Confronting the Mommy Myth

BY Susan J. Douglas

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As I write this, much of the country is focused on the 9/11 hearings and revelations about Team Bush’s destructive obsession with Saddam Hussein. We also are witnessing the fruits of that obsession as Iraq spirals down into a firestorm, rent by fervid anti-American hatred. These issues—that Team Bush misled the country about weapons of mass destruction, that Team Bush was so fixated on avenging Bush the First, that Team Bush has fostered increased terrorism by invading Iraq—coupled with this administration’s disastrous economic and environmental policies, will, and should, dominate the presidential campaign.

But Team Bush also has been conducting another war, here and abroad, a war against women. Currently they are seeking to invade, with considerable success, the private medical records of women who have had abortions so that the administration can defend its new law against late-term abortions. (And please, let’s all stop saying “partial birth,” an inaccurate, propagandistic term.) They want welfare mothers to work longer hours than they already do in workfare programs. They tried to undermine Title IX and Head Start.

In addition to women in general, there is a huge constituency out there, mothers and children, who have been taken for granted, pandered to or ignored since Reagan. Caught between speed-up at work and the decline of leisure time on the one hand, and the myth of “the perfect mom” on the other, mothers are urged to do more and more with virtually no support from the government or workplace. It is harder to be a mother in the United States than in any other industrialized country.

So the Democrats will be making a big mistake if they don’t also take back an issue from the religious right: “family values.” For the theocrats, “family values” is shorthand for the forced, governmentally sanctioned reassertion of patriarchy. How about the new family values that actually focuses on the needs of, er, the family, and of mothers in particular? And not just the Republican’s fantasy of the über-mother, the “soccer mom,” who can afford a minivan, a laptop, braces for her kids and trips to Disney World.

If you talk and listen to mothers around the country, guess what you find? An incipient, percolating rebellion.

Still, more than 30 years after the women’s movement, we do not have a national, federally funded, decent quality daycare system in this country. We would have had one, had Richard Nixon in 1971 not vetoed the most comprehensive childcare bill ever enacted (with major bipartisan support). But Nixon and his adviser Pat Buchanan thought it was more important to bow to the right wing of the party. Thus, daycare remains a patchwork, with some of us having access to terrific centers while others, especially those in large cities, small towns or rural areas, having very few, if any, choices. In civilized countries, preschool is not seen as some “special interest” for working mothers; it’s seen as a developmentally enriching program for all kids.

If all the mothers of America were sent on a fact-finding mission, here’s what we would find. In Sweden, we would see that the government requires companies to give a new mother a year’s leave at 90 percent pay. It also provides nurseries for most children older than 18 months. A quick stop in Denmark would reveal that nearly half of the children under 3 are in publicly financed nurseries, and nearly 95 percent of children 3 to 6 are. On to France, where 95 percent of children aged 3 to 5 are in preschool. OK, you say, that’s Europe. Well, get this. In 1984, Brazil gave workers 12 weeks of maternity leave with pay. (That’s right, with pay.) Kenya mandates eight weeks of maternity leave with pay.

What we get here, instead, is backlash. Lisa Belkin’s now infamous New York Times Magazine piece on the alleged “opt out” generation of mothers who “choose” not to work was bad enough. Now Time gives us the cover story “The Case for Staying Home” with the subtitle “Why more young Moms are opting out of the rat race.” Interestingly, on the cover we don’t see the “mom’s” face at all. We see a little blond toddler dressed in white (!) hugging a mom’s leg, also clad in white (!!). We don’t need to see her face; her expressions, her thoughts, her desires are irrelevant. Here the fragile needy child, looking up into mom’s face, makes the case for “choosing” to stay home.

Inside we learn about a supposed exodus of young mothers from the work place. A bold faced pull-quote emphasizes that there has been a 3 percent drop in the proportion of mothers with kids under 3 in the work place since 1997. (This is an “exodus”? Especially during a recession when more than 2 million jobs have been lost?) Buried in smaller text is that fact that 72 percent of mothers with kids under 18 are in the work force. Guess why? They have to. And, many like to.

Beyond the dictatorial cover—“The Case for Staying Home”—the bulk of the article is what the real story is about: the absolute failure of the workplace and the government to support the family, especially mothers.

We mothers have no paid maternity leave, no universal healthcare so that all our kids are covered, no comprehensive after-school programs, no genuine, truly revolutionary new support of our public schools that would revive them (No Child Left Behind already has become a massive joke). Too many workplaces have no onsite or nearby daycare, no flexible time, no job sharing. The right to control our own reproductive lives is under total siege.

Mothers feel they have been sold a bill of goods: We’re supposed to be eternally nurturing, supportive and ecstatic about child rearing 24/7. We are never supposed to get angry, because the words “mom” and “angry” aren’t supposed to go together. But if mothers in this country never got angry about how they and the nation’s children were being treated, we’d still have child labor and laws discriminating against married women in the labor force. Mothers’ voices have not been heard, especially during this presidential campaign season. It’s about time they were. Check out two Web sites, www.mothersandmore.org and www.mothersmovement.org. And remember: Motherhood remains the unfinished business of the women’s movement.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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