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Why Be Political?

By Kristin Teigen

August 2007

Motherhood, as so many say, changes everything. All that was once taken for granted, from careers to relationships to the joys of basic grooming, is thrown into the air, never to be the same. When I brought my first son, Joshua, home from the hospital, the saying held shockingly true. With the birth of one wrinkly, squalling creature, my perspective on the entire world suddenly transformed. It was like an earthquake. Sure, you knew it was coming, but when it actually happens, this seismic event lands you upside down, shaking your head with wonder.

Joshua had colic, with his scream becoming particularly loud any time he left the house. That meant that for nearly three months, I was housebound, leaving only when my husband came home to take over. I got pale. My car seemed to be a foreign object. My friends were now only voices on the other end of the phone. Having never been this isolated, I didn't really know what to expect. I thought I might become a drone, a floor-walking, baby-bouncing robot. Instead, as the days stretched into weeks, then months, I found that my nerve endings were becoming increasingly exposed, open to the wind. Instead of making me tune out, motherhood, I realized, was making me experience everything that much more keenly.

I noticed this in particular when I watched the news. As I breastfed, with the sound on mute, I watched stories -- horrible stories -- about what was going on outside of my all-too familiar walls. By the time my son's tummy was full, I was on overload. While I had always cared about what was going on in the world, now it seemed as every crisis was becoming insinuated into my spine. As a mother, I just felt the problems so much more. This was far from what I expected, far from the gauzy images of mothers drunk on baby-love, washed away from the trials of the world. Naively, I thought this feeling would shift over time -- I believed I was just the temporary victim of hormones, seclusion and a lack of natural light. As Joshua's colic abated, though, and he and I ventured into the world, I discovered that my new lens, my outlook on the world, was here to stay. Because of my little love, because of motherhood, what was going on in the world and what was going to happen in the future took on a whole new meaning.

In talking with other parents, I found that I wasn't alone. The previously ignored car exhaust was now a dire threat, entering our babies' pristine lungs. The national debt was on their tiny shoulders. Cuts in healthcare meant that somewhere, a sick child was going without. Every new soldier killed in war left us imagining our own, absolute worst nightmare. Sure, we may have always cared about education, but now, the idea of rats in school hallways were enough to make us cry. Many mothers I knew couldn't bear to even glance at the stories of child abuse in the paper -- just too close to the bone. Far from home, the realities of AIDS orphans in Africa and around the world made us physically ill. And global warming, well, that just threatened everything. Never before had we felt such a sense of urgency, almost panic, about how the world was shaping up. It all became just so visceral. While I had spent a lifetime trying to change the world, I hadn't ever felt so compelled to have my voice heard.

So, what to do? Too bad you couldn't bottle all of those feelings and pour them on someone who was not so blessedly, insanely busy. I mean, really. Come on. How are mothers supposed to fundamentally change the world in the middle of ear infections, diapers and sleepless nights? I barely had time to take a shower. Despite my increasing anxiety about the world, I was so completely frazzled and sleep deprived, I just couldn't imagine doing anything about it. So many of us are this way, coping with a host of new pressures. A 1999 study by Duke University showed that a mother's stress will not return to pre-baby levels until after her children have completely left home (see Cabell Smith, Duke University Medical School, "Research on Mothers Stress Levels"). It's so stressful, as we all know, because motherhood is the job that never ends. As Ric and Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove wrote in Mother Nurture, "Each day, for twenty-plus years, you do several hundred specific child-rearing or housework tasks, from reading Winnie the Pooh to doing the dishes, and you probably go to bed wishing that somehow you could have done more." Even when my children are not around, I still can still hear their voices -- "Mommy, Mooommmyy!" I still rock back and forth in line at the grocery store, even when I'm alone, as if the air needs soothing. In this all-consuming new role, how do we find the time, energy and mental space to shake the world right-side up?

It's not just that motherhood makes for a frenetic life, it's that being politically active can also be so consuming. Before I became a mother, I was a full-time activist, with my days being a non-stop blur. This way of life was a sort of competitive game among my co-workers. Who can work the hardest for "the cause?" Who really cares the most? As an activist, if you're not thoroughly exhausted, well, I guess your heart just isn't in it. This is seen in a 2005 Department of Labor survey  of advocacy and civic groups, which revealed that their employees were often expected to travel at night or on the weekends and encountered "very stressful environments," low wages and a high turnover rate (see Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Career Guide to Industries, Advocacy, Grantmaking and Civic Organizations," 2006 – 07 edition). Not exactly a family friendly workplace.

The demands of political work are reflected in my home state of Oregon, where I have seen that women often step back from public involvement just as men are stepping up. After the birth of her second child, once-rising star Deborah Kafoury resigned as Oregon's House Minority Leader just a year before Portland's City Council Member Eric Sten, a new father himself, won his re-election. Ted Wheeler, whose wife just gave birth to their first child, recently won his election as Chair of Oregon's Multnomah County, while the sparkly County Commissioner Serena Cruz resigned her seat, citing her desire to start a family. Because of the pressures of motherhood, many talented women are exiting the political world. Indeed, the percentage of women who hold a position of leadership on the local level has actually declined in recent years.

What does this mean? Fundamentally, the voices of mothers, perhaps the group of people in our society who care the most about our collective future, are not being heard. Who is there, during the debates over welfare reform to push for childcare payments for women being forced to go back to work? Can anyone else truly relate to the gripping fear of losing, or not having at all, quality childcare or healthcare? Does anybody else feel more invested in a healthy planet? Who is there, to advocate for more school funding? Who is there to push for paid family leave, for legislation promoting flexible time, for Social Security for stay-at-home moms? Who is there to demand a lower national debt? I knew where I was. With my sons. Changing diapers. Going to the park. Driving to school. I wasn't in the room.

To be sure, there aren't many mothers in the halls of power. Out of 50 governors, only 6 are mothers. Out of 100 senators, only 10 are mothers. In contrast, not only do the vast majority of male governors and senators have children, some of them have a great many -- Jim Bunning has nine, John McCain has seven, Robert Bennett and Ted Stevens have six and so on. The day-to-day tasks that absorb so many mothers most likely have not slowed these guys down. Indeed, it seems to be so rare for a woman to be a mother of young children and in political office that it becomes newsworthy. On Election Night, 2006, as Missourian Claire McKaskill appeared to eke out a victory over Senator Jim Talent, CBS News ran background information on both candidates on the bottom of the screen. As it posted Talent's positions on a number of political issues of the day, it listed for former state auditor McKaskill the fact that she was the first elected official in Missouri give birth while in office. The fact that Jim Talent is the father of three didn't seem to make it to the news scroll.

Despite years of supposed gains by women in nearly every profession, so many countries do better than us when in comes to including women in public decision-making. The number of women working in the West Wing has declined a whopping 17 precent in the past six years. We rank just slightly better than Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the number of women in government, and far behind most European countries. Even the new government in Iraq has 19 percent women, and South Africa, still recovering from a government based on discrimination, has 46 percent women. These numbers can translate directly into a different life for women and children. Out of the top six nations that Save the Children has ranked as the best for maternal and child health, (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany and Austria), each one outperforms the United States with the number of women in government. The more women leaders, it seems, the healthier we are, and the healthier our children are. How else do we rank? To be sure, the United States does far better than many countries, but the only economically advanced nation worse than the United States in terms of infant mortality is Hungary. In the U.S., 22 percent of all children live in relative poverty -- in households with incomes less than half of the national median -- more than in any other wealthy nation in the world. In 2004, despite horrific stories of children giving birth to children all throughout the developing world, the United States had the highest adolescent birth rate among industrialized nations. Would this be the case if mothers were being heard?

Of the mothers who are political leaders in the United States, many started to climb the political ladder only after their children had grown, such as the new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In fact, women leaders who have small or school aged children are not only rare, but also heavily scrutinized. Former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift became the target of virulent attacks when, as the mother of a toddler, she became pregnant with twins while in office. Faced with criticism that some have argued a man would never face, she tearfully announced that she would not seek re-election. Had she stayed in the race, her opponent in the primary would have been Mitt Romney, who later won the election, finding no criticism for his long life in politics despite being the father of five. He is now being touted as a Republican front-runner for president. Do stories like this mean that women need to sit out of the political process for eighteen long years, relinquishing the field to men until our kids head off to college? Some people think so. A 2000 national survey by Deloitte and Touche found that 17 percent of Americans would be "less likely" to vote for a woman with a child under age 6 compared with just 6 percent of the public declaring itself "less likely" to vote for a similar male candidate.

One result of the lack of mothers in the political process is that the men who are in power feel they can take shots at us for a myriad of perceived ills in society. Historically, mothers have been blamed for everything -- crime, communism, poverty, the breakdown of the traditional family and even autism. Rather than deal with complex social and economic forces at the root of most problems, scapegoating mothers becomes the easy way out. As Molly Ladd-Taylor writes in Bad Mothers: The Politics of Blame in the Twentieth Century, leaders feel free to fault women who stay home for their supposed laziness and then, the next day, attack women who work outside of the home for their apparent lack of maternal instinct. We can't win. Single mothers, as shown in Dan Quayle's 1992 attack against television character Murphy Brown, are perhaps the most despised of all, blamed for any element of lawlessness and immorality in society. Would male leaders feel so comfortable making such attacks if they were actually sitting next to one of us, or if they realized we might just fight back?

Beyond the fact that we are apparently invisible to some, motherhood introduces many of us to a surprising feeling -- powerlessness. Yeah, we sustain life, but can we go to the bathroom when we need to? Women in our generation are used to having choices, choices in our careers, over our bodies, and in our education. Now, we certainly do not have a choice about being awakened in the middle of the night, getting to daycare on time, dealing with a tantrum, or missing work because of a sick child. I certainly wouldn't trade motherhood for my previous freedom, but there are times when I want to once again feel like I hold the reins. Sure, my children realize that I'm powerful when I control snacks and the remote, but does anybody else? Does anyone else know how much I care about what's going on around me?

So, again, what to do? Well, we're already doing so much. By raising thoughtful, caring, deeply loved children, we are truly doing the greatest service to society of all, a service that needs much greater recognition. Just imagine what our world would be like if nobody knew how to share? How to take turns? How to treat each other? Indeed, teaching kids to be active with you can make parenting even more powerful. By showing our children how to be citizens, how to participate in our collective society, we can ensure a future replete with thoughtful participants. Motherhood has also given us the perfect set of skills, from negotiation to patience to incredible stamina, to be amazing in whatever political work we want to do. Further, as the terms "soccer mom" and "security mom" denote, when we exercise our basic right to vote, we can change the face of elections. It is a power we need to grasp with both hands.

Beyond this, can we all, as mothers, change more than diapers? Can we do more to have our voices heard? Obviously, not every woman wants to run for elected office. I know I don't. Yet there are dozens upon dozens of ways to make change -- small ways, easy ways, cheap ways -- which can ensure that those of us who are so deeply invested in our collective future don't fade into the background. That is what resources like Mothers Movement Online are about -- knowing our own power, embracing our motherhood as a source of incredible strength, demanding to be heard. By grabbing onto our power, in any way we can, mothers will change the world. We will. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "A woman's will is the strongest thing in the world." No matter what motivates you, no matter what you care about, you can, and will, be heard.

mmo : august 2007

Kristin Teigen is a stay-at-home mother of two small children, a graduate student and an activist. She is a former staff member of the National Organization for Women and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, among other nonprofit organizations. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
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