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Shaping the pro-mother agenda

An interview with Joanne Brundage, founder and
Executive Director of Mothers & More

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Joanne Brundage is the founder and Executive Director of Mothers & More, a non-profit organization dedicated to “improving the lives of mothers through support, education and advocacy.” With over 7,000 members in the U.S. and beyond, the group’s mission is to “address the needs of mothers as individuals and members of society,” and to promote the value of “all the work mothers do.” According to the Mothers & More web site, the organization strives “to raise awareness about the fact that mothers live and work in a society that presents significant barriers to their ability to succeed as women, citizens, parents or participants in the workforce. By uniting mothers to act on their own behalf, we seek to eliminate policies, practices and attitudes that unfairly impact mothers as caregivers.”

Mothers & More provides a nationwide network of 175 chapters for “mothers who are— by choice or circumstance— altering their participation in the paid workplace over the course of their active parenting years.” Local chapters vary greatly in size and all have a unique personality, but each provides a range of regular activities for members, from social nights out and open discussions to structured presentations and consciousness-raising workshops. Many chapters also plan daytime activities for members and their children.

For many years, Mothers & More (formerly FEMALE— Formerly Employed Mothers At the Leading Edge) struggled with the perception— both internally and from outside the organization— that the group’s main function was providing social support for at-home moms. While slightly over half of all Mothers & More members are non-employed, 45 percent are in the paid workforce, although the majority of employed members work in reduced hour or other non-standard arrangements. Since the late 1990s, Mothers & More leaders have stressed that the organization was formed to address the needs of “sequencing” mothers— mothers who, at various points when their children are young, may reduce their hours of paid work or exit the paid workforce entirely with the intention of re-entering the labor market either full- or part-time in a few months or years. Yet the organizational culture of Mothers & More has always been characterized by a distinctive emphasis on supporting the needs of mothers as women. The experience of individual members varies, however, depending on the tenor of their local chapter.

In addition to assisting the development of new and existing chapters, the national body of Mothers & More— which is headquartered in Elmhurst, Illinois— produces a bi-monthly newsletter and facilitates topic discussion in over 20 member-directed virtual communities. Although national operations include several paid staff members, teams of member volunteers are responsible for program development, project management, implementation strategy, communications and chapter support.

In its 17-year history, Mothers & More has also designed a number of programs to raise awareness about conditions and practices that disadvantage caregivers, both in and outside of the paid workforce. Even so, the average Mothers & More member would probably describe herself as family-centric— at least at the present point in her work/life continuum— and the action items that top the organization’s current advocacy agenda generally reflect this orientation. Although Mothers & More members espouse a diverse range of political and parenting philosophies, they have been especially receptive to nationally-coordinated programs and activities debunking the myth that there is only one kind of “good” mother and that a “good” mother always puts her own needs and desires last. Since 2003, Mothers & More has also coordinated an annual Mother’s Day Campaign to call attention to “real” mothers and the real work they do to support their families and society.

The MMO spoke with Brundage about her many years of work with Mothers & More and her vision for the organization’s role in the emerging “mothers’ movement.”

MMO: You founded FEMALE— now known as Mothers & More— in 1987. What was happening in your life— and what societal conditions were you aware of— that made you feel the timing was right to bring mothers together in this way? What was your model?

J. Brundage: Well, there was no vision, no comparative analysis, no strategic plan that drove me to start a group called FEMALE (Formerly Employed Mothers At Loose Ends) in the summer of 1987. It was pure personal desperation on my part, after being home full-time for a year with a very crazy, colicky infant and wondering if I’d ever find another mother who was home and not in a total state of bliss about it— someone who shared the ambivalence, the grieving, and the guilt over the grieving I felt about leaving the paid workplace to be home with my children.

Even though I wasn’t a “fast-tracker” and didn’t think of my 10 years working as a letter carrier as a “career,” I had never intended to leave my job to be home with my kids. I loved my job and being economically self-sufficient meant a lot to me.

In fact, when Zach was born in June of 1986, I’d been a “working mom” for over six years. I’d returned to a 40-45 hour-a-week work schedule after a 13-week-leave after our daughter Kerry was born in late 1979 and felt everything was going great, at home and at work.

But by then I didn’t have the same childcare options and Zach had his own agenda, was a child only a parent could love, and we were unsuccessful at finding a home daycare provider who we felt could care for him as we would, given his constant crying/never sleeping/having to be in constant motion (rocking, strolling, swinging, whatever).

The late ‘80s was really the zenith of the “Super Woman” era, where we all were told, and believed, that we should make the bacon, fry it up in the pan, make sure our husband felt like a man…and be great moms. Even though at that time, the ratio of moms in the paid workplace and home full-time was almost 50/50, culturally, there was no such thing as “staying home” and certainly no concept of “sequencing” (hence, the “formerly employed” in our original name). Once you left the paid workplace, you left for good— you were permanently retired, your goose was cooked. So when I quit, I really did feel it was the death of my life as a “working” woman. And not only did I feel a sense of personal failure and loss, but I also felt I had let down the sisterhood; that I just couldn’t cut it, and that my actions just confirmed what employers suspected all along: women just can’t cut it.

But once I resigned, I also felt a great sense of betrayal. Where was the feminist movement for me now? Why didn’t my spouse and I have the option to job share (we both worked in the same post office) so we both could continue to work and care for our kids? Why weren’t there more childcare options for me from the largest employer in the country, the US Postal Service? I was angry. And after going through months of private emotional turmoil, I became determined to find a way to deal with my new life.

Since therapy wasn’t an option (we were dead broke after I quit), I started looking around to see if there was a support group for someone like me. I took out a book from the local library about women’s groups, hoping to find a group in the listings. Alas, the closest thing was the Displaced Homemakers Association (for women compelled, after a spousal disability or death, or divorce, to re-enter the workforce after years at home). The book also gave suggestions for how to start your own group, which seemed to be my last resort. My initial goal in starting a group, though, was simply to find one or two other women who understood and shared what I was feeling.

MMO: Over time, how have the goals of the organization changed? Do you think social and economic conditions that effect mothers have also changed since the group was founded? Has the composition of the organization’s membership also changed over the years?

J. Brundage: Once we got started, the group grew very quickly and almost effortlessly. We started in August of 1987, in my living room, with just four women. When we put a small blurb in the women’s section of the Chicago Tribune in late December, we got calls from 64 women in 48 hours, from all over the Chicagoland area. And when a letter to the editor describing the group was published in the March 1988 issue of Ms. Magazine, we grew to hundreds of members, across the country and beyond, literally overnight. Clearly, we had touched on an unfulfilled need.

And in connecting with so many mothers across so many miles, it became almost immediately apparent to all of us that the issues we were dealing with were more than personal issues; that our society and culture had a lot to do with what we were grappling with. It really brought home the saying “the personal is political.” By the time we filled our incorporation papers as a not-for-profit in April of 1988, our stated purpose already integrated support with advocacy. It stated that FEMALE’s purpose was as “a support group for women who have interrupted their careers to raise their families and as an advocacy group for employment and family issues.”

The goals of the organization over the past 17-plus years haven’t changed, really, though we have worked over time to better articulate them. But we have been more successful at providing support services to mothers than at defining and advocating for societal change. I think this is, in part, because Mothers & More was well ahead of its time in thinking about the new “problem with no name” that centered on mothers as a group. We struggled for years to define our issues— we knew that such things as improved childcare or FMLA just didn’t quite suffice as the answers to the problems we “felt” but could not quite articulate.

However, the organization, from the beginning, has always attracted the interest of the media (not your typical moms’ group, obviously) and so we have always worked at and been fairly successful at partnering with the media to bring mothers’ issues into the public discussion. And, happily, with ground breaking books hitting the shelves in recent years, starting with Unbending Gender by Joan Williams in 2000 and The Price of Motherhood by Ann Crittenden in 2001, the issues we have worked to define are finally coming into sharper focus, and our culture is beginning to catch up with Mothers & More.

In addition to these issues being better conceptualized and brought to the fore, there have been other external changes over the years. Now, the concept of sequencing is much more widely known and embraced. The public discussion about women, work and family has definitely and significantly changed. I only wish our paid workplace practices and our public policies had changed in relation to these issues as well. They haven’t.

Most interesting and apparent to me, today’s new mothers are a different generation, with different priorities and expectations, than the moms who first joined Mothers & More (then FEMALE). Today’s “Gen-X” moms— who are the majority of our members now— are markedly different from the “Boomer” moms of our organization’s first generation. They are more skeptical of feminism and, at the same time, have higher expectations about being able (indeed, being entitled) to find the work/family balance they want and need. But, I think today’s mothers are even more likely to be blind sided by what Joan Williams has coined “the motherhood wall,” because, unlike their Boomer big sisters, up until they became mothers, these women did not experience significant obstacles in higher education or in the workplace. Many thought the feminist movement had leveled the playing field and its work was done. But, this generation is also more self determining and not as inclined to consider themselves political or part of a movement. This is one of our challenges to mobilizing mothers to come together as a group to advocate for change.

In terms of general demographics, however, our membership has been amazingly stable. Our typical member, from Day One, has been a mother in her mid-thirties, with 2 children 5 years and under, living in a metropolitan area, middle to upper middle family income, well educated and having had a significant commitment to a paid career before children. The only thing that has recently shifted is current workplace participation. In all our member surveys, from 1989 through 1998, our membership broke out, two thirds currently home full time, one third participating in the paid workplace in some capacity (primarily something less than full-time, full-year). But in our fall 2004 Member Survey, that percentage shifted to 55 percent home full time, 45 percent working for pay.

raising consciousness within and beyond the organization

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