Working Mothers of the World, Unite!
What do they want? Time. And how can they get more? By building a vast movement with what little they have left.
by Katherine Ellison
The San Jose Mercury News, July 17, 2005
We don't have enough time.
This is U.S. mothers' key complaint cutting across lines of class, race and geography. It's also a clear reason our plight isn't improving.
Much more than any trumped-up "war" between factions of mothers, or even the poison of partisan politics, this paradox goes a long way toward explaining why achieving more support for working families remains the great unfinished work of feminism.
We don't have enough time to spend with our kids not when most moms depend on their paychecks.
We barely have time to read this story (which, by the way, was turned in late).
And we certainly don't have enough time to organize effectively on our own behalf.
While mothers are mothering a job that in this buyer-beware, competitive, globalized economy demands ever more of our energy and brains and with the great majority of us also working outside the home, we're too stressed and tired to make much headway on our piled-up laundry list of issues. So while a few mothers' groups have emerged, seeking to stir up grass-roots energy, they've failed so far for several reasons, but mostly because of this time crunch to do justice to the potent argument that helping mothers and other caregivers is an overdue investment in everyone's future.
"We really are reaching a point in the United States where life is becoming unbearable for a lot of reasons," says Judith Stadtman Tucker, editor of the Mothers Movement Online 'zine, voicing a theme that has been sounded by a startlingly long series of recent books exploring the new motherhood malaise. "Families are getting beaten up; schools are crappy; everyone is in a tremendous bind, and the center can't hold."
With the plight of time-stressed U.S. families growing ever more complex and dire, the mothers or others who discover the key to mobilizing parents may end up creating the mother of all lobbies for social transformation.
What might this juggernaut look like?
- It would repeat the brilliant success of MADD, the mothers who changed international laws and perceptions of the problem of drunken driving but do so with a short list of well-defined issues culled from parents' concerns expressed in national polls.
- It would be led by supremely gifted, energetic and media-savvy mothers, with no other professional obligations, who've figured out how to work as a tag team, modeling for the nation what part-time work can do.
- It would muster mothers' scattered energies via the Internet, a huge advance over the mimeograph machines of 1960s feminism, allowing mass participation with pre-scripted letters and e-mails, a la groups like MoveOn.org. But it would also recruit offline moms through coalitions with faith-based and community groups.
- It would dwell in the manifest common ground between affluent and low-income moms, prioritizing goals, such as paid medical and parental leave, that would help the greatest number of people.
- It would strive to be non-partisan. "There's a huge need for a focused organization that would provide a few issues mothers could agree on, and then provide a vehicle for them to channel whatever energies they have left after taking care of their kids," says University of Minnesota developmental psychologist Martha Farrell Erickson, a lead author of a new report called the Motherhood Study. Released in May, but ignored by most major media, the report, based on telephone interviews with more than 2,000 moms and follow-up discussions with 100 of them, is the first broad survey of American mothers' attitudes about motherhood.
The research was sponsored by the conservative Institute for American Values, and in a possible sign of the divisions afflicting the nascent motherhood movement, the political tilt of the sponsor could be a reason the study didn't make mainstream news. Erickson, however, was apparently not vetted for her own political leanings; she's a former adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and volubly interested in how mothers can get more support from society, including government.
Despite all the attention on the so-called "mommy wars," Erickson says she was "stunned" by the level of agreement among mothers on a variety of fundamental issues, some suggesting an agenda for action.
Standing out strongly were mothers' concerns about time, money and their children's education. Fifty-three percent said they wanted more time with their children. And 86 percent said enabling mothers to spend more time with their children should be a top priority of society. Nonetheless, most of the mothers felt tied to their paychecks; when asked to name their top three concerns for themselves, most of the mothers listed finances.
Asked their top three concerns for their children, a majority of mothers listed education right on par with safety and security issues a finding that resonates for Miriam Peskowitz, author of "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars." After interviewing mothers for her book, Peskowitz concluded that their struggles with the failing U.S. education system were sapping their potential political strength. "Education is so bad that it takes a lot of extra energy to navigate the public school systems," she said.
Given how much mothers are already doing, it's actually surprising that so many membership groups aimed specifically at winning more support for moms have sprung up in recent years. They include Mothers & More, whose local chapters provide support for individuals while also lobbying for improved state- level family benefits, and Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights, a new organization founded by authors Ann Crittenden and Naomi Wolf, who've been lobbying for national reforms including paid family leave and Social Security credits for family caregivers. Two additional prominent groups trying to mobilize mothers on a range of issues affecting children, such as education and the environment, are Mothers Acting Up, and Mainstreet Moms Operation Blue.
The groups have yet to coalesce into a meaningful political force. "They lack momentum and fresh ideas," says University of California-Berkeley Graduate Dean Mary Ann Mason, who is writing a book on the "unfinished revolution" of gender equity in the workplace. Yet others say they're encouraged by the activity so far, including the way mothers have cooperated on local issues, mostly involving their schools. "The more groups formed, the more books out there, the more conversations we have, the faster we get to a tipping point," Peskowitz says.
The need for a broad social movement for mothers has never been more clear, as emphasized in books such as Crittenden's "The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued," as well as "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke," by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. Several aspects of the problem may now be sadly familiar: Motherhood, reports Crittenden, is the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age. Researchers have also found that as the famous wage gap between men and women has narrowed, working mothers still trail far behind their childless peers.
The United States lags behind most industrial nations in providing family-friendly benefits, while even existing benefits are under siege. The U.S. Department of Labor reportedly is considering changes that could undermine the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993. The law currently provides 12 weeks of job-protected leave for serious illness, birth or adoption. (Only California also offers state payments during any of that time.) But business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have challenged the law as vague and vulnerable to abuse.
Parents themselves need to fight for more support for their families, contends Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Santa Rosa, the author of a bill called "The Balancing Act," which would provide sweeping family benefits such as paid parental leave, more affordable and better child care, and support for more family-friendly jobs.
In the Motherhood Survey, mothers themselves supported new activism by mothers and fathers, with 99 percent saying they wanted to see more parents involved in reducing negative influences on children. Thirty percent of the respondents said they already were working toward this end, but Erickson, the researcher, said she believes most of that activity has been channeled into local, faith-based groups rather than national efforts. Woolsey agreed that parents have been a feeble voice, if that, in Washington, especially compared to well-funded business lobbies.
Parents' lack of lobbying energy isn't the only obstacle, to be sure. Fully addressing the motherhood malaise would take a lot of government money, at a time when U.S. taxpayers are spending $5 billion a month on the war in Iraq, and the balance-of-payments deficit just hit a record high.
Another drag on progress for more support for parents are persistent beliefs about mothers that often clash with reality, such as the idea that going to work is a "choice" for most women. (In the Motherhood Study, only 38 percent said their spouse or partner was the sole financial provider for their family.) This notion has helped defeat several congressional attempts to improve the quality and affordability of child care.
Furthermore, the more you really think about improving life for parents, the more complex and unwieldy the potential agenda becomes. While single-focus groups like MADD can be hugely effective, the work cut out for the motherhood groups extends from legislatures to offices to family life, where mothers often need to negotiate a better deal from their own spouses.
"We're talking about a major cultural change, which is not going to happen overnight," says Tucker, the mothers 'zine editor.
Leading feminist groups are not trying to spearhead this change. A glance at the Web site of the National Organization for Women (NOW) illustrates its crisis mode over the future of the U.S. Supreme Court, and reproductive rights, after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation. Nor are the nation's beaten-down labor unions in any position to champion such progress most are consumed by just trying to avoid layoffs.
Some mother-activists are trying to think up ways to help parents fit lobbying into their schedules. The Mainstreet Moms group provides potential "bite-size actions" on its Web site (www.themmob.com), helping time-pressed parents send protests, with just a few clicks, to local and national legislators on a range of issues from the presence of military recruiters at schools to supporting renewable fuels in the effort to combat climate change. "I've been telling people just to call their legislators and say, 'I'm a mother and I'm mad,' " Peskowitz says. " 'I'm a mother and I want more paid maternity leave.' And so on."
Tucker says she's determined to form yet another new national organization, tentatively called Mothers for Change, which would campaign for benefits, such as paid sick leave and paid child care for anyone in need. She is encouraged by the possibilities of organizing on the Internet, and envisions reaching out to form coalitions with organizations already working on issues central to the mothers' campaign.
Farrell, the co-author of the Motherhood Survey, has a separate vision of how harried activist mothers can expand their ranks: Recruit their moms. "At this point, it might really be the grandmothers who need to step in," she says, "and as a new grandmother I'd really like to do that."
Reprinted with permission by The San Jose Mercury News © 2005