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17 July 2006

Parenting: Mamafesto

While "mommy wars" rage in the US, an agenda of political demands is emerging in western countries f

By Viv Groskop

How long before someone admits that there is no “right” way to be a mother? Every week comes news of another book, another celebrity pronouncement, another angle which proves that mothers everywhere are sitting in judgement of their peers and hating one another.

Bitch fights always make a good story. Working mothers secretly envy their stay-at-home sisters but despise their self-righteousness. Stay-at-home mothers smugly take the moral high ground but have to remind their husbands to pay their allowance. For the past decade or so the US-sponsored “mommy wars” – a phrase coined in the early 1990s – have not been a pretty sight. In recent weeks the gloves have come off again with the launch of Total 180!, a California-based magazine for the career-woman-turned-soccer-mom. Mommy Wars, a collection of essays published in March, encouraged a “face-off” between the two camps. And pre-publicity is raging over a vicious analysis, Caitlin Flanagan’s To Hell With All That: loving and loathing our inner housewife, out in the UK in September.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the mom-on-mom action was going nuclear. But in fact, behind the scenes the tide is slowly turning. The mommy wars are indeed taking a new direction – towards a long-overdue ceasefire. In the UK, David Cameron, friend of the modern family, may be trying single-handedly to hijack the “quality of life” debate with his pledges to top Labour on parent-friendly work practices; in the US self-dubbed “radical maternal feminists” are congratulating themselves on having finally won real political ground. Mommy-war fatigue has finally set in, and scrapping is making way for the brave new world of the “mamafesto”, an agenda of demands by mothers who want results rather than an opportunity to moan.

The ground the new American peacemakers are breaking mimics progress in Europe, where there are rapid developments towards “choice parenting” (instead of the all-or-nothing stance of the mommy wars) and an encouragement of paternal involvement. Instead of concentrating on the intellectual arguments for and against working motherhood, social policy has become the European solution. In France Ségolène Royal, now the Socialist Party’s presidential front-runner, staked her reputation on paternity leave in 2001. In Germany Angela Merkel has proposed a 12-month allowance for parents who stay at home during the first year of their child’s life.

America lags behind

In Sweden the Feminist Initiative, a political party fielding candidates in this September’s national elections, has the boldest parenting agenda. Its proposals include the adoption of a six-hour working day and the legal enforcement of both parents using equal amounts of parental leave. The party has male and female members and enjoys mainstream support: some estimates project the FI taking 20 per cent of the vote.

Meanwhile the US, which has always lagged painfully behind Europe on childcare issues, is suddenly reforming. In May, Nation Books published The Motherhood Manifesto: what America’s moms want – and what to do about it by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, demanding sweeping changes in public policy. Its authors are the faces of Moms Rising, a future “massive grass-roots online resource”, which has aligned 26 independent and state organisations to campaign for the adoption of a six-point plan for easier parenting. By European standards its aims are modest (paid maternity and paternity leave, flexible work, after-school program mes, equal pay for equal work), but in the US, where leading feminists had virtually abandoned campaigning for any kind of state scheme that might help parents, this is radical stuff.

Until recently the so-called “mamafesto” has been a fairly empty concept. The word was first used in the late 1990s when the online magazine Salon launched the trailblazing Mothers Who Think series, emphasising in its spin-off best-selling book that “mothers are also women”, “no one raises a child alone”, and that it is time for the recognition of “the true power of a mother’s role”. Salon was about intellectual debate and great writing, not political campaigning. Now, with the mamafesto’s proponents tired of the circularity of the mom my wars, its ideas are moving beyond abstract cultural concepts.

Crucially, the authors of The Motherhoo Manifesto have star status as outside-the-system poli tical activists. This is what could ultimately make the difference in bringing about a truce in the mommy wars. Blades, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is a co-founder of, an organisation with more than 1.7 million members in the US, which campaigns on everything from community issues to Iraq, healthcare and the environment. Rowe-Finkbeiner is another campaigning powerhouse, a consultant on environmental strategy and political policy, author of The F-Word: feminism in jeopardy – women, politics and the future, and a ranting regular on the influential Huffington Post blog.

Getting beyond comparisons about the best way to parent is the key problem, according to Rowe-Finkbeiner, and it is the one thing standing in the way of political solutions to America’s child poverty crisis (nine million children without healthcare; families having to work 500 hours a year more in 2005 than in 1979 to keep up). “The much-needed national conversation about what it’s going to take to make a family-friendly America shouldn’t go anywhere near the quicksand of judgementalism we’ve been stuck in for way too long,” she says.

Unbelievably, it was only two years ago that California became the first state in the US to offer paid parental leave (six weeks of partial pay for new parents or carers). According to a Harvard University project published in May, of 168 countries surveyed, all but four offered guaranteed paid maternity leave, with 27 countries offering at least three months’ paid leave. The US was one of the four that offered nothing at all, taking its extraordinary and embarrassingly reactionary place next to Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Lesotho. Little wonder political activists are keen to put their ideological differences aside and actually work towards something specific such as paid leave.

Further and faster

May also brought the launch of the Ceasefire Campaign, pleading for an end to hostilities. The campaign targeted the heads of the CBS, NBC and ABC broadcasting networks with an e-mail petition that read: “We are calling for a ceasefire in the so-called ‘Mommy Wars’. All moms are in the same boat. We all need better family-friendly policies. It’s time to focus on real problems in need of real solutions.”

This initiative came from Moms Rising and MOTHERS (Mothers Ought To Have Equal Rights), a caregivers’ network supported by two legendary voices in the US women’s movement, Naomi Wolf and Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood (Owl Books). Crittenden’s book famously claimed that university-educated women would lose more than $1m in earnings over a lifetime if they had children.

Parenting in itself has always been a difficult issue in feminism: few of the high-profile figures in the early movement were mothers – and to have flagged up one’s maternal status (or lack of it) would have been desperately politically incorrect. Over 30 years, however, the problem has come full circle and feminism’s initial failure to address the demands of parenting has come home to roost. Meanwhile in the UK the debate on working versus stay-at-home motherhood, though not as vindictive, has also raged on. But here there is nothing to rival the US motherhood organisations, not even on an individual level. (The closest we get is Take a Break magazine’s 15,000-strong Mums’ Army, which fielded three candidates at the last local elections. Mums’ Army campaigns principally against social disorder; one of its main aims is to combat yob culture by banning rap music.) There are thousands of US websites, such as YoMamaSays, I Am Mommyblogger: hear me roar, MotherPie and even Rebel Dad – an enthusiastic supporter of the cease- fire. British sites such as Stephanie Calman’s Bad Mothers Club have a broad following, but zero political agenda. According to Natasha Walter, British author of The New Feminism (Virago), there are two reasons the UK doesn’t have this kind of activism: “Help with child- care and parental leave are usually phrased as middle-class concerns – and most campaigning in the women’s movement is not done on these middle-class issues.”

At least we are beyond needing a mommy-wars truce; we are so far ahead of the US on this score anyway, says Walter. “So often American feminists lord it over us and say they have achieved so much. But they don’t have maternity leave, paternity leave, flexible working. I was recently on a platform with Naomi Wolf and she was asking why women don’t organise politically in the UK. She said, ‘[In the US] we tell politicians what we want.’ I thought this was extraordinary. American feminists will not face up to the fact that we have done a lot better than they have.” Which is not to say there isn’t a long way to go in the UK: “This Labour government has made small incremental changes in the right direction,” says Walter. “But I would always say we need to go further and faster.”

The problem is that maternal feminism is now useless without the input of men, she argues. “We’ve reached the stage in the feminist debate where we have realised that the only thing that can be changed is if men change. We have to make demands as parents – not as mothers. How do you engage men in this debate? That’s the question.”

Female-friendly? How countries compare
By Sarah Birke

Women have the right to return to work after 26 weeks’ paid maternity leave (the first six weeks at 90 per cent of salary, the rest at the statutory rate of £108.25 per week). Flexible working needs strengthening: currently employers need only “seriously consider” requests from parents.

No nationwide policy on parental rights and therefore no national provision for maternity leave, paid or otherwise.

Iceland encourages fathers to play an equal role in parenting through a progressive leave system. New parents can take nine months off work in total, but each parent must take at least three.

A super-generous trailblazer: two years’ maternity leave, with full pay for the first 45 days and a set allowance for the remaining period.

Fourteen weeks’ maternity leave – but allowance set at only 60 per cent of salary, and the notion of fathers taking time off work is viewed with undisguised amusement. The government has launched a project to provide childcare and encourage paternity leave.

Little better than the US. At present, maternity leave is unpaid and available only to employees on the payroll for 12 months prior to the birth.

Sweden and Norway
In Sweden each parent is entitled to 18 months off work and in Norway a year’s leave is paid at 80 per cent of salary. Some complain that the package is too ideological and not flexible.

The 16 weeks’ maternity leave on near-full pay for a first child rises with subsequent offspring. France also has extensive government-funded childcare.

Women get two months’ maternity leave on full pay, but in return forfeit their annual leave entitlement.

As with other South American countries, Mexico offers women 12 weeks’ maternity leave on 100 percent of salary. This is funded either by the employer or the Mexican Institute of Social Security.

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