I have a confession
to make: I used to read fiction. New writers, contemporary
novels, mysteries, modern classics -- I loved them all. Reading
fiction was one of my great passions. I always had a book with
me -- even at parties. I read fiction in planes, trains, cars, buses,
and on subways and ferries. I read fiction sitting, standing and
lying down. I read fiction in movie theaters, waiting for the lights
It's also true that I used to dress up in black with dark eye shadow
and red, red lipstick and hang out in seedy clubs. But that's a
story for another time.
If someone told me ten years ago that one day I would stop reading
fiction and would instead own several tall bookcases jammed with
books sporting titles like Mothers Who Kill Their Children and The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency,
I'm sure I would have given them that look -- you know, the look
that says: "You must be out of your mind."
But here I am, in the middle of my life, living in a comfortable
home in a quaint New England town with an adorable husband and two
terrific kids, and a whole bunch of books about motherhood, feminism
and progressive politics. And I'm the founder and editor of a web
site that's all about social and economic justice for mothers and
others who do the indispensable work of care in our society. I have
a pretty good idea of how I ended up here, but when I actually stop
and think about it, it still surprises me. Because before I became
a mother, I wasn't much of an activist, or even much of a feminist.
I'm always reluctant to make sweeping generalizations about the
individual experience of motherhood, but I think it's safe to say
the process of becoming a mother can alter a woman. Some of these changes
may be superficial and temporary. Some may be welcome, others less so. Sometimes the process of becoming a mother works into
the deepest cavities of the self and fundamentally transforms a
woman's worldview. And although I still can't explain exactly how
it all happened, in my case becoming a mother sensitized me to the
asymmetrical distribution of power in our society and how harmful
it is to women and families.
I suppose there was a kind of chain reaction that took place, some
sort of alchemy between the intricacies of my personal history and
the anger and fear I felt when I found myself utterly unprepared
for the realities of new motherhood. Before I debuted in my maternal
role, I thought I could easily handle whatever challenges motherhood
brought my way. After all, I wasn't exactly a spring chicken; I
trusted my own abilities as a capable and competent adult. And of
course, I was well informed -- I'd read all the books. But I discovered
almost immediately that real life motherhood -- unlike the passive,
sterilized version found in the "What To Expect" series
and other baby bibles -- is culturally complicated and emotionally
messy. Real life motherhood was a raging torrent of conflicting
feelings and desires, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
After I recovered from the initial shock of my disillusionment,
I brushed myself off and started to look around. Was it really fair that my husband's day-to-day life looked pretty much the same as
before, when mine looked so much different? After several years
of an ideally egalitarian and intensely intimate partnership, why
were we starting to look suspiciously like Ozzie and Harriet? Was
it really fair that I had to use up all my savings to finance
16 weeks of unpaid family leave? Was it really fair that
just when my fussy baby was beginning to develop a pleasant demeanor,
I had to leave him with a paid sitter and go back to work? Was it
really fair that even though my own options for taking
leave from work were less than perfect, there were other new mothers
who couldn't get any time off at all? And why was it that
the most talented women at the firm I worked for seemed to disappear
shortly after the birth of their first or second child? And
how was it that all the rising stars at that firm were men, and
of those who were dads, nearly all had stay-at-home wives? Why was
it so much harder for women to integrate having a good job with
having a great family life than it seemed to be for men?
I didn't know the answers then. And I didn't know I'd just discovered
my calling -- my dharma.
- 2 -
I was never especially career oriented, and in that way I was
a something of an outlier among the fashionable young people I worked
with. I came to enjoy the creative aspects of my job and fell unreflectively
into the overwork culture of the late 1980s. During my most fertile
years, the possibility that I might one day consider myself motherhood
material rarely crossed my mind. I even went through a stage --
a rather prolonged stage, actually -- when I felt babies were
repulsive and avoided the company of young children. But sure enough,
as I approached my mid-thirties I decided I wanted a baby of my
own. And after settling down with the right man (which took several
tries), my husband and I went about the business of making one with
the sort of blithe confidence that's commonly associated with an
alarming excess of naiveté.
We soon had a baby boy, a very nice one, and went home to remake
our couple into a family. I suppose the rest is history.
Actually, a few other things happened along the way that led me
to question the organization of work and the way motherhood and
fatherhood come packaged in our society. When my older son was 15
months old, we moved from Washington, DC -- where there were plenty
of good bookstores and we had excellent part-time child care --
to a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, where there were no
bookstores and good part-time child care was impossible to find.
Our family life suddenly became more defined by my husband's job
and his career ambitions, and almost entirely dependent on his paycheck.
I was less than thrilled with my new status as the "trailing"
spouse. The wives of my husband's co-workers -- who soon made up
my new social circle -- had a Stepford-esque quality I found unnerving.
And much to my dismay, it was rubbing off on me. I started baking
bread several times a week -- partly because I missed our favorite
breads from the world-class bakeries in DC, but also because I needed
the distraction. Financial pressures, my husband's frequent business
travel, the endless round of ear and upper respiratory infections
my son brought home from his day care center (and later his nine-month
campaign against toilet training), the cultural wasteland of four-lane
highways, big box stores, fast food drive-thrus and shopping malls
spreading out in a 30-mile radius around our rustic little town,
residing in an area where 70 percent of voters were registered Republicans,
and three early miscarriages in less than two years -- this was
not what I had in mind when I pictured the delights of marriage
and motherhood. This sucked.
I was miserable, but -- given that I have a tendency to over-think
everything -- I was also intellectually curious about why everything
in my life was going so badly. So much of what was affecting me,
and so much of what seemed to be affecting other mothers I knew,
seemed related to antiquated social arrangements that split paid
work and family work into separate, gendered spheres. The company
my husband worked for was pitched to us as family-friendly. But
as it turned out, the management's notion of "family-friendly"
was putting a second-hand diaper changing table in the men's restroom
and organizing charming holiday parties for the staff's children.
The chief executives were all married men with young children, and they
preferred to hire married men with young children. But they also
required fathers to travel -- to Europe and Asia, sometimes for
weeks at a stretch, and on short notice. Mothers were expected to
put on a happy face and make the best of it. Complaining -- which
I excelled at -- was frowned upon among the wives as being "unsupportive."
Not coincidentally, during the three years my husband worked for
the company, only a handful of women were ever employed there. Although
I couldn't quite put my finger on it at the time, what Unbending
Gender author Joan Williams would later identify as the "ideal
worker norm" was screwing up my life.
After we moved
away from Pennsylvania, and after I gave birth to another healthy
son, I started looking for a different kind of book to read.
- 3 -
My husband and I rented The Motorcycle Diaries recently
(we rarely see anything on
the big screen anymore), and while the film's portrayal of Che
Guevara's awakening as a revolutionary offers a highly romanticized
version of the actual event, I could relate to the narrative. Once
young Ernesto Guevara, a medical student, begins to see injustice,
he starts to see it everywhere. You know by the end of
the movie he has his heart set on overthrowing the system. His fate
So there I was, a white,
middle-aged, middle-class woman lying awake in my cozy bed in my
comfortable house, my loving and beloved husband by my side, cute
kids safe and warm in a room across the hall, and I'm thinking:
Ol' Che and I had something in common. Once you see injustice, you
begin to see it everywhere. And once you begin to see injustice
everywhere, once you take the awareness of it into your heart, you
can't stop thinking about what it would take to put things right.
Unlike Che, I'm not a big fan of violent revolt. If middle-class
mothers decided to get together and destroy the symbols of our oppression,
what would we blow up? Our microwaves? Our minivans?
The motherhood problem
is not a figment of our imagination. In fact, feminist writers and
work-life researchers have been documenting it for over thirty years.
The motherhood problem is embedded in stale ideas about the essential
qualities of men and women and the irreducible needs of children.
It's fortified by our social structure and political system, and
the way we think about race and class in America. And it's tucked
snugly into our social institutions, like marriage and the public
school system and the free market economy. In fact, the motherhood
problem is so tightly woven into the fabric of American society
that it's extremely difficult to see. And because the motherhood
problem is ultimately about the protection of privilege and the
inequitable distribution of power in our society, it's very hard
But once you begin to
see the motherhood problem, you start to see it everywhere.
My fate is sealed.
As the story goes, Che's
radicalization started with an epic journey. I'm much more of a homebody.
When I travel, I like clean sheets, warm showers and regular meals.
Not to mention, when the motherhood problem started wrecking my
life and aroused my inner activist from her slumber, I had two small
children to look after and a husband I was quite fond of. While an
epic journey was not out of the question, it seemed ill-advised.
So I started reading books and reports about motherhood and family
policy, and later I started sharing what I learned with anyone who
would listen. The whole thing snowballed from there.
Once in a while I'll
be prattling away about the problem with maternalist politics, or
the value of unpaid caregiving, or the pathetic response to the
pressing need for more and better family policy in the U.S., and
someone will ask me: "How did you get into this?" And
suddenly, I'm at a loss for words. "This," the work of
the mothers' movement, is unlike anything I've ever done before.
I have no special qualifications for it -- no advanced degree
in women's studies, no track record as a theorist or policy analyst
or as an organizer, and not all that much to show as a writer. All
I can say is that the complexities of my own lived experience as
a mother led me to this work, the work of social change. And now
it's the only kind of work that makes sense to me.
The immediate task at
hand is how to move ideas into action. We've defined the motherhood
problem pretty well. We know what it looks like in women's lives,
and for the most part, we know which policy solutions are called
for. The momentum for change is growing. So how do we breathe life
into the mothers' movement?
There is really no great
mystery about what goes into effective organizing. Vision and impassioned
leadership are only a small part of social activism. (Some
people argue they are the most important part, but I'm not convinced
that's true.) Effective organizing can take many forms, but it almost
always involves funding, strategic planning, outreach, communication,
coordination, and forming supportive partnerships with other organizations
and community groups with compatible goals. This is the long, unglamorous
slog of making social change. It doesn't have the feel-good buzz
of donating clothing and supplies to the local homeless shelter,
or volunteering to answer phones for a domestic violence hotline,
or putting together a fundraising event to help families displaced
by Hurricane Katrina. Effective organizing is not always fast or
pretty, but it works.
The other piece of successful
social movements is consciousness raising. Consciousness raising
is what gets the message out and engages individual supporters where
they live. And with mothers' issues, this can be very tricky. Motherhood
is such an ideologically loaded topic that it's easy for open discussions
to get off track. At the same time, consciousness raising only works
when people have an opportunity to connect their personal stories
to the bigger picture. As soon as possible, we need to figure out
a better and quicker way to help women start the conversation about
the motherhood problem -- and what to do about it -- in their own
communities. This is not an insurmountable task. We have many inexpensive
yet highly sophisticated communication tools at our disposal. We
have a selection of good models. Expert knowledge is available.
We just need enough people with ideas and relevant skills to make
the commitment and make it happen.
But then, this work isn't
about me, or my ideas -- I'm just a channel, an incubator. This
work is about us -- mothers -- and the future of our sons and daughters
and the well-being of America's workers and families. It's about
laying the groundwork for a caring society -- the next New Deal.
Above all, it's about social justice. If we want a mothers' movement, we will have to do the work. We have to give birth to it.
Well. Perhaps I do sound
like a bit of a zealot. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "Human
salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."
All right -- I'm creative. And I'm definitely maladjusted. But I don't
know about the human salvation part -- that's a pretty tall order.
Just thinking about it makes my hands sweat.
My eight-year old recently
told me he wants to have a job like mine when he grows up. I was
a little taken aback, since the last time we had this conversation
he wanted to be a rock star -- not just any kind of rock star, mind
you, an emo rock star. "So you want to be a women's rights activist?"
(I thought I'd better double check). "No," he said, "I
want to work to make the world a better place. Dad says that's what
you do." So we've been talking about this off and on, and we concluded
there are many different ways people can work to make the world
a better place. Even rock stars can work to make the world a better
place (but I'm not so sure about the emo thing).
So here I sit in my comfortable
house in a quaint little town with my nice husband and two great
kids, all my books, my "Women's Work Counts" posters,
my trusty computer, and, at this very moment, a big friendly
cat on my lap. In other words, there is nothing at all remarkable
about me. I'm just another mother. And I'm working to make the world
a better place, because it's the only thing that makes sense to
: september 2003
Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online. She lives in New Hampshire.