Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
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july/august 2004 edition:

  • Elsewhere on the Web:
    Selected articles on women, work and motherhood from the Economic Policy Institute, Women’s eNews, Wired News and AlterNet.

Caitlin Flanagan Watch
Judging from the recent influx of email, I was not the only mother/writer awaiting (or dreading, as the case may be) Caitlin Flanagan’s formal appearance in her new position as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Flanagan, a forty-something mother of twin boys, earned her reputation by penning nostalgic and often controversial commentaries about the sorry state of modern motherhood for The Atlantic Monthly. Her central premise seems to be that the new breed of mothers— with all their ill-tempered yammering about the downside of housework, child rearing and conjugal sex— lack the composure and gentle good humor of the “happy housewives” of our mothers’ (or grandmothers’) era. According to Flanagan, today’s mothers are, by and large, missing the whole point of marriage and family life. While mourning the loss of the small touches of gracious living that were, once upon a time, the stock and trade of accomplished homemakers (or, at least Flanagan’s mom)— such as full place settings with cloth napkins, even when 60s-style frozen dinners were served right in their tacky foil trays— Flanagan also manages to vilify affluent, career-driven mothers who (she suggests) heartlessly abandon their innocent children to the care of exploited third-world nannies without so much as turning a hair. In Flanagan’s pampered and privileged world, those pushy second wave feminists really screwed things up for everybody.

In her debut essay for The New Yorker—which is artfully written and actually quite poignant—we find out a little bit more about why Flanagan is so out of sorts. In “To Hell With All That” (July 5, 2004), Flanagan recounts how she was overcome by a sense of abandonment when her own homemaking mother (who, Flanagan writes, “In my childish apprehension of things, …was happiest …when she was standing at her ironing board transforming a chaotic basket of wash into a set of sleek and polished garments”) made an abrupt decision to quit scrubbing the kitchen wallpaper and get a job. When her mother’s employment left 12-year old Caitlin at loose ends during her after-school hours, the poor little thing was traumatized by losing her house key (Flanagan describes herself as “a hysteric by nature”) and obsessed about being abducted by militant revolutionaries while her mother selfishly rations the protective aura of her presence. “The rhetoric of liberation,” Flanagan writes, “exhorted women to go to work not in spite of their children but—at least partly—because of them. …Being on my own recognizance was supposed to toughen me up, to deliver me from my mother’s crippling cosseting and vault me to new levels of independence—not an unreasonable theory. If I had had a different temperament, it might have worked.”

Flanagan expresses a degree of ambivalence about her own decision to stay at home full-time after her sons are born: Initially, she gushes with maternal feeling (“the emotion I felt staring down into their bassinettes was something akin to romantic fervor”) but later discovers that spending day-in and day-out with small children can be excruciatingly banal: “If the last gasp of my youth was to be spent sitting in a lawn chair in a tiny back yard watching little boys poke things with sticks, so be it.”

What makes Flanagan’s writing so interesting is not her retro attitude, but her history. Still somewhat dazed and confused by her mother’s sudden bolt from the family’s orderly, well-stocked kitchen, Flanagan is determined to shield her young sons from the presumed vicissitudes of maternal absence, even when the isolation and aimlessness of it all makes her a little bit crazy. She’s dead certain there will be a big pay off for her sacrifice; but when her sons enter nursery school, she admits “I naively assumed the children would fall into two easily recognizable camps: the wan and neurotic kids of working mothers and the emotionally hardy, confident kids of stay-at-home mothers. What a bust. There was no difference at all that I could divine—if anything, the kids of working mothers were more on the ball.” In a particularly revealing passage, Flanagan confesses to switch-hitting in the Mommy Wars at a pre-school fundraiser. Still, her weak spot is attempting to generalize her personal experience. As MMO contributor Abby Arnold remarks in an email, “I found Flanagan’s new article insidious: I enjoyed it, thought it balanced… until I had time to pull away from it and think of all the ways it was manipulating me to agree that the stay at home mom is best.”

As in several of her essays for The Atlantic, Flanagan’s latest wraps back around to the death of her mother. One might conclude that Flanagan’s core subject is not motherhood per se, but motherlessness; we can only hope that the editors at The New Yorker have enough sense to keep her on track. Meanwhile, not all readers were terribly impressed by Flanagan’s take on the strains of modern mothering. In the magazine’s July 26 issue, one letter-writer observes that “Flanagan seems to believe that, because she was miserable when her mother went out to work, all children everywhere feel the same… Having worked her mother’s choice into a sad psychodrama, she writes that for mothers—not fathers, a subject she barely mentions—the decision to work outside the home ‘will always be the stuff of grinding anxiety and regret.’ For her maybe, but not for everyone.”

At this point, I feel I obligated to disclose that one of the reasons I’m fascinated by Flanagan’s work (in addition to the fact that she writes about motherhood and seems to have a certain tendency toward wrong-headedness) is that our respective childhoods bear some striking similarities. We both grew up in Berkeley, California in the 60s and 70s (I’m a few years older), and we both had at-home mothers and writer fathers who worked at the University. As it happens, my mom was brutally candid about her distaste for ironing and generally disdained the extra work of maintaining a fashionable home in favor of reading novels (and later completing her graduate studies). By the time I was 12, I was already spending any number of my after-school hours caring for other people’s small children. However, I knew and admired girls like Flanagan, and I knew and admired mothers like her mother. I often wished our chaotic, no-frills household displayed some of the informal elegance and attention to detail that seemed to imbue those homes with warmth and happiness. But instead of arousing a longing for the cozy security of yesteryear, becoming a mother has sensitized me to the depths of my own mother’s frustration with her confinement to homemaking and motherhood, and reinforced my respect for the surge of feminist consciouness that partly freed the housewives of her generation— and the generations that followed— to pursue a different kind of self-fulfillment. And Flanagan may disagree with me, but I think it’s time for us to finish the job.  Judith Stadtman Tucker

Unfortunately, The New Yorker does not archive content online.

“To Hell With All That: One woman’s decision to go back to work,”
by Caitlin Flanagan, The New Yorker, July 5, 2004

In The Mail: “Leaving Home,” letters to the editor on Flanagan’s “To Hell With All That,” The New Yorker, July 26, 2004.

More on Caitlin Flanagan from the MMO:

Caitlin Flanagan’s Nanny Problem
According to Flanagan’s latest critique, the Faustian bargain of the women’s movement is that the professional success of a few highly privileged, well educated women was only made possible by the cheap care-giving labor of legions of economically marginalized and emotionally exploited women of color.

Wistful Thinking
A a review of Caitlin Flanagan’s essay on an earlier generation of mothers writing about motherhood.

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To C or not to C:
Strong reader response to Salon story on elective C-sections

In her recent feature for Salon (www.salon.com), Dana Hudepohl reports on the growing numbers healthy mothers-to-be who favor surgical delivery over the good-old-fashioned way (“Cut and Run,” July 9, 2004). “I absolutely dread the entire thought of laboring and delivering,” confesses one expectant mother. “I just can’t see myself sitting around moaning, panting, sweating and screaming while people poke and prod at my vagina. It just seems so unnecessary to me.”

According to Hudepohl’s article, proponents of natural childbirth as the better, safer and more holistic alternative are openly opposed to the rising availability of “maternal choice cesarean,” but the mainstream medical community remains divided. While the vast majority of cesareans in the U.S. are preformed due to complications during pregnancy and labor, Hudepohl cites a new report estimating that approximately 88,000 women in the U.S. had elective C-sections in 2002. The problem with giving a blanket endorsement to elective cesareans, notes one nurse-midwife quoted in the article, is that there are no studies comparing the complication rates of “healthy” C-sections to those that occur in healthy vaginal deliveries—meaning that women who sign on for surgical delivery can’t be certain that both procedures involve similar levels of risks.

Since “choice” seems to be the new by-word of “postfeminist” feminism (or what Katha Pollitt aptly describes as “feminism lite”), the debate moves rather quickly from concerns about the health and safety of mothers and babies to whether elective C-sections are feminist or not (of course, a more pertinent question might be: unless women are being forced to choose them, who cares?). On the one hand, it would be dead wrong to pathologize labor and delivery and there is something to be said for the physical and psychological process of going through labor, which for some women serves as a powerfully symbolic gateway to their self-identification as mothers. On the other hand, it seems equally important to respect the informed decisions of women who would rather not use their vaginas that way, especially if planned surgical delivery is unlikely to harm these mothers or their babies. There are clearly risks and potential long-term repercussions involved in either birthing method—and no guarantees that what begins as healthy labor will end as an uncomplicated vaginal delivery. And as we’ve seen in the case of Melissa Ann Rowland, whether or not a woman can “choose” to have an elective C-section (or an elective vaginal delivery) has a very much to do with her social status and how much money she has.

Salon readers fired off a slew of letters in response to Hudepohl’s story, ranging from: “there is no absolutely right way to give birth” to: “becoming a parent means that someone else’s needs often have to take priority over your own” and: “child rearing is not for the selfish or the faint of heart… if you can’t even deal with the delivery, God help you with the rest!”. In all, Salon published 19 letters on the pros and cons of elective C-sections (compared to zero in response to Katy Read’s May 21 feature on the emerging mothers movement). If one were a hardened skeptic—and let’s face it, it’s hard not to be when it comes to media coverage of mothers’ issues—one might conclude that motherhood is more newsworthy when it gives the public ample opportunity to trash certain mothers’ private lives.

Cut and run:
An increasing number of American women are choosing C-sections. Is this trend a risky indulgence, or a sign of female empowerment? By Dana Hudepohl.

Salon.com Letters:
The elective C-section debate rages on: Is a vaginal delivery the only way to experience the “natural miracle” of childbirth?

From AlterNet, a commentary by Tracy Quan responding to Dana Hudepohl's “Cut and Run”:

The Cult of Nature-Worship
Many Americans view childbirth as a woman's unchanging contract with a God-like version of nature. And it's not just the Bible-thumping conservatives.

Also of interest from Salon.com:

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.

What does marriage mean?:
Married life between a man and woman can follow many twists and turns. So why do gay marriages have to be so straight? Gay dad Dan Savage writes about the elasticity of love and the meaning of commitment.

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New government program to reduce
racial and ethnic disparities in infant mortality:
Too little, too late?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced an initiative to close the gap on infant mortality. According to an HHS press release, the infant mortality rate for white infants in 2001 was 5.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. African American babies endure the greatest disparity and suffer at a rate of twice that of white infants with 13.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. The rate among American Indian and Alaska Native babies was 9.1 deaths per 1,000 live births, also almost twice that of whites. African American infants have the highest infant mortality rates from low birth weight, approximately four times that of infants born to white mothers.

The initiative will provide funding for SIDS reduction intervention in tribal communities and four states experiencing the highest infant death rates for African Americans (Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi and South Carolina). The HHS reports that SIDS rates for infants of American Indian/Alaska Native mothers were 2.6 times those of white mothers and the SIDS rates for infants of African American mothers were 2.4 times those of white mothers.

The press release does not mention any new funding to improve maternal health and nutrition or provide more and better prenatal and obstetric care to uninsured and underserved women of color. Nor does it propose extra funding to relieve poverty or improve sub-standard living conditions, which are the most reliable predictors of high rates of infant mortality.

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New publication from the MIT Workplace Center
charts the next course for America’s working families

In Regaining Control of Our Destiny: A Working Families’ Agenda for America, Thomas Kochan writes: “The first and most visible problem” America faces today is that “families are working harder and longer, but are not getting ahead as promised by the American dream. Deep pressures are building up in our workplaces that, if not addressed soon, will explode.”

Kochan’s template for social change is quietly revolutionary. He argues that it’s time for America’s working families to take a stand and say “enough is enough,” and concludes that the solutions must “start with ourselves—with working families taking the steps needed to raise our voices so we can regain control of our destinies. Why? Because these problems are too important to leave, as we have in recent decades, to ‘the market.’ That solution, standing alone, will deepen the divide between a privileged few and the rest of society that has widened over the past two decades.”

Kochan insists that America’s working families need more flexibility to integrate work and family life; adequate education and life long learning; good jobs with adequate wages; a voice in the workplace and in society; and portable and secure benefits. He calls for collective action, a reformed, proactive labor movement and a new guiding principal for corporate governance: “Employees who invest and put at risk their human capital should have the same rights to information and voice in corporate governance as to investors who put at risk their financial capital.”

Recommended reading for mothers’ advocates and those who love them. Both the full report and an executive summary are available online.

Regaining Control of Our Destiny:
A Working Families’ Agenda for America

By Thomas A. Kochan, Co-Director, MIT Workplace Center and MIT Institute for Work & Employment Research
Executive Summary in .pdf (10 pages)
Full Report in .pdf (140 pages)

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Update on new overtime regulations
The AFL-CIO recently commissioned a group of former Department of Labor officials to analyze the Bush Administration’s new overtime regulations. Their report found that revisions to the FSLA remove “existing overtime protection for large numbers of employees currently entitled to the law’s protections” and “fails to restore overtime protections intended by the FSLA to large numbers of workers who would have been protected if the ‘salary level’ requirement had not been so substantially eroded over time.” The new regulations also fail to “make needed substantive revisions to the rules to provide overtime protection to the kinds of workers the Act was intended to protect” and do not “establish reasonable and clear criteria for determining which workers are bona fide executive, administrative, professional and outside sales employees” who would be exempt from overtime and minimum wage laws.

Legislation blocking the exemption of workers who currently qualify for overtime pay was introduced earlier this year, but a critical House vote was delayed until after September 6. Employers can legally implement the new overtime regulations starting August 23.

From the AFL-CIO (www.aflcio.org):

House Leaders Stall Vote to Protect Workers’ Overtime Pay

Observations on the Department of Labor’s Final Regulations
‘Defining and Delimiting the [Minimum Wage and Overtime] Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional,Outside Sales and Computer Employees’.”
By: John Fraser, Monica Gallagher, and Gail Coleman for the AFL CIO
July 2004. (In .pdf)

From the Economic Policy Institute (www.epinet.org):
Longer Hours, Less Pay: Labor Department’s new rules could strip overtime protection from millions of workers. By Ross Eisenbrey, July 2004.

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Are EU workers losing shorter workweeks?
Citing the pressures of global competition, unions in Germany have capitulated to employers’ demands for longer work hours without increases in pay. In early July, several news services reported that German workers at Siemens AG approved a contract that spared jobs but bumped work hours up from 35 to 40 and forced them to forfeit annual bonuses. Concerned that reducing work hours has not increased productivity or rectified the country’s high rates of unemployment, France is said to be studying the feasibility of scrapping its popular 35-hour workweek. Quoted in a page one article by Mark Landler for The New York Times (July 6, 2004), an official at the German Institute for Economic Research remarks, “We have created a leisure society, while the Americans have created a work society. But our model does not work anymore. We are in the process of rethinking it.”

Needless to say, our model does not work anymore, either. But the spin on these news stories doesn’t bode well for time-starved Americans, who often look to European models as an inspiration for reform. Declining productivity and a drive to lower labor costs means some European workers are being subjected to the type of corporate squeeze plays that harness U.S. workers to extra long hours on the job. “Shareholders, unfortunately, only care about profits,” laments a Siemen’s worker interviewed for Landler’s story.

John de Graaf, National Coordinator of the Take Back Your Time campaign, cautions that reports on the impending demise of the shorter European workweek are overstated. “Beyond anecdotal accounts reported in The New York Times and other news outlets, there is really no discernable trend toward longer work hours in Europe,” he says. In fact, de Graaf notes that some EU countries are still reducing work hours or strengthening other policies to protect worker’s time— including Germany, which recently introduced regulations to ensure part-time parity. But in the U.S., news reports about worker-friendly developments in the EU don’t make it to the front page of the NYT. “Reports that the European system is no longer economically viable are deceptive,” says de Graaf. By implying that the inevitable consequences of shorter work hours are low productivity and high rates of unemployment, de Graaf remarks that the recent spate of news stories “sends the message to overworked Americans that they should shut up and be thankful for what they have.” On average, Americans work nearly nine full weeks (350 hours) longer per year than our peers in Western Europe do.

The European Union mandates a maximum workweek of 48 hours; there is no cap on involuntary overtime in the U.S. According to a 2002 article by Lonnie Golden for the Economic Policy Institute, one-third of U.S. workers currently work more than 40 hours a week and one-fifth work more than 50 hours a week.

From EU Business.com:
Western Europe's workers start to feel cold wind of economic globalisation

Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org) is a major U.S./Canadian initiative to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment. Take Back Your Time 2004 Legislative Program

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Elsewhere on the Web:

From The Economic Policy Institute (www.epinet.org):
Minimum wage can stand some maximizing
“For a while it looked like minimum wage workers might finally be getting a long-overdue raise. Now it appears that a vote on a minimum wage increase may be held up by partisan politics. In the meantime, poor working families keep struggling to meet their most basic needs.”
Op-ed by Amy Chasanov, July 14, 2004.

From Women’s eNews (www.womensenews.org):

New “Stepford Wives” Fuels Old Anti-Career Views
“The updated ‘Stepford Wives’ movie pokes fun at ambitious women. However humorous, it also made our commentator consider the serious extremes--cold careerist or domestic dishrag--that still tear away at female identity.”
Commentary by Lisa Nuss, July 7, 2004

Single Mothers-to-be Face Bias, Race Ticking Clock
“A growing number of single women are seeking fertility treatments and finding that persistent problems block their path to parenthood.”
By Molly M. Ginty, June 18, 2004.

Community Colleges Help Women Start Over
“While the elite former women’s colleges inch toward gender parity, a female stronghold is developing among the low-cost community colleges, where many of the students are the first female members of their families to read and write.”
By Justine Nicholas, May 13, 2004.

From Wired News (www.wirednews.com)
Fertility Tech Yet to Come of Age
“Assisted reproductive technology can’t compensate for reproductive potential lost due to the natural decline in fertility after age 35, according to a new study. …The study, published in the July issue of Human Reproduction, found that technology can make up for just half of pregnancies delayed from the age of 30 to 35, and less than 30 percent of those delayed from 35 till 40.”
By Kristen Philipkoski, July 6, 2004.

From AlterNet (www.alternet.org):

To the Ladies in the Room
“Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and message-meister. has discovered that the 4 percent of Americans who still have not made up their minds about this election tend to be working women, younger, new mothers and fairly low-wage earners. I was pleased to hear Luntz explain how he’d uncovered the most interesting thing about these women. By dint of clever professional questioning, Luntz had come to notice that what the women seem to feel they need more than anything else is... time. I was staggered, since I and every other woman journalist I know have been saying this for only the last 20 or 30 years.”
By Molly Ivins, July 12, 2004

Keep Yer Flab On
Lakshmi Chaudhry of AlterNet interviews Paul Campos, author of a new book exposing The Obesity Myth. In an except from the book on his Web site, Campos notes “The war on fat has especially devastating consequences for women. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever met an American woman who genuinely likes her body. ...After having interviewed hundreds of women regarding their feelings about food, fat, body image, and what it’s like to deal with these issues in America today, I can’t say I’m confident I’ve actually encountered such a person. ...The stories these women would tell were always sad, sometimes harrowing, and often appalling. We live in a culture that tells the average American woman, dozens of times per day, that the shape of her body is the most important thing about her, and that she should be disgusted by it. How can one begin to calculate the full emotional, financial, and physiological toll exacted by such messages?”

— MMO, July/August 2004

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