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It takes a whole community…
to reform U.S. health care

By Robin Martin

Tracy's* whole-child mothering and her successful home-based Waldorf-methods pre-school have made her recognized in this community. So when her partner developed a debilitating disease and the family lost all of their assets to medical bills, one can be certain that her friends were awakened to the troubled health care system in America. And once aware of the troubles, wouldn't they want to do something about it?

Unlike the stereotypes, mothers don't spend a lot of time sitting with their feet up socializing. In my Sacramento-based support group, Mothers' Support Network, (a 14-year-old grassroots non-profit dedicated to providing education, support, and enrichment to mothers who want to parent in a socially responsible way), mothers are actively taking part in their own and their children's development. Mothers are engaged with their children, and reading, discussing, debating, learning and teaching about issues surrounding our developing children, our selves as women and mothers with needs, and also larger social issues that affect these things. But are they doing anything about them? Action on the social issues front is much harder to find.

The primary reason for this, I have learned, is our perception of time. We want to save it in a bottle and want eight days a week. We rush through and are reminded that it goes too fast. There always seems to be too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. Simple living dictates: remove complications, spend time just "being," meditate. A mother needs to be engaged with her child and sensitive to her child's needs. With a group like Mothers' Support Network, which inclines toward a simple living model, where does mobilization of the mothers fit in?

In the introduction to a new Mothers' Support Network educational project about health care in America, I wrote:

We have gathered together as parents, primarily mothers… to educate ourselves about how to provide care and guidance to our children while respecting our beliefs and working to better the world for the future of our families.

Our huge task encompasses many issues of both grand and tiny proportions and we each approach it with individual foci and levels of energy. Where we each focus our energy depends on many things, not the least of which is our understanding of, and education about, any given topic.

We make choices about where we will be active based on what we experience and where we place importance. Our interests and passions are diverse. Within our community there is therefore available a plethora of subjects about which we can all become educated and more aware. While we are wrapped up in our day to day life it is often difficult to see the bigger picture, these larger -- community, state, country, global -- issues are happening right along side of us and assisting or hindering the lives we try to create for our families and our communities.

My hope in writing that introduction was that those who read it might understand that sometimes we need to pull back from the day to day and direct our energies to much larger and less personal issues in order to make our day to day world more what we'd like it to be.

And yet, although I have received some very positive feedback on the project, and many mothers are touched personally by the issue of health care reform, I hear over and over that there is no time.

"I am a single mother of three and self employed. I've made the decision to be self-employed for the sole purpose of being with my children. I've taken a risk as I do not have access to affordable health coverage." says Amy. "When I stop to think about it, it's frightening. The need for health insurance is a huge deciding factor for many families. When I tell someone that I am self-employed, it is common to hear them say 'what about health insurance?' Self-employment is something many do not consider as they cannot conceive of losing health insurance. So, single mothers must work outside the home, leaving their children to be raised by someone else if they want health insurance,"

We are surely not surprised when her answer to whether or not she can participate in Mothers' Support Network's educational campaign for reforming the US failed health care system is, "I would like to help. I think I can offer a perspective from a single parent's point of view. Unfortunately, my time is so incredibly limited. Realistically, I am thinking a few hours a month is all I could give." Given that she is a single mother who works from home, I am appreciative of every second she has and may in the future give to this or any other project.

This is, of course, another one of those Catch 22s. We are working so hard that we don't have time to change the system that causes us to work so hard.

Jennifer Winchell, mother of two under 3 and a director on the board of Mothers' Support Network says, "many women get so caught up in the here and now of parenting that they don't feel they have time to be part of social and political change. Infants and toddlers are in the here and now with their needs and wants and mothers who care for them end up there too. It is often hard for them to predict when they might have time to join a movement."

Mothers who are activists have an ugly reputation as not being there for their children  -- think Mrs. Banks, the suffragette mother of Jane and Michael Banks in Mary Poppins. Mrs. Banks is caricature of the activist mother, always running off to get votes for women while her children, meanwhile, run off nanny after nanny. Many mothers can't help but see activism as taking away from their children, rather than providing a better future for them.

Beth McGovern, of the California Commission on the Status of Women, says that health care reform in the form of universal single payer health care would benefit women, particularly mothers. Women are more likely to rely on their partner's work sponsored health insurance benefits. In fact, 1 in 4 women are dependents on someone with job-based insurance (typically a spouse) and these women are twice as likely to lose their insurance through death of the primary insurer, divorce, retirement or unemployment.

"There is a much larger number of women who don't get health insurance through an employer. Especially moms. Women take time off to take care of the kids. Women are more prevalently self-employed, have their own business, and don't have the kinds of jobs that provide health insurance. So, even though they are working they often don't get it," McGovern says. "Mothers of kids often fall into the group that are not poor enough to qualify for MediCal [California's Medicare] or even Healthy Families -- which was designed to cover families -- but that hasn't happened. It is still covering only kids. Since the mothers are working, they aren't eligible."

"These are weaknesses. [Mothers are] very much a group that tends to have lousy health care."

Interestingly, McGovern notes, there are not masses of women on the legislative level involved in these issues that impact them so significantly. Health care programs in place include those that might be able to cover one's child, might be able to cover one's reproductive health. But there are many exclusions and loopholes, says McGovern, and most of these programs are underutilized. Also, they are always threatened by those who claim to deride "big government" or want to cut social programs in favor of tax breaks.

Neither Mothers' Support Network nor I have any great answers to how to mobilize mothers, but certainly Mothers' Support Network is doing something right.  The organization, which is 100 percent volunteer-run, maintains a website, www.motherssupportnetwork.org, runs a resource center and small retail shop, produces a 28-page quarterly newsletter, holds facilitated support and discussion groups, book circles, playgroups, sing a longs and story times and has managed to survive almost entirely on mother power for nearly 15 years and is getting stronger every day. As busy as we are, we can make the time for things that move us.

Perhaps for those of us who are in the activist mode, we need to find acceptance that while mothers might not be demonstrating en masse outside of the state house with signs calling for Health Care for All, we can keep them informed and connected, and they will be prepared to jump in and join the fight for the greater good when they feel it would integrate organically into their lives.

"A place like Mothers Support Network allows mothers to be able to participate as much or as little as they can with a cause because it is a team effort," notes Winchell.

How many mothers know of someone like Tracy and know and of her plight: Her battles with her partner's disease and our diseased health care system? My job, with this Health Care Education Project through Mothers' Support Network will be to lay it on the table. Maybe mobilization comes from within a person, but certainly information can be delivered that will help prepare her for it.

* real name not used to protect the family's privacy

Mmo : september 2006

Robin Martin is the mother of one son, and the managing editor of the Mothers' Support Nework Quarterly Newsletter. She has just started graduate studies in English Creative Writing and Composition. You can visit the Health Care Reform and the Mothers' Movement project by going to the Mothers' Support Network homepage and scrolling down to the topic.

At publication time, the California's Health Care for All bill had passed both the state senate and assembly and was awaiting Gov. Schwarzenegger's promised veto.

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