Trashing the Hallmark card mom

Weary of saccharine stereotypes, a diverse group of women is demanding that society do more than pay lip service to mothers.

By Katy Read

Published May 21, 2004 9:21PM (EDT)

To celebrate Mother's Day this year, the national group Mothers and More held a contest inviting members to submit particularly gag-inducing media images of mothers. Chosen among the worst was a newspaper column by J.D. Mullane in the Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times, bashing "make-believe moms" with the nerve to plunk their kids in child-care programs while taking time for themselves: "Real moms do the heavy lifting of child care ... and the grunt work of lugging the kids around while running errands and shopping."

Mothers and More was appalled -- not by the concept of these supposedly self-indulgent moms, but by the (ahem, male) columnist granting himself the right to judge their authenticity.

"Apparently this writer believes that a 'real mom' ... must wear her children around her neck 24/7 as some sort of badge of selfless commitment," shot back a Web site commentary.

Meanwhile, Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights (MOTHERS), founded by well-known feminists and authors Naomi Wolf and Ann Crittenden, was also observing Mom's special day. The Washington-based organization's Web site encouraged mothers to get political for the holiday, suggesting they host workshops on the economic disadvantages -- lost wages and benefits, missed promotions -- of being a child's primary caregiver. The site even includes a downloadable script for the workshop: American mothers, the script warned, are plunged into "a pervasive system of economic dependency and vulnerability."

Hey, whatever happened to mushy cards and breakfast in bed?

Flowery tokens of appreciation for moms have not gone the way of the hand-shaped clay ashtray. But 90 years after Congress granted them an annual day of appreciation, some mothers are beginning to call for more substantial recognition. Some describe it as a "mothers' movement," which might seem like a lofty term to describe the below-the-radar efforts of a scattering of organizations -- including Mothers and More, MOTHERS, Mothers Movement Online, the National Association of Mothers' Centers and Mothers Alliance for Militant Action -- along with miscellaneous writers, academics and individual women. Neither a support group trading helpful household hints, nor a coalition formed around a single issue like the Million Mom March against assault weapons, the movement is not your typical coffeehouse gathering of moms: Its hodgepodge of sympathizers don't share identical agendas, aren't necessarily aware of one another's existence, and, in some cases, probably don't even think of themselves as forming an official movement.

"This is sort of where the women's movement was, circa 1963 -- the pre-rumblings," Susan J. Douglas, coauthor with Meredith W. Michaels of "The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined Women," a biting cultural critique that could serve as a primer on many mothers' movement ideas.

For now, there's not much direct action -- no picketing or shoving fliers under windshield wipers. The movement consists mainly of old-fashioned consciousness-raising, with advocates writing and talking about ideas that -- depending on your outlook and personal experiences -- are either obvious or incendiary. From a feminist standpoint, they resent what they see as the insipid stereotypes and narrow standards surrounding American motherhood, the trivialization of caregiving work, and the lack of economic and social support. They would prefer that dads equally share the diapering and dentist appointments; in fact, they're careful to insist that those fathers who do fill caregiving roles deserve more support from employers and government, too. But they also pragmatically face the reality that, in most families, the chores are not divided equally, that mothers and fathers deal with different challenges (typical fathers, they acknowledge, may have issues of their own). They share a willingness to break long-standing taboos and confess that, for all its rewards, being the primary caregiver for children isn't always as idyllic as it's cracked up to be.

"When I became a mother, I realized that everything I knew was wrong," said Judith Stadtman Tucker, 48, a former graphic designer who now edits Mothers Movement Online, a year-old clearinghouse for information about social, economic and political issues surrounding caregiving. "I sort of sat back and said, 'Wait a minute, this sucks. Why is it that I'm going through all this and my husband's life is pretty normal and he's doing the same things he was doing before? What about this equality thing?'"

Tucker said she wants people to "question why we think the things about motherhood that we think." Such as why the arduous work so often extolled as "the most important job in the world" seldom earns anything, in real life, beyond cocktail-party yawns. Why it's not merely unpaid, but an economic liability for those who perform it, whether or not they also hold outside jobs. Why society hands mothers so much responsibility for how their children "turn out" but so little authority that mothers often find their parenting practices subject to condemnation from strangers. Why "child-friendly" spaces tend to segregate kids -- and thus their caregivers -- from other adults, and vice versa. Why busy contemporary mothers feel increasing pressure (what Douglas and Michaels call the "new momism") to lavish their offspring with exhaustive attention -- Flashcards and Mozart! Elaborate craft projects! Daily "floor time"! -- that even the full-time housewives of previous generations were spared.

"June Cleaver was not expected to spend every golden moment with her children," said Joanne Brundage, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Mothers and More. "She kicked them out the door in the morning."

Brundage is a soft-spoken, self-effacing, snowy-haired 52-year-old with two teenage sons and an adult daughter. She started her group 17 years ago after being forced to quit a post office job for lack of good child care. Lonely, exhausted by the demands of a colicky baby and suffering an "identity crisis" over the loss of her job, she ran a newspaper ad seeking other at-home mothers for conversation that extended beyond cloth vs. disposable. What started as four women gathering in Brundage's Elmhurst, Ill., living room has since swelled to an organization with 7,200 members in 174 chapters that has, over the years, turned increasingly political. The organization's Internet home page proclaims a mother's right "to fully explore and develop her identity as she chooses: as a woman, a citizen, a parent or an employee"; asserts women's "right to choose if and how to combine parenting and paid employment"; affirms "the wisdom of each mother to decide how to care for her children, her family and herself."

Still, many mothers -- including some, Brundage said, in Mothers and More -- are uncomfortable with political stances asking them to define themselves apart from their children. It's hard to shake the feeling, Brundage said, that "once you're a mother, you have no needs of your own, you have no wants of your own, you're there to serve your family, and to think otherwise is to question your dedication and your love for your children."

That maternal love is real, of course, and mothers-movement supporters don't deny its power. But they contend that it is being exploited.

"I have one son, and I would die for him," said Crittenden, author of "The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued." "I would give up anything for him. But I don't want somebody else telling me what I have to give up."

Crittenden's MOTHERS aims to bolster the economic security of caregivers at all income levels by calling for laws such as paid parental leave, Social Security credits for at-home mothers, and proportionate pay and benefits for part-time work. A college-educated mother may pay a "mommy tax" of $1 million in lost income and benefits over the course of her lifetime, according to Crittenden. Lower-income mothers who stay home or work part-time may sacrifice hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages and benefits, while those who hold outside jobs struggle with onerous job schedules, inflexible employers and inadequate child care.

A primary caretaker of children is "just getting hammered, whatever social class you're in, at any income level," Crittenden said. "The workplace is set up for people with no private life."

Advocates generally don't take a position on whether moms "should" stay home with their children; they point out that many mothers move back and forth between work and home, or combine the two. Mothers and More -- about a third of whose members hold paying jobs -- officially (and publicly, when contacted by journalists seeking to feed the controversy) denounces the concept of a "mommy wars" conflict between working and at-home mothers, insisting it's largely a media construct that pits mothers against one another.

Despite similar-sounding terms, the mothers' movement should not be confused with the "opt-out revolution," as a New York Times Magazine piece dubbed the phenomenon of high-powered women ditching careers to stay home with their children. When that article ran last fall (followed by a similar Time magazine cover story in March), some welcomed the media spotlight on mothers' concerns, while others joined the ensuing chorus slamming the story for focusing on women with the financial wherewithal to give up paychecks. But a few saw that criticism as almost beside the point. The problem, said "Mommy Myth" author Douglas, was that the stories downplayed workplace demands that prodded the decision to quit (once again, fathers were hardly mentioned), and which often are at least as hard on women who can't afford to stay home.

"The choices that women have are not good choices," said Linda Lisi Juergens, executive director of the National Association of Mothers' Centers, a 29-year-old network of programs for mothers that is planning a panel discussion on the mothers' movement for its national conference in November. "So you make the choice that makes the most sense for you given your circumstances and then you live with the guilt."

While some pro-mother organizations work to "valorize motherhood as a sacrificial duty, a higher calling," said Tucker, of Mothers Movement Online, the movement's perspective is considerably less romantic. It sees moms getting stuck with the bulk of caregiving mainly by default. And though they agree on the need for more support, they don't claim an exalted status for mothering -- indeed, they reject a pedestal whose flip side, they say, too often entails blame and unfair accountability.

Advocates also object to overly narrow definitions of good parenting, and resist being pressured to follow a prescribed set of child-rearing guidelines governing anything from breast-feeding to discipline to after-school activities.

"I have a different personality than you do. Your child has a different personality than mine. Your family may have different values than mine. Something may work perfectly for you, but I may have different results," Juergens said. "You are trying to do your best, and having somebody come along and make you feel bad or guilty is not helpful."

And unlike organizations that stress children as the ultimate beneficiaries of pro-mother initiatives, the mothers' movement acknowledges that mothers' interests are sometimes at odds with those of their kids.

"Sometimes it sounds very heartless to say that because of how well we've been indoctrinated," Tucker said. "But it doesn't mean that mothers are unfeeling or uncaring, it means they're normal and human."

That idea, at one time rarely vocalized, is becoming more familiar: a flurry of recent novels have detailed darker aspects of the role -- drudgery, guilt, isolation, boredom -- that don't get mentioned in Hallmark cards. Motherhood zines and Web sites, like the 4-year-old Brain, Child and the 10-year-old Hip Mama, publish viewpoints conspicuously absent from traditional parenting magazines. Web sites and e-mail loops bring together mothers who feel "powerless, disenfranchised, misunderstood and voiceless" in mainstream culture, said Kim Lane, 39, editor of, a Web site for mothers in Austin, Texas.

"The overall message I've gotten from this project is that mothers are hungry for justice," Lane said. "We are dog tired of trying to fit into neat little boxes with a smile ... We've become livid at commercial portrayal of mothers and their roles."

Ironically, an indifference to mothers' problems may be, in part, a byproduct of the women's movement. Douglas and Michaels point out in "The Mommy Myth" that 1970s feminists fought hard to improve day care and workplace flexibility. But others argue that, by encouraging women to snare paid jobs in traditionally male worlds -- arguably by necessity -- feminism helped downgrade the status, even among women, of unpaid, female-dominated child care. In the end, advocates have settled on diplomatically describing their issues as "the unfinished business of feminism."

The term resonates with women who, thanks to the women's movement, sailed through school, early careers and even romantic partnerships encountering relatively few barriers or inequities, only to find themselves crammed into unexpected pigeonholes as mothers.

"My husband and I got sucked into this time warp, it felt like, where all of a sudden we were both in these completely traditional roles that neither of us had ever planned," said Mothers and More president Kristin Maschka, 35, who managed the training department of an Internet service provider until quitting in 2000 to stay home with her daughter. "We'd look at each other and say, 'How did this happen to us?'"

The mothers' movement is still too low-profile to have attracted much direct criticism. But many of its ideas clearly make people uncomfortable, even irate. Some supporters of the "child-free movement" (people who don't want kids) and conservative groups oppose government or workplace benefits for parents.

"Can you imagine politicians using Father's Day ... to describe how they will take care of poor, helpless Dad?" writes Carrie L. Lukas, director of policy for the Independent Women's Forum, a free-market organization that opposes many feminist ideas. "Women deserve the same respect. Instead of caricaturing us as wards of the state, politicians should focus on getting government out of our lives."

Major publications, even left-leaning ones, aren't necessarily more sympathetic: The idea pops up regularly that American mothers, with all their privileges and options, don't have much to complain about.

"How worried should we be about what these women, which is to say ourselves, are feeling?" asked Elizabeth Kolbert, reviewing "The Mommy Myth" and another motherhood book, Daphne de Marneffe's "Maternal Desire," in the New Yorker in March. "If a woman wants to take time off from her career to raise a family, and if she can afford to do so, what more can she reasonably desire? That everyone else act only in ways that validate her decision? ... Choosing between work and home is, in the end, a problem only for those who have a choice. In this sense, it is, like so many 'problems' of twenty-first-century life, a problem of not having enough problems."

It's an intimidating argument: How dare the reasonably comfortable complain, in view of the world's suffering? But it assumes that lower-income women (to whose plight "The Mommy Myth" actually devotes a fair amount of space) do not share any of the same concerns. And it lets society off the hook, Tucker said, by suggesting "that the work of securing women's equality in the workplace is over and done with," and that "the average woman who is struggling to maintain a career and cope with more than her fair share of domestic responsibility is unhappy because she chooses a lifestyle that leads to unhappiness."

Discontented housewives back in the "Ozzie and Harriet" 1950s would have heard similar dismissals, Crittenden said. "People would say, 'What have you got to be unhappy about? What's your problem? You've got a nice house in the suburbs.' I think we are truly in another situation like that. People can't quite figure out what is wrong."

Amid the criticism, a gesture of approval recently came from an unexpected quarter. In a Mother's Day event of its own, the florist service FTD presented Mothers and More founder Brundage with an award that, sarcastic punch lines aside, you don't hear much about these days.

The company named her Mother of the Year.

"My 17-year-old son, Zach, fell down laughing and, when he recovered himself, he asked me how much it was worth it to me for him to keep his mouth shut," Brundage said. She laughed, too, but sounded pleased with the tribute.

"It wasn't that I have the smartest kids or that I've gone through the most tragedy -- it wasn't a Queen for a Day kind of thing. It really was focused on the work our organization was doing, and the work that all mothers do," Brundage said. "They recognize that mothers need more than flowers."

Katy Read

Katy Read is a writer in Minneapolis.


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