Global Mothers’ Day

What do mothers want on Mothers’ Day? Breakfast in bed, possibly; some peace and quiet, certainly. This year, however, fathers and children would be wise to serve mom a stack of books on globalization along with the pancakes and eggs. Globalization? Better add some coffee to that bedside tray, because the books won’t rivet like saucy mom lit. But here’s why she needs to digest them.

Forty years after the modern women’s movement hoped to deliver on the promise that mothers could participate equally with men in economic, social, and political life outside the home, most mothers find it almost impossible to do so in meaningful ways. At this point there are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies that document the trouble women have finding solutions to work and family problems. Statistics abound, but the general picture that emerges from research on work and motherhood is this.

Most mothers do work for pay outside the home and the majority must do so to provide for their families, either alone or along with a spouse. Many who don’t work would like to but are unable to juggle the demands of a full time job as well as full time parenting. This is because most jobs and all careers demand “masculine” work habits; that is, they require full time hours, and often overtime, travel, relocation, and-critically-the unspoken resource of a person at home caring for children and household tasks. In the twentieth century, pre-global American economy, this was a norm adhered to by men mostly, though some women tried to mimic them by employing help from their husbands or by outsourcing some of the housekeeping and child care responsibilities.

The picture emerging of the twenty-first century American mom, circa 2007, is one where: If she works full-time, she doesn’t get to raise her own kids (day care workers, nannies, teachers, even grandparents do). If she works part-time in order to be more available to her children, she is ghettoized into lower paying, mostly dead-end jobs with little upward mobility and economic security. (Many highly educated women find that flexible part-time jobs seriously underemploy them.) If a mother opts out of the workforce to care for her kids, she’s gambling with her life: rolling the dice that her marriage won’t end in divorce and that her family won’t need the economic security that employment ensures: up-to-date skills, work experience, and networks; and retirement, social security, and health care benefits.

Why aren’t American mothers angry enough about this to agitate for change? After all, the U.S. lags well behind its industrial nation peers in the benefits it provides to citizens who become parents. One reason — as one mother I interviewed said — is that if you’re working full-time, you don’t have time to get mad. Another reason is that baby boomer, women’s rights activists are aging, ready to pass the torch; and just as some post-boomer politicians inch away from boomer issues, young mothers today are not necessarily moved by their feminist foremothers’ passions.

But they do have a passion to see their offspring do well, and it is their offspring who will suffer if American mothers-and those who represent them-don’t begin to demand remedies to work/family problems: affordable high-quality child care and preschool programs, after-school enrichment and support, parental leave policies, and non-traditional options for women and men, including job sharing, flexible full time and part-time-without-penalty jobs.

Our daughters and future daughters-in-law will suffer if we are apathetic now because globalization is leveling the playing field for workers around the world. It will not forgive nations in which mothers have little choice but to suboptimize their job lives, via scattered employment, underemployment, and/or no employment. Whether they want to or not, American mothers (and fathers) will be staving off downward mobility by working more hours, more weeks, more years than they are today-because American workers will be competing for productivity gains with every other serious, hard-working, hard-headed, offspring-loving parent in the world. Serious competition globally means serious workers locally.

Global moms will be busier than ever investing in the human capital of the next generation by virtue of their parenting work as well as their paycheck jobs. But they can’t do it alone. They need help from their representatives and those campaigning to be their state and national leaders. Mothers, make your voices heard by phoning, writing, or emailing them. Volunteer for a sympathetic candidate’s campaign or join an activist group like Write a check to the political campaign of a candidate who supports polices to make America truly family friendly. Do it now, on Mother’s Day. Because the rising tide of prosperity in the U.S. today needs to lift the boats of mothers now, so that the riptide of globalization doesn’t drown our grandchildren’s mommies.

Nanette Fondas writes about the economics and sociology of work, family, and management. She's a graduate of Cornell (A.B), Oxford (M.Phil.), and Harvard (Ph.D), and a Rhodes Scholar. For fifteen years she was professor of business administration at Duke, Harvard, and the University of California. She's currently the mother of four children under the age of ten! Read other articles by Nanette, or visit Nanette's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Stephen said on May 11th, 2007 at 12:05pm #

    What a marvelous and insightful article. I was able to relate to every bit of it – and I’m a Dad, a happy idiot struggling for the legal tender.

    Every working class parent, mom or dad, struggling to hold up their moral, social and financial responsibilities to their family is held hostage to an increasingly uncontrolled corporate dive for the bottom line. While CEO compensation has grown over 400 times the income of the corporate worker in the last 20 years, the average working wages have barely kept up with inflation. As Nanette said: “…American mothers (and fathers) will be staving off downward mobility by working more hours, more weeks, more years than they are today”.

    You stated: “…the U.S. lags well behind its industrial nation peers in the benefits it provides to citizens who become parents”. How true. Paternal leave is a standard in most other countrys and maternal leave is not a question but in the US, both are virtually non-existent.

    Do what Nanette says. Write to your lawmakers and support candidates who are family-friendly. The AFL-CIO site provides great watch-dog statistics on our government and your representatives. Check it out.

    It’s unfortunate that corporations can’t be counted on to “do the right thing” by themselves and so need to be legislated against to do so. It’s more unfortunate that our government can’t see the dissolution of the American family as a core problem in this country and spearhead the needed reforms without further prompting. Don’t some of them have families too?

    HMMM I wonder if the military could give up a mere billion dollars to help make families stronger here in US… ?

    But that’s another rant…
    Peace – Stephen

  2. alan kahn said on May 11th, 2007 at 12:41pm #

    To all
    I just want to say for now that I am glad we have a voice like yours. One that helps us understand the human suffering that war, killing and genocide cause. You will be heareing from me in the future
    sincerely alan kahn

  3. Sheila Matzka said on April 16th, 2008 at 11:48pm #

    This is a fairly boring and sophmoric view. One example of the shortsightedness of this article is the reference to “40 years” into the “modern” feminist movement. Forty years is hardly an historic review of the women’s movement. That timeframe is probably no more than this author’s personal experience, and while it may represent “history” for her, it is not history for anyone older than 50, nor does it account for what has happened to the role of women in American society throughout the past three centuries as that society has progressed from a frontier, “hack it out of the wilderness” existence, to a post-industrial, service-driven economy. What does this author really know about women (or men) in the workplace, other than through a smattering (maybe even hundreds) of what remain non-scientific, non-quantified, personal interviews, that have been filtered back through her own personal perspective (15 years of Academia, followed by 10 of motherhood with a PC-on the side)? Her’s is a common but fallacious viewpoint, and it not supported by any hard data. My own personal experience tells me differently and also that there’s no interviewing being done within of some of the families I know, where the women and mothers earn well in excess of $150k, work full-time, have time to send their childrem off to school and to meet them when they return to work on homework. They have supportive and also full-time employed husbands, some of which earn less than their spouses, and yet who fully participate in all aspects of parenthood. The difference? These are couples where both wife and husband work from their homes, for small, medium and large corporations. Home-based corporate employment is a growing and important factor in today’s society. The people that choose to work in this way, work “green” in a way that is real (no commuting!). They appreciate what their companies help them to acheive, personal satisfaction, financial security, a way to save for their future life in retirement. These people also may not consider health-care a “right” but a responsibility as a parent, yet also a free choice. They realize that health “insurance” is not necessarily the most effective way to fund health care, and do not necessarily wish to see it mandated (since they are generally healthy, they need to buy little of it; but putting them into a common insurance pool with many others would probably greatly increase their costs, and would do so quite unfairly, from their own perspective. They do not necessarily wish to see mandated approaches that “guarantee” services or prescribed salary ranges for every person- male and female in our society. They consider this an extremely dangerous proposition (who exactly would make these salary decisions!?). True freedom and a thoughtful view of business- the type of business that occurs outside of an academic setting, would seek to stop or at least reduce the rate of constantly encroaching limitations on personal freedom that stem from an ever-expanding federal government. This author and her minions seem to view more, not less government mandates as the answer to “something”. In my view its the opposite, and that no problem actually exists in today’s America. Free societies populated by thoughtful residents allow their residents (and families) to acheive whatever it is that they wish to acheive, and to balance what they acheive against their own sense of parental responsibilities, economic standing, and every aspect of their lives, through the effective use of their personal talents, the available technology, and their own career choices and personal innovation. Life in America is a balancing act. People like this author that think they know “what’s best” are the type of people that the more conservative elements of our society fear most. Once such “logical fairplay” viewholders that operate only from their personal perspective to argue for a common denominator of “complete fairness” in society, can gain complete control of the United States, I believe we all will then all in deep trouble. Check your history Ms. Fondas, a bit little deeper. Your minions might do the same. Check on Marx and Lenin. Check on King George III, check on the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Similar principles of “fairness and equality for all” were applied in those cultures. Some still exist, but those that do, do not enjoy what you, or any of us enjoy in America, today. Mother’s don’t need to “rise”, they need to do what they do, and to continue to make informed choices, like their mothers did before them. And men do the same thing! They will very likely choose what is best for themselves and let their daughters and granddaughters (and sons and grandsons) take care of themselves- but only as long as those descendants still retain their own personal freedoms. Mandating some type of common “fairness” in our society is an approach that will begin a death-spiral of personal freedom, until such time as a similar spirit of independance arises again, as it did in the late 1700’s, and is forced to throw off the despotism and tyranny of those that would make “royal” decisions for others (since they think they know better than the stupid bumpkins), but especially for others that don’t share their own beliefs. The risk is that these latter-day despots will have better controls through their grip of the courts, the law and newer technologies, and that their grib becomes is so tight over the common American that revolution isn’t enough. Re-read Animal Farm, Ms. Fondas, and think outside your own box for a change.