FROM THE TRENCHES: Interview With Author, Leslie Morgan Steiner

Posted on Advertising Women of New York 11/16/2005

Leslie Morgan Steiner pulled her car over today to give me this interview by cell phone. She’d received a call yesterday from her employer, the Washington Post, to come into work from her book leave – today to manage a project. It was a perfect segue, I thought, to my prepared list of questions. But in only a few minutes I’d nearly abandoned that list. Normally, I ask the interviewee the questions and they toss back the answers. Though it’s never cut and dried, this time, talking with Leslie was more like reconnecting with a long lost friend.

We spent about three quarters of an hour sharing our thoughts on as many aspects of women and business you could cram into a 45 -minute call.  From policy to penalties to politics (hard to avoid considering her socio-geographical coordinates).

We would ideally get paid for what’s inside our heads we both agreed. Yet, Mom’s pay a premium for being mothers for everybody – men and women, parents and not — really wants — to be in a dynamic but flexible working life.  Our country and our companies could benefit greatly if they offered the kind of flexibility that moms want and need so much.

“People have a lot of time and energy and brainpower to give if you free them up from that rigid 8 in the morning to 6 at night 25 to 55 life,” Leslie reminded me. The outdated model companies and government are holding on to is that from the age of 23 to 5 (or, today perhaps younger), the most valuable individuals are completely unencumbered from 8 am to 5 pm. Changing thinking – not to mention hiring practices – comes very slowly.

Reverse Favoritism? Are We Blind or Biased if We Help Each Other?
Leslie’s advice — “The trick is to know when you have to adapt to a masculine culture and values but not lose your femininity for those values.” While there are more and more men in the work force who value our dual roles and female sensibilities, the fact is that men are still making important decisions effecting our lives and they are clueless about the issues effecting women. What pay disparity? If you’re not making money you have less of a voice and sometimes no voice.

For this sound reason women should stay in the workforce…and stay at home moms should at least acknowledge that women who are staying in the workforce are giving to everybody.

Balance is a moving target. There’s no one right answer. Every woman has to define what’s right for her. There are a lot of choices and solutions. Steiner’s talked to so many women in writing her book The Mommy Wars, she’s come to believe that what we’re all really looking for is peace. Chaos and peace are not mutually exclusive, says Steiner. On the contrary. “You can live in a very chaotic world where you’re running from your kids school to your office to volunteer position and back to your kids and email and still have a peaceful fulfilling life.” Peace seems so elusive though. How do any of us get some? By embracing the uncertainty and chaos of course!

Weaned on the notion that we are not allowed to ask for things for ourselves and that we are meant to fulfill some ideal of womanhood and motherhood leads to a lot of unhappiness and lack of peace or balance not to mention judgment of other women. When we judge each other, suggests Steiner, couldn’t it be that we feel unentitled to go after what we really want in our own lives?

Let’s face it, there are more Oprah’s out there than not. We are purposeful and powerful and most beautiful when we are “just ourselves”. We derive happiness in our lives from many sources. And we human beings are, after all, naturally competitive. Why deny it?

Society is so conflicted about what’s important. Some need work and some need to say “no” to work. The capitalist side of our society says that the purpose in our lives is to achieve and accomplish. You put that next to how we deify motherhood and any mom is between a rock and a hard place.  “How can you be a high achieving, entrepreneurial individual who’s making lots of money and a devoted mom? You’re in trouble either way. You can’t live up to either of those ideals.” Though motherhood is the most profound thing that’s ever happened to Leslie Morgan Steiner, she is the first to say that you can’t find happiness in your children or in other people for that matter. We have to find new ways to be and our daughters are finding new ways to be in their lives. Happy moms make happy kids.

Why am I still involved in AWNY? “It’s so obvious to me, added Steiner.” At first it was a networking association that was in my backyard. I was working at Johnson & Johnson it was great to be involved. When I moved back to Washington, my home town, I wanted to keep a lot of my New York ties and AWNY was a natural way to do it. I also think that if you’re studying how women approach work, this is the perfect place to be because the org is so vibrant. This is a place that is really trying to support women achieving their career goals. I can’t imagine not remaining a part of it.”

“Being a member is great. Some people’s schedule and responsibilities makes it difficult to volunteer. But the reason I would urge people to volunteer is that it brings you into the organization at a deeper level, in a bonded way that means so much to women in particular. If your busy you don’t really have time to make rich, long term friendships with women whom you have a lot in common with.”

The Antithesis of the Mommy Track –
The non-mommy track is equally dicey yet under publicized. Without children, particularly in suburbia, there is no way at all to make either deals or friends.  No soccer practice, no lineup of cars to wait in, no parents night, no connection. Steiner is saddened by this because it underscores the divisionism among us women even further. What happened to the sisterhood, let alone the feeling of sisterhood where we help each other out at the playground or on the corporate ladder?  As one of her writers asked, where is the dog in this cat fight? What ever happened to the good old days when women fought with men? Why are we all fighting with each other now? Instead of fighting the real demons, in our society, aka, men, we fight with each other out of frustration and helplessness. If you can’t feel good about yourself, the next best thing is to feel better than someone else.
Women speaking out through a book like The Mommy Wars might, in Steiner’s thinking, help lead to a cooperative remaking of the American workplace into a friendlier place. The book tries, through women’s honest personal memoirs, to tackle a lot of the scary and confrontational topics women shy away from talking to each other about. “My hope is that by talking about our inner battles, people will be less afraid and more progress will be made. Women will be more embracing of women who’ve made different choices.

confrontation in written form is very productive. I like the inherent privacy of a book because you can get confrontational without alienating people. The real mommy war is in each mom’s head as you desperately try to convince yourself you’re a really good mom and it shouldn’t be so hard.

Working doesn’t equate to abusing your kids. There should be room in this society for every woman’s unique approach to motherhood. Focus on leading a great life- being happy and productive and giving back to society. There’s no message in print or on TV saying ”take a break a feel good about yourself as a mom. It’s all “you’re a bad mom because of x,y and z and this product can help you fix it.”

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