers perceive they receive for their mother identity.
This study, based on interview data collected from 98 married mothers of preschool children,
demonstrated that Mother War rhetoric is most extensively internalized by at-home mothers.
The majority of mothers perceived a lack of cultural support for their mother role, though the
impact of cultural Mother War rhetoric was buffered or exacerbated by mothers’ social sup-
port systems. The lack of adequate support from other mothers, spouses, parents, and in-laws
led mothers to binary constructions of worker–mother identity. This, in turn, led mothers to
seek support within shared contexts, which further separated at-home and employed mother
from each other and separated mothers from the support of their parents.
KEY WORDS: social support; mothering; maternal; work status.
Popular discourse, from newspaper advertise-
ments to popular books to television talk shows, per-
petuates what has come to be known as the “Mother
Wars.” The Oprah episode (October 2002) with the
highest number of viewers to date and the largest in-
ternet viewer response rate was a staged debate be-
tween at-home and employed mothers. Dr Laura, in
her top rated radio talk show and New York Times
bestselling book, Parenthood by Proxy: Don’t Have
Them If You Won’t Raise Them, polarized moth-
ers by instructing employed mothers to invest in a
parakeet rather than a baby (Schlessinger, 2000). On
the other side, although getting far less press expo-
sure, Peters (1997) in her book When Mothers Work:
Loving our Children without Sacriﬁcing Ourselves
claimed that all mothers should work outside the
home in order to be better mothers and well-adjusted
Department of Communication, Hope College, Holland,
Department of Sociology, Hope College, Holland, Michigan.
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of
Communication, Hope College, Holland, Michigan 49422-9000;
It is as if at-home and employed mothers are
pitted against each other in a crazed cultural con-
test for “Worst Mother of the Year.” We imagine
the at-home mother, toxic with Prozac and smiling
a beatiﬁc smile that suggests she’s one day shy of in-
stitutionalization, freezing organic vegetables in ice-
cube trays for baby, constructing life-size geodesic
forts out of rolled newspaper for toddler, and bak-
ing welcome-home brownies for her kindergartner.
We imagine the employed mother, frazzled, yelling
at her children to hurry up, dragging screaming kids
and diaper bags to the minivan to drop off children in
substandard daycare, while clearly preoccupied with
concluding a big business deal on her cell phone. As
a result of these stereotypes, work status (i.e., em-
ployment or at-home) and mothering (good mother
or bad mother) are culturally constructed as rigid bi-
naries (Buxton, 1998; Darnton, 1990).
The purpose of this study was to explore the ef-
fect on mothers of these polarized characterizations
of motherhood. Is there empirical evidence for the
“Mother Wars?” Do mothers internalize and partic-
ipate in this adversarial climate of competing moth-
ering ideologies? Although the term “Mother Wars”
2004 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.