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Are we there yet?

The Motherhood Manifesto:
What America's Moms Want and What To Do About It

By Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
Nation Books, 2006

Review by Tracy Thompson

An article by Stephanie Wilkinson in BrainChild Magazine last year pondered the question, “Is there a mothers’ movement?’ and concluded that, overall, the situation was a bit like France in the months leading up to D-Day: much buzz, no action.

Lately, though, there’s been a distinct rumbling in the air -- and though it’s too soon to tell if this is the real thing, we do know what’s making the noise. It’s the mighty organizational apparatus of MoveOn.org, the online political advocacy group, which has now spawned a group called MomsRising.org and, most importantly, a book called The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want and What To Do About It. Written by Joan Blades, a co-founder of MoveOn.org, and writer/activist Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, The Motherhood Manifesto aims to be for the twenty-first century mother’s movement what The Feminine Mystique was for the twentieth century women’s movement: a groundbreaking, consciousness-raising, rousing call to grassroots political activism.

In many ways, the book succeeds admirably. It is solidly researched and well organized, the graphics are catchy, and the M.O.T.H.E.R. acronym is a compelling way of encapsulating the issues which concern all mothers these days, whether they are Red State Republicans or Blue State Democrats: Maternity/paternity leave, Open flexible work, Television and the media’s stranglehold on our kids, Healthcare, Excellent Childcare, Realistic and Fair Wages.

Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner have compiled a compelling and comprehensive indictment of the way American culture treats mothers (and though everything they say is applicable to fathers too, they rightly point out that women are the ones who suffer from wage bias by becoming parents, and women make up the overwhelming majority of single parents). Most mothers work, and most of them work for companies whose “family-friendly” policies -- assuming they exist -- serve mainly as a cautionary reminder that asking for part-time work or flexible hours is apt to stall a career. The United States has no shortage of political rhetoric about “family values,” but the U.S. and Australia are the only industrialized countries in the world where workers get no paid family leave whatsoever (and Australian workers get a full year of guaranteed unpaid leave, compared to only 12 weeks for workers here -- if, that is, their company has 50 or more employees).

The chapter on health care is the clearest and most cogent explanation I’ve ever seen of why this should be a subject of vital importance to mothers: because health benefits in this country are not provided by the government but by private employers,  one parent becomes tied to the job which serves as the vehicle for the family’s health insurance. Because that person is usually the father, that leaves -- guess who? -- to deal with child care and all the attendant complications: the need to find flexible hours or part-time work (often at lower hourly wages even if it is the same work she did before motherhood), not to mention the search for competent and reliable child care.

Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner don’t make this argument, but it occurs to me that health care may prove to be the bedrock issue on which to base a mothers’ movement. Even conservatives with a visceral dislike for anything that sounds remotely like “socialized medicine” will be sobered by the authors’ summary of what now passes for a health care system in this country—a bewildering array of 7,000 private health plans, each with its own pricing structure, billing practices and arcane definitions of coverage. Even families with first-rate health insurance these days live one catastrophic illness away from financial ruin, and the number of uninsured and under-insured families grows daily.

Television is another matter. The insidious hold mass media attempts to exert on our children is, no doubt, an important subject. But is television crucial to a discussion of a mothers’ movement? I don’t think so -- but hey: there’s a T in “mother,” and something had to go there, I guess. And even though the inclusion of this subject seemed a bit of a stretch, I learned something: only 17 percent of all American households actually use the V-chip in their television remote to control their children’s viewing habits. (I didn’t even know we had a v-chip in my house. Turns out we have two.)

The test of any good sermon, obviously, is how effectively it persuades the unconverted -- and here, I regret to report, The Motherhood Manifesto pretty much preaches to the choir. Go online, plug in the phrase “mommy wars,” and you will soon discover -- if you didn’t know already -- the immense amount of vitriol generated by any discussion of motherhood these days. “The problem is, [mothers] are not being discriminated against,” reads one typical comment on Alternet.org. “What [they] want is special breeder privileges.”

It’s tempting to dismiss such remarks as foam-flecked rhetoric from the aggressively child-free -- but under the foam is a wave. There are two basic critiques which any mothers’ movement must address if it is to have a prayer of creating social change, and The Motherhood Manifesto deals with neither. The first, and most common, is what I call the “you play, you pay” argument: having children is a choice, the counter-argument goes, so don’t ask the rest of us to give you a special deal just because you decided to procreate. The second critique comes from those who see the mothers’ movement as being led by economically privileged women who want their adorable children, their high-powered careers and a mocha latte on the side.

The second argument is the harder one to answer, because it contains more than a grain of truth: we do live in a materialistic culture, some of us in houses three times as big as any our parents ever dreamed of -- and, in fact, the mothers’ movement at this point is led by a cadre of women who are members of the economic and educational elite. But it’s always been that way: the women’s suffrage movement wasn’t exactly the creature of Irish washer-women, but of women with the education and leisure to pursue social change. Still, in this era of the widening gap between rich and poor, it would behoove the mothers’ movement to take extraordinary pains to present itself as the voice of the working poor -- especially the working poor -- and not just the upper middle class.

The “you play, you pay” argument is relatively easy to counter. When people have children may be a choice, thanks to reliable birth control, but children themselves aren’t really a choice -- not unless we passed a referendum in favor of species extinction when I wasn’t looking. Our children, after all, will be the doctors who tend to the “childfree” when they are old, who will manage their brokerage accounts, who will grow up to pay the taxes for the services they will use for the next 30 years or so. Yes, children are the responsibility of their parents -- but society shares that responsibility too, just as it has done without any serious debate for the past 75 years for senior citizens, via programs like Medicare and Social Security. (Odd, how you never hear the child-free extending their arguments to include eliminating those, even though it’s a perfectly logical next step.)

To gain any traction, any mothers’ movement in this country is going to have to engage these arguments, and others besides -- and when it comes to the nitty gritty, The Motherhood Manifesto is more packaging than product. There’s no doubt much to be learned from the grassroots kind of organizing that MoveOn.org has pioneered so successfully, and Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner have made a good start in the direction many of us feel that society needs to go. But D-Day involved more than just a bunch of boats, and I sincerely hope that MomsRising.org has more thinking power to put into the fray than what is contained in The Motherhood Manifesto -- like, maybe, a few demolition experts. Because see those weird metal thingys up there on the beach with the barbed wire wrapped around them? That’s not sculpture, folks. Those are land mines.

mmo : june 20006

Tracy Thompson is professional journalist and author of the forthcoming The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children and Struggling with Depression (August 2006). She was previously a reporter for the Washington Post. For more of Tracy's incisive opinions on motherhood and life in general, visit her blog, Maternally Challenged. For information about The Ghost in the House and Tracy's work on maternal depression visit her web site: www.tracythompson.com.
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