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Mothers united

Cease-fire efforts unite working

and at-home moms

 

BY PEGGY O'CROWLEY, Star-Ledger Staff, May 14, 2006

 

Laurie Pettine of Mendham sat in the green room at the "Good Morning America" studio in New York six weeks ago, ready to go on the air for a segment about the "mommy wars," that decades-old conflict between at-home and working mothers.

Instead of sniping at each, the mothers assembled for the show -- including Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, and dedicated at-home moms -- agreed it was time to get over the one-upwomanship.  By the time the cameras started rolling, a truce had been declared.

"We really didn't have a beef with one another.  We are all moms and we share more in common," said Pettine, 38, an at-home mother of two who also heads a NOW task force on mothers and caregivers.  "So we agreed, let's keep this position and talk about the real issues."

Those issues include ways to help families better balance work and home:  paid family leave, flexible work schedules, a living minimum wage and recognizing the unpaid work of caring for children or the elderly.

As the nation celebrates Mother's Day, a variety of organizations are getting behind an informal campaign:

# Joan Blades, the co-founder of MoveOn.org, has published a new book, "The Motherhood Manifesto" (Nation Books, $14.95, paper), laying out policies for working families, and launched a new organization, MomsRising.org, to encourage grassroots support of the issues.

# A coalition of mothers' groups, including MomsRising, MOTHERS (for Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights) and the National Association of Mothers' Groups, is collecting signatures for the Mommy Wars Ceasefire, asking the three major networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, to "cease and desist" producing stories about the mommy wars.

# U.S. Sens. Lamar Anderson (R-Tenn.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) co-sponsored a briefing on flexible work issues on May 1 on Capitol Hill.  The event, also co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and Workplace Flexibility 2010 of Georgetown University Law Center, featured prominent work/family experts, such as Ellen Galinsky of the Family and Work Institute.

# TakeCareNet, a coalition of labor, academics and work-family experts, presented the "Work & Family Bill of Rights" to Congress on May 11, asking for paid family leave and flexible work arrangements.

# Locally, members of New Jersey NOW scheduled an "action" Friday at the office of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.) that asked for a reallocation of funds from the Iraqi war to domestic programs such as paid family leave.

# A new book, "Leaving Women Behind:  Modern Families, Outdated Laws" (Rowman & Littlefield, $21.95), co-written by Wall Street Journal editorial writer Kimberley Strassel and two members of the National Center for Policy Analysis, argues that current laws favoring a full-time worker and an at-home spouse do not recognize the realities of families in which both spouses work or one spouse may work part time or move in and out of the workplace.

"It's very exciting to see this happening right now; there seems to be a lot of mobilization," said Heather Boushay, an economist for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

Boushay, who has written about women's participation in the labor market, will be part of a month-long online campaign called "Mothers at Work," hosted by Mothers and More (www.mothersandmore.org), a support group for mothers who are either at home or working.

Whether or not this momentum will actually produce policy changes is anyone's guess.  So far, these groups have claimed victory in California's inauguration of paid family leave last year and Massachusetts' recent vote to ensure that virtually all of its citizens will have health insurance.  That state is also looking seriously at paid family leave, and legislation is pending in New Jersey, as well.  Eighteen states and many cities, most recently Albuquerque, N.M., have raised the national minimum wage of $5.15 an hour to help working families make ends meet.

Those are significant but small achievements in a nation that lags far behind most industrial nations in the kinds of family support systems it offers.

A family balance bill, introduced by Rep. Lynn Wooley (D-Calif.), has died twice in the House of Representatives.

But these groups are heartened by a growing consensus among mothers themselves that these issues should be addressed.  The group leading the cease-fire effort is the National Association of Women's Centers, an organization of predominantly at-home mothers.  They are joined by Mothers and More, a title that's a far cry from the group's original title, Formerly Employed Mothers at Loose Ends.

One of the reasons for this sudden spurt of energy may well stem from the latest wave of "mommy war" programming.  A new book of essays on the topic and "mommy war" shows such as the one aired by "Good Morning America," as well as stories about women "opting out" of the workplace, were greeted with dismay by many mothers' online publications.  Writers for MAMAzine.com and MomsMovement.org both decried the trend.  The "Good Morning" America segment in which Pettine appeared was in response to complaints by NOW and viewers that an earlier show had cynically tried to stir up conflict between at-home and working moms.

What they increasingly agree is that the plight of mothers is among the most important issues of the women's movement and a problem that must be addressed by society, not individual families, as is now the case.

Despite the highly debated opt-out trend, in which educated women are seemingly dropping out of the workforce in droves, two-thirds of American women work outside the home, composing 46 percent of the U.S. workforce.  A vast majority of American women, 82 percent, are mothers.  While the wage gap between men and women is nearly closed, the gap between working mothers and other workers is widening.

An analysis by The Star-Ledger last year found that, while the richest and the poorest mothers in New Jersey did not have paid jobs, most mothers did.  And many of the women who are staying home with young children are probably going to return to the workplace at some point, a trend described as off and on ramps from the workplace.

"Even if you are a dedicated career person who goes back to work two weeks after the baby is born, 10 years later your mom might have Alzheimer's and you need time to deal with that," said Juergens, adding that the policies being sought were not just for mothers of young children, but anyone with family obligations.

Pettine, who has been home with her children, ages 5 and 2, said she intends to go back to paid employment at some point.

"But I strongly believe this isn't time off," she said of the time spent raising children.  "The unpaid care-giving work done in this country, for elder care, ill spouses, disabled spouses, is part of the economy," she said.

She and others also agree that mothers want all children to benefit from policies such as a reasonable minimum wage, affordable health care and quality child care and after-school care.

While conservative women may agree that the mommy wars are fictional, relying on government to fix problems may only serve to reignite the conflict, said Carrie Lukas, vice president for policy and economics for the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative Washington, D.C., group.

"Where the mommy wars exist is in the public policy arena.  We all sympathize that women are facing real challenges in raising families and pursuing careers, and some see government as a solution," said Lukas, a new mother.  "But once you start intruding government into it, you are favoring one over the other."

She cited an example of providing free child care, which she said would cause at-home mothers to be devalued, sending the message they could be replaced more cheaply.

On the other hand, providing Social Security credits to at-home moms would be resented by working mothers paying large amounts into the system, said Lukas, whose new book, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Love, Sex, and Feminism" (Regnery, $19.95, paper), was just published.

The women behind the new initiatives obviously think that they have the backing of most mothers, and they are hoping the issues become important in the 2006 mid-term elections and 2008 presidential election.

"Is it going to be an overnight change?  Of course not," said Rhonda Kave, a co-chairwoman of the board of trustees of the National Association of Mothers' Centers.  "If women can organize themselves into a solid voting bloc, we can take our interests to the top of the agenda."

"We hope to make enough noise that the message gets across," said Eileen Appelbaum, a member of the steering committee of TakeCareNet, the group of work-life experts, academics and labor unions.

"Where are the women who don't want high-quality accessible health care, a high minimum wage, health care when they have sons and daughters working?" asked Appelbaum, the director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.

"Where's the woman who doesn't want a husband with a flexible schedule so he can pick up the kids?"

Peggy O'Crowley covers family issues.  She can be reached at pocrowley@starledger.com or at (973) 392-5810.

 

 

 

 

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Last modified:  08/02/2008