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Mothers: demand more


BOSTON -- I am sitting at my desk with a candy box of stories that I have saved for Mother's Day.

Call it a Whitman's sampler, or a Goodman's sampler if you prefer. But which one shall I pick?

How about the story of a young doctor and mother who was told by her managed-care bosses to choose: 24/7 or Else? She is now officially Dr. Mom and her patients have lost their physician.

Or maybe the story of a former welfare mother and current "role model" for whom child-raising is no longer a first job or even a second. It's a distant and worrisome third.

Of course I could pick another confection from the top row, a mother with a tale no more -- or less -- unhappy than the fact that once again, careening in late from work, she missed five of the six innings of her son's baseball game.

Or a mother who was driving her daughter, wheel in one hand, cell phone in the other, technologically juggling work and family, when the line went dead. Damn, she said. Good, said the girl.

So many stories, so little time. Layers of women in my sampler trying to make their way through work and family, trying to maneuver among the needs, demands, and risks of the economy and intimacy. All different but with a familiar flavor.

I have been a mother for over 30 years. I became one in the bad old days when there was no maternity leave. It was not only legal to fire a pregnant woman or refuse her re-admission, it was common. Anyone in my generation who balanced work and family -- feet slipping all the while -- considers herself lucky.

Now, I look around at the "progress." We have family leave, but unpaid. We have more child care, but not always better child care. Mothers at home return to work but their years "off" still don't count on their resume.

The world or at least the workplace continues to regard children as a personal lifestyle choice, as if women had decided to take up skydiving or dog breeding. You had 'em, you take care of 'em.

This Mother's Day, I wonder. Why is motherhood still priceless and worthless? Why are new mothers facing a barely improved set of the same choices?

Never mind the recycled list of employers who are "family-friendly." Never mind the Mother's Day praise for the women doing "the hardest job in the world." We are stuck.

American mothers have found it astonishingly hard to negotiate within the private or the political realm for such basics as equal parenting, or really good child care or protection from mandatory overtime or ... fill in your blank.

Economist Nancy Folbre describes this, only half-lightly, as "the prisoner of love problem." Maybe she's right. Those who do a job "for the love of it" -- and motherhood is the metaphor for such a job -- are at a disadvantage in negotiating. "The bargaining logic," she says, "is based on the threat of withholding services. It doesn't work where someone is emotionally connected to their product, their baby."

Bargaining? Withholding? Just using the language of labor negotiations to talk about motherhood is jarring. It suggests a strike, a Lysistrata of motherhood, if our demands aren't met.

Once Joan Williams tried to get her law class at American University to pin down the economics of love by writing a model prenuptial agreement. "I had a wave of resentment," she remembers, "I was raining on their love parade. They thought I was questioning the sincerity of their love relationships."

If that's true of marriage it's truer of motherhood. But as Ms. Williams says, we have to recognize that "intimate relations are also economic. That is not mutually inconsistent."

We live in a country where everyone has an interest, even a financial claim on the next generation. It's been too easy to assume that parents, especially mothers, will simply go on volunteering, mothering through, as best we can, whether the world and workplace are friendly or hostile.

But after three decades, I want something new for Mother's Day. I want the generation of mothers in my sampler to understand that we are all in the same box.

After all this time, we have to figure out that to demand more for ourselves is to get more for our children. That to organize for change is also an act of motherly love.

For now, the flavors in my sampler? Rich and bittersweet.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is

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