It's a funny thing about mothers. When they involve themselves in politics, they are one of the most powerful forces in the country. But they almost never advocate on their own behalf.
For their children, it's another story. Armed with a unique moral authority, mothers have successfully mobilized to promote temperance, curb drunk driving and push for tighter gun controls. It was mothers' movements that established kindergarten, child health services and a separate juvenile-justice system--all before women even had the right to vote.
But mothers have been strangely reluctant to marshal their strength for themselves. Perhaps because of a deeply ingrained sense that their job is to do for others, mothers have rarely fought to better their own lot--even though the evidence is overwhelming that more resources and power in the hands of mothers would greatly improve the lives of their children.
This political timidity has been reinforced by feminists and conservatives alike. Many old-line feminists dislike making claims in the name of motherhood, fearful of reviving stereotypes that keep women down. To many veteran feminists, progress is measured by the distance women can put between themselves and the ancient constrained world of reproduction and domesticity.
I ran into this attitude when I first began to think about writing my book on the price of motherhood in the U.S. Early on, I met with a literary agent who had represented several prominent feminists. I described my idea: a book that would explain how raising a child was in fact the most important job in the economy, yet was accorded very little economic recognition, to the enormous detriment of women and children. Her response: "I don't want to do anything retro."
This feminist reaction left the field to social conservatives who have their own agenda, which is not the advancement of women. Full of lip service to motherhood, they urge women to abandon their own ambitions for the sake of their families, without a word about the costs of those sacrifices. Stay at home, perform the unpaid caring work that it takes to make a family and forget about other aspirations or the economic security and reward that is your due--this is the message that conservatives are still preaching to mothers. As economist Shirley Burggraf has observed, much of the discussion of family values is really about persuading women to keep on volunteering their unpaid or underpaid labor.
Even mothers themselves fail to support each other's efforts to improve their lives. Mothers are a disparate bunch, divided by race, education, income, religion, cultural values, and even sexual orientation. But underneath it all, the vast majority of us face an unnecessarily harsh set of conditions when it comes to raising our kids, trying to make a living, trying to preserve a fair and stable marriage--not to mention pursuing more ambitious personal goals. Mothers, whatever their situations, are much more likely than fathers to move in and out of paid work, to move up and down the income scale and to fall into poverty. Rich or poor, across racial and ethnic lines, we have much more in common than we may think we have. Yet mothers continue to sabotage one another.
When Zoe Baird had to turn down the job of attorney general in the first Clinton administration because she had hired undocumented workers, it was in part angry letters from women--attacking Baird for having hired illegal immigrants and not paying Social Security taxes--that made Clinton comfortable not sticking with her. As a result of that controversy, it would be politically impossible today to appoint someone to a judgeship or high political office who had ever hired an undocumented domestic worker. Many of those negatively affected are mothers. While male lawyers up for judgeships often have had the luxury of a wife to stay at home with the children, working women almost invariably need to hire outside care. No serious consideration has been given, despite these obvious inequities, to finding solutions, like changing immigration policy to more readily admit trained nannies to the country, which could alleviate the shortage of able people qualified to work with children in the home.
In California, maternal divisiveness surfaced in the mid-1990s when the state passed a law changing the formula for establishing levels of child-support payments. The most vociferous opponents to the law, which substantially increased many support payments, were second wives--often mothers themselves--of divorced fathers, who lobbied relentlessly for a rollback of the law. Statistically, given California divorce rates, it was likely that many of them would one day benefit from the higher rates of child support, but they were unable to grasp that the bill might ultimately be in their interest.
On the job, female bosses as a group have been very much like their male counterparts in failing to support employees' efforts to combine work with family responsibilities. In a recent speech to an international conference of women business executives, management consultant Tom Peters declared that, from what he had seen, successful women all too rarely help or mentor their female underlings--or even conceived of that as part of their responsibility. I have heard countless stories about the macho female "boss from hell". There was the manager who refused a mother's request to work from 9 to 5, instead of her usual long hours of overtime; the boss who refused any sort of flextime; and the one who fired someone because, after her second baby, she wanted to continue working one day a week at home. That particular employer was Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a mother herself, who had campaigned on a promise to understand other mothers' problems.
American women need to realize that things don't have to be this way. In Western Europe, a higher degree of consensus has created much better conditions for mothers and children. In most countries, there is agreement among men and women alike that mothers deserve time with their newborns without having to quit their jobs and take a severe cut in their family income. Paid parental maternity leaves of several months to a year are the norm. As a result, there are fewer European infants in day care than in the U.S., and it is easier for new mothers to breast-feed, as pediatricians recommend.
In France, mothers have none of the American hang-ups over day care. Virtually everyone agrees that all children deserve a quality preschool education, and most French children from the age of about 3 attend one of the best nursery school systems in the world, free of charge. In Sweden, agreement that both parents should play a role in child care and in earning their own income has produced laws guaranteeing parents the right to work a three-quarter work week until their children enter primary school. (This is on top of a 13-month paid parental leave.)
These family policies are sacrosanct, supported by parties of both left and right. Public officials know that it is better to spend tax dollars supporting families than to face the voting-booth wrath of parents. In the U.S., farmers have such power; contractors have such power; telecommunications, tobacco, and health insurance companies have such power, but parents, who produce the most valuable economic resources that we have--the workers and taxpayers of tomorrow--have no clout.
Legislators, both in Washington and in state capitols, often say that, although they would like to support mothers, they never hear from them. Unlike older people, mothers rarely e-mail or write or call to demand policies that would make their lives easier. No doubt they feel too busy, too harassed, too tuned out of a system that usually ignores their existence. Most mothers I know frantically work out their own private accommodations without making demands on the system.
The only time I can recall such a diverse group of women getting together to do something for mothers was in the mid-1990s, when female senators, liberal and conservative, and women's groups across the political spectrum united to push a bill allowing housewives to contribute to individual retirement accounts. And the bill passed: No one dared to vote against mom. Mothers are the sleeping giant of American politics, and there is no telling what that giant can accomplish if she wakes up and gets her act together.