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Motherhood made me do it!

Or, how I became an activist

by Judith Stadtman Tucker

September 2005

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 to dim.

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 is sealed.

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 to shake.

But once you begin to see the motherhood problem, you start to see it everywhere.

My fate is sealed.

- 4 -

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.

- 5 -

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.

- 6 -

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 me.

mmo : september 2003

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online. She lives in New Hampshire.

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