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How does defining mothers as workers
or nonworkers help our cause?

By Melissa Wilkins

An email I received recently from a mothers' advocacy group informed me that "employed mothers and full-time mothers have vastly more in common than what separates them." Great! I thought. Let's talk about our shared needs and common goals. But then they elaborated: "In fact, a majority of full-time mothers ultimately go back to paid work at later times in their lives." Oh. So we're going to focus on the needs of working mothers, because most mothers will, at one time or another, work? That's not really what I was hoping for. That doesn't sound like finding ways to support women as they mother -- it sounds like a rallying call to improve conditions for one group of mothers.

We could just as easily say, "employed mothers and full-time mothers have vastly more in common than what separates them. In fact, a majority of mothers with minor children don't work full-time." Also true, also not helpful. It's true that about 76 percent of all mothers work for pay, and also that about 62 percent of all mothers don't work full-time.(1) Even among mothers of children twelve and older (the group most likely to be in the workforce and mostly likely to work full-time), nearly 40 percent work less than full-time.(2) But I'm not sure how defining us all as workers or as nonworkers helps us move toward a family-friendly society.

Our current situation is untenable. We live in a dual-income economy without social support for working parents; the childcare system available to us requires a nonworking parent or a hefty income. Our obvious choices, then, are to subsidize nonworking parenthood or to provide community childraising support -- but pursuing only one of these paths privileges one situation over the other, ultimately reducing our available options.

In 2001, about 39 percent of mothers worked full-time, about 25 percent stayed at home full-time, and about 37 percent worked part-time or part of the year.(3) Census Bureau statistics tell us that many mothers choose not to work, or to work less, when their children are younger than grade-school age, and that a majority of mothers return to work when their children are in school. Would more women work sooner if childcare for toddlers was widely available? Would more women stay home with their babies if they were compensated for doing so? The statistics shed light on what people are doing -- but not on their motives or desires. Census takers don't delve into whether families are happy with their arrangements, or which situations parents would change, given the right resources.

Do mothers want to work more? Do mothers want to work less? Do mothers want more creative work solutions? Certainly yes, to all three. 'Mother' is not a homogeneous category -- different women want different things, have different priorities and values, are driven by different belief systems and world views. Still, we, as mothers, have a lot in common; we, and our families, share many of the same needs. We need to find a way to address those needs, rather than try to convince one another that we all share the same perspective.

I understand the challenge in forming an agenda both specific enough to do any good and comprehensive enough to include the plurality of motherhood experiences. But in an economy hostile to all mothers, in a culture where parents feel beleaguered no matter which work/family arrangement they live with, solutions that address the needs of any one subset of parents just aren't enough. I'd like to see a mothers' movement that starts by identifying those core needs that all mothers share, that all parents share, that all families share. Our kids, for instance, all need quality care, all need quality education, all need access to quality health care. How to meet those needs will look different for different family situations, but if we can agree on basic needs, we can build from there and provide multiple solutions.

For example, we can all agree that children require care -- but how should we go about providing that care? Should we subsidize those parents who want to care for their children at home, or focus on funding high-quality daycare? How do we choose what to fight for? Ours is a nation of increasingly diverse families, and we must seek diverse solutions. We need policies that provide parenting choices, not that push us all into any one category. Publicly funded daycare is often proposed as essential to working families -- as it should be. But creating daycare for all children also creates the expectation that all parents will use it. Where does that leave parents who desire flexible scheduling to allow them to care for their children themselves, or who prefer to rely on a stay-at-home parent? What incentive would employers have to accommodate them? What social support can they expect? We don't want our bold family-friendly proposals to support some while undermining others.

So let's create accessible, affordable daycare, while also providing funds for parents who want to provide full-time care for their children, especially in the labor-intensive early years. And since a sizeable number of parents prefer neither traditional full-time jobs nor full-time at-home parenting, let's find a way to fund small business loans or mini-grants for parents who have creative, sustainable plans for combining work and parenting.

Because while I'm in favor of improving the lives of working moms (or poor moms, or single moms, or any other group of moms), I'd prefer to expand the choices available to everyone. If we are united in the belief that society's best interest is that all kids are raised well, then we can focus on the benefits not of mothers working or of mothers staying home, but of parents doing what they think is best for their families. If we can shift the debate to be about how we can provide parents with more options, well, that's what real change would look like to me. That's a movement I can get behind.

Mmo : September 2006

1. Vicky Lovell, 40 hour Work Proposal Significantly Raises Mothers’ Employment, Institute for Women’s Policy Research Publication #D460, June 2003, quoted in Miriam Peskowitz, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother, Seal Press, 2005.

2. Jane Lawler Dye, Fertility of American Women: June 2004, U.S. Census Bureau, December 2005. See Figure 3.

3. Lovell.

Melissa Wilkins lives and writes in southern California, where she also keeps busy with the care and feeding of three small children. More of Melissa’s writing can be found at her personal blog, www.makingthingsup.blogspot.com

Also on MMO:

Birth, Choices
I read Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born years before having my first baby. Not yet a mother myself, the idea of mothers choosing to reclaim authority over their births from medical professionals seemed radical and perhaps even a bit dangerous.
By Melissa Wilkins

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