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STYLE & CULTURE

Mothers' Bill of Rights: a baby step toward radical goal

October 29, 2002|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

The money world and the mommy world are sorely out of balance. There is no way to offer the care and nurturing most mothers would like to lavish on their children and yet maintain the paycheck that allows dignity, family and career to survive.

Even for mothers who can afford it, there's no easy way to swap a career for a stay-at-home life to raise kids. At least not without feeling guilty that they are not contributing to the family coffers, not contributing to society, not using the intellect, education and opportunity that women fought so hard and long to achieve.

Of course, women are not supposed to complain about this. They fought for decades to win the right to vote, to equal education, to equal work and equal pay. Now, the popular thinking goes, they have to live with the results. Well, no they don't.

Rumblings of dissatisfaction, subtle but persistent for the past few years, now verge on becoming a roar. Essays, books and films are being written by women who want to move forward to a society that values the act of mothering as an option in women's lives and as a way to better the future of the world.

Enola Aird Carter, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values (a private nonprofit think tank in Manhattan that focuses on family-related issues) and director of the institute's Motherhood Project, has drafted a call for a new motherhood movement, a kind of Mothers' Bill of Rights. She has organized a symposium today at Barnard College in Manhattan. It is a step toward a distant goal: "We want to change the way our culture is structured. Right now it is structured so we live to work. We would like more balance, so we can live to nurture our families as well. I am confident that the debate, once joined by mothers across the country, will yield more options and lead to major policy changes down the road."

Carter is a Yale law school graduate who tried working in the corporate world, staying home to raise her kids, and then going to work again. Nothing seemed to satisfy. "I was happy to be with my children but unhappy to be at home -- because I came face to face with a culture that devalued what I was doing, which was mothering. I went from being somebody important to someone invisible."

Her "Call to a Motherhood Movement" asks society to start "honoring and supporting mothers and the work of mothering"; to ensure "the dignity and well-being of children"; and to "reorder the priorities of our society ... that is losing touch with the essential ethics of care and nurture indispensable for children and for a good society."

It won't be easy. The traditional interests of mothers and their children, such as education, safety and morality, are no longer societal priorities, Carter believes. It is these big-picture issues on which the panel will focus rather than on specific problems of day care, financial need and the like, Carter says.

Right now, many working mothers find they can discuss almost anything in the office except the issue that consumes them most -- the lack of time and energy to cook, clean, find day care, stay home with a sick child, help with homework, attend school meetings, teach character and values -- and just have fun with their kids. To discuss these things at work often makes them feel whiney, unprofessional and inefficient.

Meanwhile, many stay-at-home moms feel equally challenged. They are often belittled by mothers with paying jobs, by husbands who think they should have paying jobs, and by anyone who asks the dreaded cocktail-party question: What do you do? "I take care of my kids" is too often perceived as "I do nothing at all."

Of course, the clever woman has learned to put a humorous, self-deprecating spin on the whole 21st century mothering mess. The dribble on the work clothes, altering store-bought food to look homemade. Laughter masks the pain of mothering diminished and with so many women in that situation, it could also bring in big bucks. Miramax paid novelist Allison Pearson $2 million for "I Don't Know How She Does It," her social comedy about a hotshot careerist mother who finds that -- no matter what the early feminists believed -- women can't have it all.

Humor won't suffice, says Janet Giele, professor of public policy at Brandeis University, and member of today's symposium. She calls the motherhood movement "the first serious attempt in 40 years to reach a new plateau in women's lives. The attempt to restructure society to acknowledge women's need to mother, and society's need to have them do that," is a brilliant step ahead.

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