Last week, on Twitter, a woman I’d never met dared me to do something crazy:
@motherhoodmag want to come up and see Sharon Lerner? We'd LOVE to have you.
When I Tweeted that I was game, she double-dared me!
@motherhoodmag well get in yr car and come on up! I'll find a brd members hs to sleep in & u'll be plenty inspired by the time u drive back!
I took the dare. I drove 183 miles to Amherst, Mass, to listen to an author I did not know speak about a provocative new book I had not heard of, and attend the annual breakfast fundraiser for an organization I had just learned about a few weeks prior. And to spend the night in the house of total stranger.
The book is "The War on Moms", by Sharon Lerner, and the organization that graciously hosted Sharon, and me, is MotherWoman.
I would do it again.
In fact, I would drive 183,000 miles to be in the company of women who share my love for new mothers and families, and who understand the greater cultural and institutional forces that we all work within, and against.
As a former volunteer manager and event planner I’ve attended my share of fundraisers and I was profoundly impressed by the MotherWoman event. Despite its size —breakfast for 300+ friends and supporters —I felt welcomed and included.
MotherWoman is an 10+ year old organization that, in the words of Co-founder Annette Cycon, works to “…value and support mothers, children and families culturally, socially and economically.” A lofty mission statement, certainly, but one that the organization has successfully translated into effective action.
The cornerstone of MW’s work is the variety of weekly, free, drop-in meetings they offer, guided by specially trained facilitators, that offer moms a place to talk openly about the joys and struggles of parenting. Not unlike the mother-infant circles I attended at The Lactation Resource Center in Chatham (now re-christened PostPartum Place) when Alice was first born.
The program directors and administrators understand the issues facing real families, as the names of the weekly groups can attest: This is Harder Than I Thought (a postpartum support group); Getting Real About Motherhood; Mothers Among Us (a group for incarcerated moms); Grandparent Support Group, and MOCAI's Women's Circle (a drop-in circle for women of color).
But they go beyond providing weekly in-the-flesh support groups.
Equally important and impressive is MotherWoman’s comprehensive Postpartum Support Initiative. In addition to the weekly PPD support circles, women and families in immediate need of help are a click away from a list of local mental health resources on the MotherWoman website. And MotherWoman serves the broader needs of the community by offering private and regional professional training to the caregivers of the primary caregivers, the “wide range of medical and social service providers…working with women and families in the perinatal period.”
MotherWoman also advocates for change in the larger forces—legislation and public policy— that, at present, create a hostile environment for mothers, families, and children. They do this by leading the local chapter of the national nonpartisan organization, MomsRising.
“The War on Moms”
It is those larger social and economic forces that Sharon Lerner sought to understand when writing her book, “The War on Moms”, and that she shared with a sizable audience last Wednesday night at the University of Massachusetts. Lerner is a former public-radio producer and Village Voice columnist, who writes regularly about women and politics for the Nation.
The statistics she uncovered in her researching were astonishing.
American women work a lot. They are now half the paid workforce, and 74% of those women work full time jobs. But it hasn’t slowed down our reproductive output. On average, we have 2.06 kids, versus Italy with 1.3, Hong Kong with 1.04 and Japan with 1.2 kids. (Yet we continue to do the lion’s share of the housework, as Kristin Maschka details in her 2009 book This is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today.)
What about paid maternity leave? Is that a privilege only French and Swedish women enjoy? Actually, of the roughly 192 countries that make up the contemporary globe, 177 of them guarantee income and job protection for new mothers including the countries of Chad, Somalia, Afghanistan, Panama and Kazakhstan.
Okay, what about paid sick leave, an important benefit for any working parent? Lerner tells us that only 5 countries in the world DO NOT provide some paid sick leave and sadly, the US is one of those shameful five.
Sharon also discovered that working American moms:
· sleep less than six hours per night
· suffer depression at higher rates than the general population
· ½ return to work before 12 weeks post-partum
· are paid less than our male, or single female, counterparts, and
· are more likely than men or single women to live in poverty
In fact, 1 in 5 children live in poverty in this country. There are 21 rich nations that have lower mother and child poverty rates than the United States.
But what about the flexible and part-time work options we’re always reading about? Sharon found that, according to the Pew Research Center, although 62% of women want part-time work, only 26% get it. On paper, part-time work seems like a good solution for balancing the need to earn money and the physical and emotional duties of parenting. But a number of factors prevent it from being so.
Healthcare is regularly tied to full time work. Part-time salaries barely cover childcare costs (childcare is the 2nd largest category of expenses facing all US families, including mortgages, healthcare and transportation). Also, these jobs are often low status, with low pay and offer few, if any, benefits. And in the US, part-time work is not monitored or regulated as it is in many other countries.
So, how do we do it then? On “four hours of sleep and four cups of coffee,” as one full-time working mom, with two kids under five and a frequently traveling spouse, told Sharon.
Before I drove all the way to Amherst to hear Sharon Lerner speak, and meet the dedicated women at MotherWomen, I knew many of these facts.
Taken individually, none of these obstacles seemed insurmountable. Each felt like a personal problem that was up to me, and my spouse, to solve. Sharon confirmed that women shared my sentiments across the country. Many she spoke with felt ashamed and personally responsible for the ridiculous Catch-22 of their lives.
Taken collectively, these obstacles seem almost deliberately designed to send women back to the unpaid, domestic labor force and spousal dependency of the 1950’s.
The deck seems stacked against us.
Deliberate or not, the underlying mechanics have now been uncovered, and it’s obvious that these factors must be changed if we are to improve the lives of families in this country.
A major cultural shift is needed, but how do you orchestrate one? With political will, as Sharon suggests.
Among the proposed solutions Sharon mentioned are: continued and extended funding for Head Start programs; state funded paid sick leave; and federal childcare assistance that reaches more than the 1 in 7 families who qualify.
I would add to that list state and federal economic incentives, in the form of tax breaks and small-business loans, that favor companies that build in paid sick leave, job sharing, flexible and part-time positions and/or results-only-work initiatives into their workflow.
Private sector solutions could also come in the form of tax-deferred “Parent-Funds”, akin to college savings plans, that allow working moms, and dads, to save and plan for a time when they scale back on full-time work to care for their children.
Sharon’s book makes clear the inequities that exist and the change that is sorely needed to improve the lives of caregivers in the US. MotherWoman’s programs demonstrate successful models for that change.
I’m grateful to them both for their work, and for daring me to view my individual struggle as part of a larger whole.