I've spent the better part of the last ten years trying to convince mothers and others that social change to improve the status of women and working families is urgently needed, and that the progress we seek can be achieved through collective action. I must confess that when I first embarked on speaking and writing publicly about this thing called the "mothers' movement," my faith that mothers could be mobilized to advance a self-interested agenda was not unshakable. My project, as I understood it in those early days, was to encourage mothers to connect their personal discontents and employment setbacks to systemic forces, and to offer reassurance that when ordinary people work together, we have the power to alter our common future. Unfortunately, for the last 25 years the legislative climate in the United States has ranged from hostile to indifferent to the rights and welfare of caregivers and workers with family responsibilities -- and based on my personal and organizational experience, I'm intimately familiar with the practical and ideological barriers to organizing a critical mass of mothers for change. In other words, I've done my share of strategic storytelling in the interest of shifting mothers' perception of what exists, what is good, and what is possible. Which (coincidently) is a critical phase of social movement formation -- and of course, I'm not the only sympathizer who's had a hand in shaping the narrative frame of the mothers' movement.
It's a sign of how far we've come -- in a relatively short time -- that talking about the motherhood problem and how to fix it no longer feels like slashing a path through uncharted territory. Mothers' advocates and their growing audience are not yet on the same page about the purpose of reform or the best way to pursue it -- and probably never will be -- but at least we're checking out books from the same library. Next month, the National Association of Mothers Centers will devote its 24th Annual Conference to raising "the voices of mothers to create positive change for women and families" by bringing together representatives of mothers' support and advocacy organizations from across the United States. (April 4 - 6 in Smithtown, New York; more information and the conference program and registration can be found here.) A highlight of the conference will be a two-part roundtable discussion by leaders and members of national mothers' organizations, including the NAMC, MOTHERS, the Motherhood Project, Mothers Acting Up, Mothers & More, Welfare Warriors, NOW Mothers & Caregivers Economic Rights Committee, MomsRising, and yours truly. This promises to be a pivotal event for our maturing movement, and I hope readers in the NY region and beyond will plan to attend.
Meanwhile, I've been immersed in my own journey as a social activist, and have discovered that while I still love my self-selected job as one of the designated storytellers of the mothers' movement, I also have a flair for organizing and a burning desire to put it to use. In my continuing work as a volunteer and grassroots organizer with the Obama campaign, I'm learning about what is -- and what isn't -- effective in ground-level political campaigning and the challenges of building and sustaining grassroots networks for community action. All of it feels exciting and new to me, and has motivated me to travel to support the campaign in other states -- which, unfortunately, cuts into both the time and focus I have for producing the Mothers Movement Online.
Readers, I ask you to bear with me as I work out the kinks from my sudden growth spurt as an agent for change. Although content on the MMO may not always be updated according to the published schedule during the next six months, I remain committed to refreshing the site with the usual array of provocative reflections on women, work, family, motherhood, and public policy within the general timeframe set out in the editorial calendar. The MMO blog is up and running, and I'm determined to restore some discipline to my daily writing schedule in order to keep it fueled with new material. But in the long run, I believe that everyone with a stake in creating a more just and caring society benefits when mothers like me have an opportunity to learn the ropes of political activism -- and I'm poignantly aware that the latest twist in my personal development as a social activist is an expression of the same calling that compelled me to launch the MMO in the first place. I'm also coping with the sometimes painful realization that channeling my activism in a new direction has thrown my internal equilibrium and daily life into a state of flux (which probably explains why more level-headed people prefer to stay home and stick with the known quantity of the status quo). I'm reluctant to make any predictions about where my newfound passion for organizing will lead me in the months and years ahead, but I'm sure of one thing: I may -- or may not -- be the editor and publisher of the Mothers Movement Online for the duration. But I will always use my voice to speak truth to power, and will always be working for a better, fairer, more caring world for women, workers, and families.
The pregnancy and childbirth issue
The over-medicalization of childbirth in America -- the subject of a recently-released and well-received documentary, The Business of Being Born -- is the most persistent and substantive grievance of advocates for low-intervention and alternative birthing models. In today's mainstream medical-industrial culture, these groups argue, pregnancy and childbirth are treated as medical conditions that must be aggressively managed to minimize potential risks, rather than a normal physiological process which, for the vast majority of healthy women, will conclude without serious complications. While advocates for safe and supported birth unanimously agree that life-saving technologies have dramatically improved outcomes for mothers and infants when labor and delivery takes a wrong turn, they point to studies showing that routine use of medical interventions in hospital birth settings -- such as labor induction and continuous fetal monitoring -- do not significantly reduce unfavorable birth outcomes, and may contribute to unacceptably high rates of surgical delivery in the US.
In fact, a recent survey of mothers by the Childbirth Connection (in partnership with Lamaze International) found that "technology-intensive childbirth care was the norm," with continuous fetal monitoring, one or more vaginal exams during labor, and use of an intravenous drip among the most common practices. Non-medical techniques to promote maternal comfort and progression of labor were rarely used. (It is notable however, that 81 percent of birthing women who received epidurals or spinal analgesia rated those methods as "very effective" for pain management, compared to 48 percent of those who tried immersion in a tub or pool and 21 percent who used breathing techniques. For more on the science and culture of pain management during childbirth, see Knock Me Out! by Laura Owens in this month's Essays.)
Despite high rates of unnecessary medical intervention and mothers' reports that they were more likely to feel "overwhelmed" than "powerful" while giving birth, more than eight out of ten white and Latina mothers rated the quality of U.S. maternity care as "good or excellent." (Rates of approval were lower for African American mothers.)
Mothers may have faith in the system, but it's difficult to dismiss the charge that more can be done to assure that mothers who labor and deliver in hospital settings have a better childbirth experience. "Lots of women feel crappy about their births," remarks Lisa Gould Rubin, co-author of The Birth That's Right for You, in an interview with Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser. "There’s not nearly enough support out there right now for women to find their most comfortable choice and settle with that, as opposed to someone else’s idea of what she should do" (in Features). And as Carter-Ann Mahdavi writes in Unforgettable, a traumatic birth experience -- which may be unavoidable in an emergency, but can also result from indifferent care -- "is not an incidental life episode that you can 'get over.' It resonates inside you."
In the bigger picture, childbearing in the United States involves far more than navigating a natural process to enhance the odds of a positive experience and outcome for mother and baby -- it includes the whole woman and the dynamics of the relational, cultural, and economic world she is enmeshed in. If women's bodies are inherently political in a sexist culture -- and I submit that is the case -- women's pregnant and fertile bodies should be recognized as one of the most bitterly contested terrains in American society. From laws limiting access to abortion for low-income women to welfare regulations and workplace policy, maternal and pregnant bodies are the political arena in which the intersection of gender, age, race, ethnicity, marital status, sexuality, and social class are most salient to disparities in women's wellbeing and social inclusion.
True to its feminist origins, the new Our Bodies Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth Book (Boston Women's Health Book Collective, March 2008) is one of the first auhtoritative guides to emphasize the political dimensions of maternity care in the United States. "Maternity care is in crisis in this country," remarks OBOS director Judy Nosigian in an interview with the MMO (in Features). According to Nosigian, the public is poorly informed about the actual risks associated with common childbirth interventions; she adds that the goal of the book is to create a "climate of confidence," as opposed to the "climate of doubt" perpetuated by best-selling pregnancy and birth guides. The OBOS Pregnancy and Birth Book is also the first pregnancy and childbirth preparation guide published in the United States to include a chapter on advocating for the workplace rights of pregnant and parenting women (I contributed to that chapter, along with the OBOS editorial team).
Like pregnancy, the approaching end of fertility signals another life-altering stage of women's reproductive experience. Perimenopause, writes first-time contributor Dina Stander, is a reminder that "life in a female body involves surrender to years of biophysical processes over which we have little or no control." (Craggy Dancing, in this month's Essays).
In this edition's Noteworthy section: an update on new plans to meddle with the Family and Medical Leave Act, plus highlights from US research and reports on employed mothers' child care arrangements and costs, changing maternity leave and employment patterns of first-time mothers since the 1960s, children's living arrangements, and a summary of research on married men's less-than-equal contribution to family work, and how we ought to interpret it. Don't forget to visit MMO Blogworthy for more summaries of relevant news, reports, and resources. And in Letters, a reader from Australia shares her perspective on the importance of electoral politics and why mothers ought to get involved.
The April/May edition of the MMO will cover The Mothers Movement in the United States: Controversies, Questions, and Progress. The published deadline for submissions is April 1, but since I'm going to be out of the editorial loop for a good chunk of the month of April, new submissions will be accepted through April 25. The June/July issue will be devoted to Maternal and Infant Health: Global Issues; submissions are due June 1 (but since all is in flux, that, too, could change!). For more information about 2008 issue topics and publication dates (such as they are), please download the 2008 Editorial Calendar. Questions about contributing content to the MMO? Please email email@example.com
Thanks to all the MMO's fabulous contributing writers, past and present. And thanks to our readers for going with the flow. I'm here for you. Somewhere. You can count on it.
Judith Stadtman Tucker
Editor, The Mothers Movement Online