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Shaping the pro-mother agenda

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

March 2005

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.

MMO: In 2002, Mothers & More revised its mission statement from “supporting sequencing women” and addressing “women’s personal needs and interests during their active parenting years” to “improving the lives of mothers through support, education and advocacy.” Why?

J. Brundage: Just as we gradually moved from a very distinct and detailed name to a broader one (Formerly Employed Mothers At Loose Ends in 1987 to Formerly Employed Mothers At the Leading Edge in 1991 to Mothers & More in 2000), we have worked over the course of years to refine our mission statement to better reflect our work, beliefs and long term goals, and to give us more room to move as the external environment changes.

In 2002, specifically, I think we felt that some of the terminology in our mission statement lent itself to confusion (i.e., what, exactly, is a sequencing woman? An at-home mom? A mother trying to re-enter the workforce?? Members thought it was either one of these or something entirely different) and some of it was limiting in its scope.

In addition, our mission statement at that time was very long, wordy and overly detailed. So our goals were to clarify, simplify and broaden, all at the same time. We went from an 81-word paragraph mission statement to a 39-word, 2-sentence mission statement. We also created a set of beliefs to provide more detail, but in a better place and way.

We went through over six months of work, engaging our volunteer leadership, local and national, and our membership overall, in this refinement process.

The spirit of our mission remained intact, I believe, but was better stated for all to understand.

MMO: Mothers & More released the organization’s first formal advocacy statement— the POWER Plan— in 2003. The Plan spells out specific advocacy and direct action objectives, such as advocating that “unpaid caregiving work” be acknowledged as “equal in value to paid work” and “that the value of unpaid caregiving work be considered and reflected in any reforms to retirement savings plans, Social Security and disability insurance,” as well as taking action to “support legislation at the state and federal levels that ensures proportional pay, benefits and advancement for part-time and contingent workers.” Why doesn’t the Mothers & More advocacy agenda address other policy issues that affect the well-being of mothers in the U.S., such as guaranteed sick leave for all workers, access to affordable, high quality child care, and paid parental leave?

J. Brundage: Actually, the POWER Plan was the second time we had formulated and presented an advocacy statement and plan. The first time was in May of 1999, where, in our member publication, Forum, we rolled out a set of beliefs and a set of three action objectives. There was a more focused emphasis on sequencing and sequencing mothers in that first round (the article was entitled “FEMALE’s Perspective on Sequencing Women’s Rights”), but much of what was in that first “National Advocacy Plan” is reflected in our current beliefs and in the POWER Plan.

But, just as with the clarification of our mission and beliefs, we tackled the formulation of the POWER Plan in a very deliberate, strategic, practical and member-involved way. Our Advocacy Department team developed a detailed collection of criteria for determining issue selection and support, which included alignment with our mission and values as well as practical considerations (for example, is the issue easy to understand and explain, are other organizations working on it, would it resonate with our members, etc.), economic considerations (how many/which groups of mothers would it benefit and would there be economic downsides businesses or taxpayers) and whether it would help shift cultural perceptions and expectations about mothers and the work they do.

Initially, we identified 25 issues for consideration. Using the criteria we’d developed, we went through several rounds of evaluation and elimination until we were down to just seven (access to affordable, high quality child care did not make the cut in this process). These included expanding the child care tax credit so that it covers more of the real costs of child care today, is refundable and is directed toward the work of caregiving whether that care is provided in the marketplace or is unpaid; inlcuding unpaid caregiving work in the GDP accounts; providing credits in the Social Security system for unpaid caregiving work; ending the exclusion of unpaid caregivers from other social insurance programs such as disability insurance, tax subsidized pension and retirement programs, and worker training; expanding options for parents to obtain part-time work, which might include restructuring tax law and incentives for employers and mandating proportional pay, benefits and advancement for part-time workers; relieving the payroll tax burden borne by secondary wage and allowing married couples to file individually, which lowers the tax burden on secondary wage earners and dual earner families; and giving employees 6 or more weeks of paid leave for a birth, adoption or family illness

We prepared issues briefs and presented them with an online member survey, and members were asked to first read all the briefs, and then answer the questions on the survey, based on their opinion of the issue. The issues that bubbled to the top in this round were, in order, part time work options, childcare tax credits, Social Security reform and paid leave.

The POWER Plan was created not so much as a prioritized laundry list of external issues that we would then immediately tackle, one by one, however. Rather, it takes a broader perspective, delineating how we will begin to translate our mission and beliefs into action, and referencing these particular issues as opportunities we may seize when the time is right. But first and foremost, this plan took us to the next step in defining how and in which way we would continue to educate and raise consciousness within and beyond the organization.

What programs or projects do you have underway that support your current mission and advocacy goals?

J. Brudage: We have a number of active programs and projects that support our mission and goals.

We have a national network of chapters that provide face-to-face programs and activities to support, educate and advocate for mothers. We also have a bimonthly member publication, Forum, which contains features on the issues mothers face, personal and bigger picture, personal essays from members about their daily life realities and issues, and organizational news.

We have a website that contains a lot of information for the public on not only on member benefits, but also lots of information and articles about mothers’ issues, and what Mothers & More is doing about them. We also have a separate members only section where members can access additional organizational information as well as view and apply for national level volunteer staff positions. In fact, we consider our unpaid staff opportunities and the virtual workplace we have created to do our work to be a significant member benefit/opportunity. And we have a separate website and 10 departmental email loops just to facilitate that work and give our member staff resources and professional development opportunities to do that work.

We also have over 20 member email loops, which are created and moderated by members, in whatever areas of interest they want and need.

In terms of advocacy-oriented programs and projects, we have one very distinct member email loop, our “POWER Loop,” where members across the country can discuss the meatier issues we all face in society as caregivers. It is one of our most popular and active loops. We often have guest speakers on that loop as well— just about any author you could name that has written about mothers’ issues in the recent years, such as Joan Williams, Ann Crittenden, Faulkner Fox, Andi Buchanan, Judith Warner, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels— and the list goes on and on.

We have something we call our “Apple Pie in the Face” Award, which is an “honor” we bestow to entities from time to time to call attention to acts that divide mothers or trivialize the struggles mothers face in balancing caregiving with their other needs and responsibilities. For instance, this award was given to the Dr. Phil Show for doing a two-part show, Mom vs. Mom, which pitted at-home moms against working moms, and to the marketing and communications firm Euro RSCG Worldwide for its “Five New Categories of Modern-Day Moms” which defined a whole new, overwhelmingly negative and dismissive set of stereotypes that all mothers presumably fit into.

Finally, we are just about to go into our third annual Mother’s Day Campaign, which is an event we hold every April and May to spotlight mothers’ issues, hold local chapter activities around those issues, and encourage mothers across the country— members and non-members alike— to share their real stories with one another. This year’s theme is “Mothers: the Real Story. It’s About Time,” referring to the need to recognize that caregiving takes real time and energy to perform, that we all need more and better options to fit the time to care in with all the other things we have to do, and that time spent caregiving should not carry unfair social and economic penalties. And we’re very excited by a new campaign activity this year: several mothers will be blogging about and during the campaign, via our website.

MMO: As the founder and Executive Director of Mothers & More, you’ve had a number of opportunities to interact with the media. In general, do you feel mainstream media coverage of mothers’ issues is fair and accurate?

J. Brundage: Overall, I consider the media to be one of Mothers & More’s most effective partners in giving voice to mothers’ issues. And perhaps that is not all that surprising, given that so many mothers work in journalism. These issues really resonate with many of them and are of personal interest. They “get it” because a lot of them live it. (In fact, on several occasions, journalists who have written about Mothers & More subsequently joined as members.) Overall, print media (including “virtual” print) especially, and newspapers specifically, do a great job of covering and accurately representing our issues and concerns.

And in the last couple years, the media inquiries Mothers & More has received have been more and more focused on the meatier issues concerning mothers. Our board president, Kristin Maschka, has also been asked to give more and more radio interviews, again, often to talk about the complexity of mothers’ issues.

The only medium that still falls short of the mark on a regular basis is mainstream television. This seems to be the last bastion of sensationalism, oversimplification and resistance to delving into issues in any depth. And that is really too bad, because like it or not, America is a TV viewing society. If the content and depth in lots of the better print articles we’ve been involved with ever made it on a TV show like Oprah, we might be talking tipping point. But we’re not sitting by the phone, waiting for her to call.

Once in awhile a news show or news magazine will do a fairly good piece, but that’s the exception to the rule. And, other than PBS, is there a single talk show that makes any attempt to deal in depth with complex issues? And, not coincidentally, television producers that are actually mothers themselves are few and far between. Almost every producer I’ve ever talked with over the years was a single, childless woman in her mid to late twenties. And no wonder. Sounds like television production is a grueling, 24/7 job itself— there’s no room for anyone who has caregiving responsibilities.

So, in a nutshell, fair and accurate? In print and radio, pretty good. In television, no way.

MMO: In her new book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, journalist Judith Warner describes Mothers & More as part of a “burgeoning motherhood movement.” She also suggests “Too much energy is being expended on seeking validation— a recognition of mothers’ ‘value’… and of motherhood as ‘the most important job in the world’.” In your mind, is there a distinction between the “motherhood movement” and the “mothers’ movement”? Are the core beliefs and values of your organization “pro-motherhood,” or “pro-mother”?

J. Brundage: It seems like there are two perspectives on mothers’ activism. One is the motherhood-focused way, to position mothers’ work as morally and spiritually superior and not to be sullied by comparisons with market work. And at the same time, this perspective ties the value of mothers’ work to judgments about the right and wrong way to raise children, and focuses primarily on “what’s best” for children. So, mothers are put on a pedestal at the same time as they are valued only in relation to how much or how well they “mother.”

Mothers & More takes a very different approach, which you might call the “mothers’ movement” or “pro-mother” approach. We do not assert that mothers have intrinsic value as mothers, but rather, that the work they do as mothers, does. We look at mothers’ unpaid caregiving work as equal in social and economic value to market (paid) work and recognize mothers as a group of individuals who pay unfair social and economic penalties for doing this work.

We look at the work of caring for children as important societal work that deserves tangible recognition and support from our public policies, from workplace structures, from community support systems, so that the individuals who do this work— primarily mothers— have a fighting chance to accomplish their caregiving work along with everything else they want and need to do to take care of themselves and their families.

So, this is an important distinction and one that we, who desire positive change in this area, must make clear.

To me, this is a painfully simple concept (which, however, is completely counter to our cultural perceptions)— that unpaid caregiving work is real work of great social and economic value. I believe that if we all really and truly “got” that; believed that, our society could not help but make a substantial shift to a better place. Sort of like waking up one day and realizing the world was round, not flat. Kind of changed everything.

MMO: What are some of the challenges you’ve encounter in your efforts to mobilize Mothers & More members to take action on their own behalf? What are the predictable points of resistance, and how do you think they can be overcome? Do you think it will ever be possible to get a full-scale grass roots mothers’ movement off the ground?

J. Brundage: I’ve touched a bit on that in my previous answers. As noted before, a lot of our members feel that they are personally and completely in charge of and responsible for their lives. And they are loathe to accept any intimation that they may be “victims.” So we’ve found that many members are open to sharing resources and ideas for improving their lives, one mother at a time, but are uncomfortable with the idea of advocating for themselves as a part of a bigger group, or when that work may be considered “political,” even if it’s just political with a small “p.”

Then, even among those members who acknowledge there are external things that need fixing, many worry that tackling these issues will create differences of opinion and friction within the membership. Women don’t want to threaten the friendships with the women they have met and bonded with. And a related issue, some members just feel it’s “unseemly” to do or say anything externally that may be perceived as negative or bitchy or whiney. It’s one thing for members to share their “real stories” with one another, but many members are not comfortable going public with these feelings and experiences.

And then there’s that overall, deeply-ingrained cultural “given” that I think we all share, consciously or unconsciously, that mothers must be selfless and put themselves last. To do otherwise— in other words, to advocate for one’s own needs at the same time as we care for our children— is almost unthinkable. Somehow, being a “good” mother and taking care of our own wants and needs seem mutually exclusive. This is why, within Mothers & More, we have spent a lot of time and energy on consciousness raising (by reinforcing a positive message that you can be a loving mother and still look out for yourself) over issues identification.

Still, our membership is in a decidedly different place in its interest level in, awareness of and comfort with these issues than just a couple of years ago. Many of us ask one another, “what is the tipping point?” but none of us have come up with an answer. Sometimes, I think we’re so close to this that we just can’t see it.

If I didn’t think this grass roots movement was inevitable, I wouldn’t be in this job. I’m in it for the long haul, and so is Mothers & More. When I’m feeling pessimistic, I think about Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who spent most of their lives working to get women the vote, and didn’t live to see the day. Yet, it did finally happen. Now, I am not so patient that I’m okay with the possibility that I won’t live to see this happen. But I am committed to continuing to work on it as long as there’s breath in my body. And I am utterly convinced it will happen. It has to.

MMO: In your opinion, what’s the next big step for the mothers’ movement, and what role will Mothers & More have in the movement’s future?

J. Brundage: Ah, the next big step! That’s the $64,000 question. I don’t know what the next step will be. All I can say is, the wave just continues to climb higher and higher. There is clear acceleration in the number of books and articles and public dialog about this new “problem with no name.” The public seems insatiable for discussion and reflection about the state of mothers and motherhood. Even some seemingly “fluffy” signs, such as the great popularity of the TV show “Desperate Housewives” is an indicator. And it is notable that an article like “The Opt Out Generation” by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times got the most letters to the editor in response that the Times has ever seen. Likewise, the recent Newsweek cover story featuring Judith Warner’s new book, Perfect Madness, received over 600 letters. Something is afoot and it’s only growing bigger.

Our hope is that Mothers & More is one of the drivers, if not the sole driver, of the movement. We feel we are uniquely positioned, as the only nationally-coordinated membership organization addressing the needs of mothers, to provide the structure and the womanpower that will be needed to initiate, support and sustain such an effort. As is clear from the way we have made decisions in this area in the past few years, though, we feel it is critical for this to happen from the bottom up rather than the top down— as a grass roots initiative. But we would love to have some company in moving this forward, from individuals and organizations. A social movement is bigger than any single organization involved in it, no matter how central its participation.

mmo : march 2005

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