Groups press for caregiver credit, respect By Luchina Fisher and Jennifer Mesich
Mothers concerned about their economic future and the constraints they face in trying to return to the paid workforce want their work as caregivers valued comparably to that of their counterparts who already work outside the home. This Mother's Day brings a growing clamor for public policies that recognize the "workplace" issues faced by stay-at-home mothers.
"Women tend to be out of the full-time workplace for an average of 11½ years and are usually caregivers in these years," says Joanne Brundage of Elmhurst, founder and executive director of Mothers and More. "During this time, they get no Social Security credits and are not able to take out disability insurance on themselves. It's as if we're saying that if anything were to happen to her, there's no need to replace her work."
Mothers and More, a nonprofit based in Elmhurst, began with a handful of mothers in 1987. It now has 180 chapters and 7,500 members nationwide. Last year, the group launched a campaign to get mothers, policy makers, employers and society at large to view unpaid caregivers as comparable to those who are paid for their work.
"We're not pushing for the work itself to become paid," says Kristin Maschka, president of Mothers and More, who lives in California. "But in terms of the way in which our culture values work and in terms of the way public policy treats work and the definition of work, we think it ought to be seen as equally valuable."
Though Mothers and More has been around for 17 years, it has been only in the last few years that it has set a clear agenda and has the membership to back it up. The group's agenda includes pushing for benefits such as Social Security that usually are reserved for those who get paid for their work. Unfortunately, women often do not realize the economic dangers for their unpaid work until it's too late, says Brundage.
"Most don't see it until further down the road with retirement," says Brundage. "It's ironic since women live longer than men and men usually have more money for retirement."
This all leads up to the movement Mothers and More is helping to start. While the women's movement of the last century made huge strides for women in the workplace, it turned its focus away from mothers at home. According to Susan Douglas, author of The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, feminists such as Gloria Steinem did lobby for housewives to get paid and receive Social Security benefits, but it "was deemed way too radical," she says.
"The mother's movement is the unfinished business of the women's movement," says Brundage. "Young women are doing quite well in the workplace now, not having the same kinds of hurdles, but then when they become a mom they hit the motherhood wall."
This "motherhood wall" is the struggle that all working mothers face trying to balance work and family. While some women continue to work full-time after having children, others try to find part-time jobs. And part-time work generally means lower -retirement benefits—or none at all.
"We hear about choices, and yes, women choose to seek a part-time environment in the workplace, but part-time work is usually discriminatory. There's no equity between part- and full-time workers," says Brundage.
The disparity between full-time and part-time benefits is why Mothers and More, along with other mothers' advocacy groups, support legislation that ensures pay, benefits and advancement for part-time workers. They want women to feel comfortable choosing to cut back their hours of paid work.
While the organizers of Mothers and More have certain goals they would like to achieve, the group is currently focusing on raising awareness.
"We strongly believe that there is a lot of consciousness-raising that needs to be done because mothers have never really seen themselves as a group with a reason to yell and shout about their situations," says Maschka.
As part of their goal to raise awareness, the group has an annual Mother's Day Campaign, which focuses this year on common mother stereotypes such as "supermom" and "career-crazed mom." By starting a discussion about these stereotypes the group hopes to make mothers realize how unrealistic they are. More information about the Mother's Day campaign, as well as information about Chicago chapters of Mothers and More, can be found at www.mothersandmore.org.
In a perfect world, the mothers' movement would result in stay-at-home moms receiving Social Security benefits and part-time working moms getting promotions. Brundage admits, however, that a more important goal right now is for caregiving to be seen in a more positive light and not as something that detracts from a woman's ability to do paid work.
"Everyone benefits from children being raised well," says Brundage. "They are the future workforce. People need to realize that kids are tomorrow's adults and it takes a lot of time, energy and focus to raise them."
Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer who wrote this story for Women's eNews, an alternative wire service at www.womensenews.org. Jennifer Mesich is a Chicago Parent intern.
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