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Time to kiss the 'Mommy Wars' good-bye

A Mother's Day reality check

By Tracy Thompson

All I want for Mother's Day is peace. Not at home: as the mother of two high-maintenance divas (ages 9 and 5), I've given up on serenity there. No, this year all I want is an end to the Mommy Wars. I don't know any mom who doesn't.

The unspoken premise of the Mommy Wars -- that there is a Right Way to raise children, and that anyone whose way differs too much from yours is deluded, neglectful, selfish or lazy -- is just weird. The only other personal issue that draws such thunderbolts is gay marriage, which proves my point: people get into a tizzy over superficialities to avoid more complex issues. Arguing about gay marriage is a way to avoid the fact that our culture is re-defining marriage; the Mommy Wars camouflages the truth that the American workplace is hostile to caregivers.

We're not talking just about moms here; I recently sat next to a man on an airplane who dropped out of the workforce for 18 months to care for his aging aunt. But face it: women are the caregivers in our culture. Women without children are likely to encounter this issue when some elderly relative's health begins to fail. Women who become mothers discover it earlier -- if not after that first baby, certainly by the time number two arrives. While overall women's wages are at near-parity with men's wages, mothers who work full-time earn sixty cents compared to every dollar earned by fathers who work full-time. The best jobs require overtime, and those are overwhelmingly male (93 percent). As legal theorist Joan Williams, whose analysis of Census Bureau statistics I have just quoted, puts it, “Our economy is divided into mothers and others.” Forty years after The Feminine Mystique, women don't have to choose between career and marriage, just career and motherhood.

But children are not a lifestyle choice. We're talking about the nurturance of the next generation of American citizens here -- a labor-intensive endeavor that American employers depend on in the long run, but in the short run blithely ignore. The cost for men has been the 70-hour workweek; for women, it's been low-paying part-time jobs, contract work, the "mommy track," and -- since "opting out" is a solution only for the economically privileged -- soul-killing stress.

Caregivers make rotten employees, assuming you use the traditional definition of the Ideal Worker. People who rise to the top are workaholics who get up at 3 a.m. and go through 114 e-mails before 7 a.m. Nobody talks about the staff who make this possible: the maids, the nannies, the assistants -- or, for the middle-class road warrior, the wife who schedules pediatricians' appointments, cleans the house or hires someone to clean it, tracks the family social calendar, updates the family computer virus protection, scopes out summer camps, does the grocery store run and, oh yeah, "works."

There's nothing wrong with this, as long as you want a system in which the talents of half of the world's most productive workforce are stifled because they have uteruses and used them. But it's expensive. A recent New York Times story about the scarcity of women partners in the nation's top law firms quoted one executive: "If you want to run a great business, you need great, talented people" -- including different ethnicities, different economic backgrounds and brainy women with children. A Families and Work Institute report from last fall noted that the 47 percent of the U.S. companies which offer such family-friendly policies said that they increased productivity, improved retention and lowered training costs.

In Europe, government and business have come up with policies like government-sponsored child care. In America, we prefer to litigate our solutions: in the past decade there's been a 412 percent increase in what Williams, head of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California at Hastings, calls "caregiver discrimination" cases. These lawsuits are filed under statutes ranging from the Equal Pay Act to federal laws banning sex discrimination; the common thread is that workers are suing employers for making it impossible for them to hold a job and deal with family responsibilities. Most of the cases are filed by mothers, Williams said, they have succeeded equally before conservative as well as liberal judges. Individual rights, meet family values.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this; in fact, ad hoc solutions are the only way this will ever work. But we can do it: Americans are justly proud of their ingenuity. Already, many companies (and federal agencies), require employees to be in the office only during "core hours" -- say, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. -- as long as the employee performs his duties. Job sharing works. Jobs can be divided into part-time components, with pro-rated pay and benefits attached, and people who opt to work part-time should be able to progress in their field at a rate that matches the amount of work they do. And let's abolish the Mommy Track: penalizing women who take time off to raise the next generation of workers makes as much sense as a farmer selling his seed corn.

We can expect resistance. For instance, Williams hears managers ask, "But how can I tell if she's working if she's not in the office?" She counters, "How can you tell if she's working when she is?" When employees aren't given flexibility, they often steal it. On the other hand, when I wanted to return to work part-time after maternity leave, the best gig I could get came with a 40 percent per hour pay cut. I quit. Was that 'opting out'? I felt pushed.

But moms are a force when they get together -- and with magazines like BrainChild, with the National Organization for Women's caregiver's economic rights agenda, the explosion of online momblogs and websites like the Mothers Movement Online, we seem to be approaching the tipping point for social change. Maybe we can quit beating the dead mommy wars horse, and start talking about how family and work can fit together in the twenty-first century. I'll take that over new lingerie any day.

MMO : may 2006

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. To read 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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