Happy Mother’s Day! ‘MomsRising’ and the Struggle for Rights

by Kristen Dobson

Reprinted from Parent Map Magazine, May 2007
Image from  Momsrising.org
Selena Allen thought she had it figured out. The Kent mother was pregnant with her second child, and she and her husband had good jobs. They were excited about the new baby and had carefully worked out finances so that Selena could stay home for a month after the birth to bond with her newborn.

"I had two and a half weeks of paid leave saved up, and we could afford another week and a half unpaid by cutting corners," Allen says. "We were set for the birth at the end of May. But, lo and behold, Connor had other ideas."

Six weeks before Connor was due, Allen was pushing a cart through the grocery store when she started feeling strange pains. Twenty-six hours later, Connor was born at Seattle's Swedish Hospital and whisked away immediately to the neonatal care unit. The tiny newborn was severely jaundiced, unable to digest any food.

Heartsick and worried, Allen and her husband needed a new plan, and fast. They had no idea how long Connor would be in the hospital -- it could be a week or six weeks. With precious little leave time available, the couple made a painful decision: Allen would return to work immediately, and take her leave after Connor came home.

Only five countries don't have some form of paid leave for new mothers: the United States, Swaziland, Lesotho, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea

"I gave birth on a Thursday and on Monday I was back at work," Allen says.

A critically needed law

Like thousands of mothers in our state, Allen struggles with an all-too-common predicament: finances and time stretched paper thin by the birth of a child. Even the most carefully laid plans can be obliterated by an unexpected twist of fate -- a medical emergency or the loss of a job. Many of us are living just one calamity away from financial ruin.

But there is new hope for mothers, in the form of a groundbreaking law that just barely survived a contentious battle in our state Legislature. The Medical and Family Leave Act gives workers five weeks of paid family leave after the birth or adoption of a new child. That's over and above the existing federal family leave law, which allows workers at businesses with 50 employees or more 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The bill passed after being stripped of many details, including a provision allowing for leave to care for a sick family member.

"When a baby or health crisis arrives, should we have to leave our families, or should we have family leave?" says state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, the bill's House sponsor, who's been working on a family leave law since 2001. "No one should have to choose between the job they need and the family they love, and right now moms across Washington have to make those kinds of decisions every day."

As of this writing, legislators are working to reconcile the House bill with the Senate's; once a compromise is reached, it will go to Governor Gregoire for her signature. If she signs it, our state will join California as the only two states in the nation to have a paid family leave law.

The mommy wars

You can certainly call this progress, but it's been painfully slow in a situation some call disgraceful at best. A recent Harvard/McGill University study compared 173 countries, and found that only five don't have some form of paid leave for new mothers: the United States, Swaziland, Lesotho, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea (see Resources for the full study).

Text Box: Mothers are 44 percent less likely to be hired than non-mothers for the same job with the same qualifications.Within our country, there are other startling statistics in what some are calling the "mommy wars." An American mother with a college degree can expect to give up $1 million in lost wages over her lifetime, according to Ann Crittenden, a former reporter for The New York Times and the author of The Price of Motherhood. And while progress has been made on the so-called "glass ceiling," mothers aren't seeing the same workplace gains as women without children. Right now, non-mothers earn 10 percent less than their male counterparts, but the mommy wage gap is even worse: Mothers earn 27 percent less than men, and single mothers earn as much as 44 percent less, according to a Columbia University study (see Resources).

And, forget the glass ceiling -- how about the "maternal wall"? A recent study at Cornell University turned up evidence of discrimination: Mothers were 44 percent less likely to be hired than non-mothers for the same job -- even with the exact same qualifications. Moms have a tougher time just getting a job. Researchers had applicants use the same résumé, but for some, added a line about being an officer in a local PTA. Those applicants were 44 percent less likely to get the job.

In the same study, the mothers who did get hired were offered an average of $11,000 less than non-mothers for the same job (see Resources). It may come as no surprise, then, that the poverty rate of elderly women is approximately twice the poverty rate of elderly men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In fact, having a child is the single biggest predictor that a woman will go bankrupt, according to The Two-Income Trap, by Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. According to their research, fully half the families that file for bankruptcy do so in the wake of a medical problem, and most are middle-class, college-educated homeowners. Across the nation, at least 9 million children have no health insurance at all, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Moms rise up

Shocked and appalled by those statistics, Kirkland mom and author Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner vowed to work for change. She teamed up with another mother, Joan Blades, to write The Motherhood Manifesto, a six-point call to action to create family-friendly laws. Then Rowe-Finkbeiner and Blades, who also co-founded MoveOn.org, created a new grassroots online campaign to unite mothers across the country to work for change. In just one year, MomsRising has nearly 90,000 members, a success Rowe-Finkbeiner credits to an untapped need among mothers and fathers to know they're not alone.

"For years, we've been talking about the need to balance work and family issues, but many people feel like they're struggling with these problems alone, and if they just bought a new calendar it would fix the problem," says Rowe-Finkbeiner. "But it's not an epidemic of personal failing. MomsRising is resonating because so many people are dealing with these issues."

MomsRising members sign up free online and receive weekly email blasts with updates about political progress and ways they can get involved, from sending MomsRising e-greeting cards, to lobbying the Legislature, to signing online petitions to pressure lawmakers to support family-friendly policies.

A recent email blast asked MomsRising members all over the country to donate decorated "onesies" for a display at our state's Capitol, in support of the family leave act. The onesies, bearing slogans such as "Family leave or bust!" and "My business loves family leave" were strung together to "remind leaders that families are counting on them," says Rowe-Finkbeiner.

The goal is to provide an easy entry into citizen advocacy. Funded entirely by donations from individuals and foundations, MomsRising is focusing on passing family leave acts in our state and in Oregon and New Jersey, among others. Rowe-Finkbeiner says it's likely that MomsRising will target health care laws next.

To do this, the group has assembled an impressive collection of nonprofit "partners in action," including the AFL-CIO and the National Organization for Women (NOW), many of which have never before partnered on family issues.

And now, cropping up all over the country are MomsRising house parties, informal gatherings of women and men to view the group's documentary based on The Motherhood Manifesto, narrated by actress Mary Steenburgen.

"The DVD has been an incredibly powerful tool, a consciousness-raising tool," Rowe-Finkbeiner says. "People say, 'Wow! I'm not alone in this!' In a nation of rugged individualists, people realize they are not alone."

Grassroots warriors

"I went to a Motherhood Manifesto screening in Wallingford," says Ballard mom Colleen Butler. "The film pushed me over the edge and made me cry." Butler, a former attorney, immediately got involved, organizing screenings and recruiting new MomsRising members. She says the stark reality of the facts left her little choice.

"There is all this dogma around 'family values' at election time," Butler says. "But what does that mean: family values? We need policies [like family leave] so women and families don't have to make these heartbreaking choices. I feel like the things MomsRising is working on affect everyone -- it doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat, rich or poor -- it affects everyone in America.

"I'm upper middle class, with tons of education, and still we live paycheck to paycheck. People have to stop thinking about it in terms of me and mine and start thinking about it in terms of society. We're all interrelated."

Vashon couple Yvonne and Ken Zick couldn't agree more. They went to one of Butler's screenings and found themselves forever changed.

"It was so powerful to me," Zick says. "My husband and I always used to say our political activism involved writing checks, but I saw this and it just made me mad, that we are still allowed to discriminate against women in this country if they have children."

The stories hit home for Zick, who grew up in foster care and was a single parent for years. "It was so hard, and I was so exhausted fighting each step on the way to success. I was on welfare and going to a four-year university. I was called into the welfare office and told I had to either quit school or lose my benefits.

"Now we have enough and I'm privileged, but that's not how it is for most of us. I'm in a position that I can fight for all of these moms who can't take the time to come to our meetings. I can be a voice for a lot of us."

Together with her husband, Zick devised an eye-catching two-person protest: Since January, they have worn MomsRising T-shirts, and vow never to stop until a family leave act is signed into law in our state. "It's really scary to get involved," she says, "but I had to say, 'This is not OK.' I had to make a statement."

Why get involved?

If your own family is financially secure, why should you care? "Women who are doing OK right now -- with a good job, or a husband with a good job, financial security -- may not have that economic security in their older years," says Rowe-Finkbeiner. "Anything can happen, and the implications of our lack of family-friendly policies impact women and their children over their entire lifetimes.

"The economic repercussions of families living in poverty affect us all."

Rowe-Finkbeiner's 8-year-old daughter, Anna, agrees. "This is for all mommies and all people who have mommies."

American women now make up 46 percent of our country's paid labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and nearly three-quarters of all working women are mothers. Women and mothers are in the workplace to stay, and Rowe-Finkbeiner and MomsRising members say it's about time our laws and policies caught up with that reality.

"It shouldn't be an option for just the chosen few that we get to stay home and take care of our newborns or take care of a sick loved one," agrees Zick.

And Selena Allen wants you to know that what happened to her can happen to anyone. "We were middle class," Allen says. "We were making decent money, but, if you've got kids, money is often tight and when things happen that are completely unforeseen, you're stuck in these binds.

"You never know what may happen. At any time, something can happen that changes your whole world." n

Kristen Dobson is ParentMap's managing editor, a former television producer and teacher. She is the mother of two children, ages 7 and 10. This article was first printed in Parent Map, May 2007, and is reprinted here with permission.

Resources - Web sites:

Resources – Books:

Motherhood in America - Source: MomsRising.org

  • 46 percent of American workers are women.
  • 82 percent of American women become mothers by the age of 44.
  • Non-mothers earn 10 percent less than their male counterparts; mothers earn 27 percent less; and single mothers earn between 44 percent and 34 percent less.
  • Women are among the most well-educated people in our population, comprising 58 percent of college graduates.
  • 43 percent of working women who have children take time out of the workforce to care for family members. Of those, 74 percent return to work within two years.
  • On average, women take an 18 percent cut in pay for taking two years off from work; women in the business sector take a hit of 28 percent. And women who stay out for three or more years can expect a 37 percent loss of earning power.
  • A college-educated woman with one child can easily pay a "mommy tax" (lost lifetime earnings) of $1 million.
  • Of 173 countries surveyed, only five don't have some form of paid family leave: the United States, Swaziland, Lesotho, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea.
  • Having a child is the single best predictor that a woman will go bankrupt.
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