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The New Future of Motherhood

page four

Back to the future

The good news is that a number of contemporary mothers are beginning to think and talk and write about motherhood in ways that expose the complexity and conflicts of mothering— both as a social experience and a private one. In print and online, we can now find countless examples of mothers peeling away heavy layers of ideology to get to the naked truth of motherhood. Some dig farther down than others, but the work is underway; a small but growing group of mothers is fully engaged in “rewriting the script for the role of women as mothers,” just as Jesse Bernard predicted in 1974. In this instance, the future of motherhood is already here.

On other measures, however, we’re still waiting for the future to happen. Despite her faith in the inevitability of women’s equality, Bernard knew the political tide had already turned on the women’s rights movement when she wrote The Future of Motherhood. She describes, in considerable detail, the defeat of bi-partisan legislation authorizing federal funding for a comprehensive day-care system in the U.S. When President Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill in 1971, he cited concerns about the legislation’s potential to accelerate the erosion of the patriarchal family. “For the federal government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child development would commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing over the family-centered approach.” The campaign for universal child care, which in the 60s and 70s was a centerpiece of the agenda of the National Organization for Women and other mainstream feminist groups, never regained momentum.

Bringing the United States up to speed with other economically developed countries in terms of a national program for job-protected leave for childbirth has been another uphill battle. When the Parental and Disability Leave Act of 1985— an early precursor of the Family and Medical Leave Act— was introduced to Congress, it included provisions for 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave and 26 weeks of unpaid medical leave for an employee’s own serious illness, and covered all workers in businesses with five or more employees. Staunchly opposed by an influential coalition of business groups, the final version of the FMLA— which provides just 12 weeks of unpaid parental or medical leave for workers in businesses with 50 or more employees— was not signed into law until 1993. (A similar version of the bill was vetoed by George H.W. Bush in 1991.) As Christopher Beem and Jodi Heyman write in Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future (2002), the passage of the FMLA was “an important milestone in American society; both legislators and citizens demonstrated their awareness that American’s working life had changed and our society needed to respond to that change.”

Yet for all the success, even its most ardent supporters would acknowledge that the FMLA is but a minor advance. Compared to Western Europe, our level of support for those with work and family responsibilities remains woefully inadequate. What is more, the hope that the FMLA would be the first of many federal work and family initiatives has not yet been borne out.

With the neo-conservative power base launching an all-out attack on women’s reproductive rights and working to dismantle core social programs and labor regulations even as I write this, it seems unlikely there will be any “federal work and family initiatives” coming our way soon. In fact, current opponents of the FMLA are pressuring the Department of Labor to make changes that will make it more difficult for workers to take job-protected leave when they need it. Advocates for expanding the FMLA and providing paid sick and parental leave to all workers are currently focusing their resources on what more can be done at the state level to support working families.

Concerned mothers should be very, very worried about what the future has in store. At a time when millions of mothers and children live near or below the poverty line; when one out of every four woman workers lacks any duration of paid leave allowing time off to care for a newborn or sick child (and when over half of all mothers with any paid leave have just three workweeks or less); when women earn less than similarly qualified men in all but a small number of occupations; when one-quarter of single-parent mothers have no health care coverage; when the cost of quality child care for infants and toddlers adds up to more than the cost of state college tuition in some regions; when influential fathers’ rights groups are pushing for state-wide reduction or elimination of child support payments to divorced mothers; when only one out of five mothers report enough schedule flexibility at work to meet their caring needs, American mothers should be up in arms. We should be marching through the streets and making noise. We should be banding together to make it perfectly clear that women don’t “choose” their way into the motherhood problem, and they can’t choose their way out of it— unless, of course, they choose not to become mothers at all, which, for the vast majority of us, is an unthinkable alternative.

As Miriam Peskowitz points out in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars (2005), mothers and fathers are taking steps to relieve the backward drag and social isolation women experience when they become mothers by making changes in their households, workplaces and communities. But on a larger scale, mothers’ activism— and women’s activism in general— seems to be stuck in a rut. According to Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), Jesse Bernard may have had more cause for optimism than we do today. In a recent address on “Feminisms Then and Now,” Faludi remarked that in 1974, “Women were passionate about changing society. In comparison, we seem relatively complacent— not the next wave of feminism, but the receding trough after the wave has crashed.” But, she added, “American feminism has always been a stop-and-go affair. No matter how often feminism has been declared dead, it has always managed to come bounding out of the coffin roaring with life.” (As reported by Ken Gewertz, Harvard News Gazette.)

I sincerely hope the 21st century mothers’ movement will be part of that revival. And I hope that, thirty years from now, another generation of disillusioned mothers won’t be wondering why the U.S. is the only economically developed nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave for all workers -- or feeling outraged because America’s families still don’t have universal health care coverage and access to affordable, quality child care -- or discovering anew that the way we organize our workplaces is fundamentally inhospitable to workers with caregiving responsibilities -- or trying to figure out what it will take to get dads more involved in the nitty-gritty work of family life. I hope today’s mothers’ advocates will have the foresight, courage and stamina to keep pressing forward, even when we’re moving against the headwinds of cultural resistance and meaningful progress seems miles beyond our reach. One thing is clear: an effective mothers’ movement is not destined to be a short-term venture with limited goals. In fact, the deliberate remaking of the future of motherhood may be one of the most ambitious political projects ever undertaken.

In an essay on the ideal division of labor in postindustrial society, political theorist Nancy Fraser provides an admirable blueprint for a mothers’ movement that acknowledges the centrality of caregiving to a humane and just society without compromising the larger goal of securing equality for women who mother. She writes:

The trick is to imagine a world in which citizen’s lives integrate wage-earning, caregiving, community activism, political participation, and involvement in the associational life of civil society – while also leaving some time for fun. This world is not likely to come into being in the immediate future. But it is the only imaginable postindustrial world that promises true gender equality. And unless we are guided by this vision now, we will never get any closer to achieving it.

This is my vision for our future. And I’m looking for others who want to join me in making it come true.

-- Judith Stadtman Tucker

mmo : May 2005

Ready for change? email mothersforchange@mothersmovement.org

Sections of this essay were presented at a panel on “Voices of Today’s Mothers’ Movement” at the National Association of Mothers Centers Conference, November 2004. Other passages were adapted from a paper presented at the Association for Research on Mothering conference on Mothering and Feminism, October 2004.


Christopher Beem and Jodi Heymann, editors, Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future, the Work, Family and Democracy Project, 2002

Jesse Bernard, The Future of Motherhood, Dial Press, 1974

Fraser, Nancy, “Gender Equity and the Welfare State: A Postindustrial Thought Experiment” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, Seyla Benhabib, ed, Princeton University Press, 1996.

Also in The Motherhood Papers:

Doing Difference:
Motherhood, gender and the stories we live by

Morality or equality?
Maternal thinking and the social agenda

More reading:

MMO review: Maternal Desire by Daphne de Marneffe

MMO review: The Mommy Myth by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels

MMO interview with Miriam Peskowirz,
author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars

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