- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

The millions of flowers, cards and phone calls shared today say it all: Motherhood is honored, cherished and respected across the nation. Mothers, for the most part, will accept these tokens with smiles, laughs and even tears of joy.

But if the new crop of mothers is any indication, many American mothers are in the mood for something a little more long-lasting than a bouquet of flowers.

Roses are sweet, they say, but public respect for being a stay-at-home mom would be even sweeter. Loving phone calls are great, but job offers to work part-time at home when the kids are still infants would also be appreciated.

The importance of mothers and mothering are still underestimated in American culture, said Judith Stadtman Tucker, founder of the 1-year-old Mothers Movement Online.

“Americans are deeply enamored of the notions of independence and self-sufficiency. We raise our children to be honest, respectful and productive, but our principal obsession is to raise our children to become independent,” Mrs. Tucker said.

There’s just one “catch” in this scenario, she said, which is that “even the most strident self-made man or woman requires a prolonged duration of constant, attentive care at the beginning — and usually at the end — of life.”

All human lives have periods of total dependence, interdependence and independence, she added. This means our society should value the work of caregiving at least as much as independence.

While it’s true many Americans will lovingly recognize their mothers and their years of dedicated caregiving today, there seems to be a small cloud on the horizon for American motherhood.

For the past decade, between 18 percent and 19 percent of American women have reached the end of their fertility cycles without becoming a mother.

This is nearly double of what it was in the 1970s and early 1980s, when only about 10 percent of women were still childless by their mid-40s.

Moreover, the number of children American women are bearing has dropped by an average of one child: In 1976, the average forty-something mother had 3.1 children; in 2002, she had 1.9 children, the Census Bureau reported in October.

The time-honored Mother’s Day celebrations and increasing childlessness both say a lot about the state of motherhood in this country, said Janice Shaw Crouse, senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute: A Center for Studies in Women’s Issues.

On the one hand, “I don’t think it’s a problem in our culture to cherish motherhood,” said Mrs. Crouse, the mother of two adult children. “There are more phone calls, more flowers ordered, more celebrations and more going out to dinner. It’s one of the more lucrative of the holidays for businesses in the United States.

“But what we see increasingly is that mothers are bearing the brunt of the trends,” such as single parenthood and struggles with child care, Mrs. Crouse said.

There is a lot more that needs to be said about motherhood, say leaders of some of the motherhood groups, which recently have emerged to educate, commiserate and advocate their needs.

In 1999, for instance two young mothers in Virginia started a magazine called “Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.”

There are many women’s and parents magazines, but most of their articles are written by professionals “telling you something about what to do about raising your child,” said Stephanie Wilkinson who co-founded the magazine with Jennifer Niesslein.

“We felt like the ‘mother’ side was getting slighted a bit,” she said from her home in Lexington, Va., where she lives and works with her husband and two children.

“Becoming a mother is a huge transformation in one’s life, and if you are focusing on the kids, you miss out on what’s happening to you,” Mrs. Wilkinson said. In “Brain, Child,” “we run firsthand accounts of what women are going through — the good, the bad, the ugly.”

Mrs. Wilkinson and Ms. Niesslein see their magazine as a way to talk about the “cliches of motherhood” with a fresh and often humorous approach — how to “swear off swearing,” for instance.

The response has been overwhelming, Mrs. Wilkinson said. Even though the magazine averages around seven articles, “we get 600 submissions for each quarter,” she said. “We take that as evidence that we’ve hit a nerve.”

Mrs. Tucker also works from her home, in Portsmouth, N.H.

“I felt there was a lack of information about motherhood as a social issue,” said the married mother of two. This is why Mothers Movement Online was started and serves as a central resource for issues, research and discussions about motherhood, Mrs. Tucker added. Already about 15,000 visitors a month check in on its Web site, www.mothersmovement.org.

Other mothers groups also have been organized.

For instance, the organization Mrs. Crouse heads — the Beverly LaHaye Institute, which is named for the founder of Concerned Women for America — in 1999 began to study women’s issues with a biblical focus and a special tribute to motherhood.

In 2000, the nonpartisan Mothers’ Council and Motherhood Project were created under the sponsorship of the Institute for American Values in New York. The group frequently tackles media messages, and this year’s Mother’s Day report takes on advertisers for incessantly encouraging preteens to act more mature, and for urging children, regardless of age, to “nag” their parents into buying them products.

In 2002, authors Naomi Wolf and Ann Crittenden started a grass-roots group, Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights (MOTHER). This year’s project is a workshop on the economics of motherhood, echoing some of the data in Mrs. Crittenden’s book, “The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued.”

MOTHER’s agenda compliments that of older advocacy groups, the National Association of Mothers’ Centers and Mothers & More, which have been around for about two decades.

The work-family balancing act still remains a primary subject of conversation among modern mothers, although some new topics have emerged.

Danielle Crittenden, author of the best-selling “[email protected],” says that not only are the “mommy wars” over, but there’s been a “sea change” in attitudes toward motherhood.

Basically, mothers are going home, she said. “Twelve years ago, when I had my first child, you would go to the playground and you would only see nannies. There were no mothers there. Now, you go to the playground and it’s packed with mothers, enjoying the day,” said Mrs. Crittenden who is married to David Frum and the mother of three children.

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People are realizing “that work is not the be-all and end-all of one’s existence,” she said. “Many women want to be with their children when they have them,” and staying at home has become more fashionable.

Census Bureau data supports this trend. From 1976 on, the number of working mothers with infants rose from 31 percent to nearly 59 percent in 1998.

But in 2000, that number fell to 55 percent and stayed there in 2002, the bureau reported.

The current dilemma, in Mrs. Crittenden’s view, is that mothers are unprepared for their new assignment.

“They’ve been educated their whole lives to work, and when they get home, they don’t really know how to be mothers,” she said. “When you go from an office to home, it’s a real culture shock, a real identity shock. And it’s a shock to your marriage, because don’t forget, these women married men who expected them to work, too.

“Our culture doesn’t like to hear mothers complain,” but it’s important for mothers to acknowledge that their health matters, Dr. Ricki Pollycove told Mrs. Wilkinson.

Mothers may suffer “maternal depletion syndrome,” which refers to the combination of depression, low libido, excess weight and fatigue that can accompany motherhood. Researchers believe one-third of mothers struggle with fatigue, depression or difficulty in their relationships and another third develop serious physical, mental or social problems.

The good news is that many mothers can combat maternal depletion by “restocking” their energies with more sleep, better nutrition, relaxation techniques, medical tests for thyroid problems and better communication with spouses, the article said.

Researchers also believe about a third of mothers “sail through birth and caregiving years relatively easily,” especially if they have a loving, helpful partner, good overall health, youth, enough money and “plain old good luck,” Mrs. Wilkinson and Ms. Niesslein wrote in the spring issue of their magazine.

Mrs. Tucker’s Mothers Movement Online attempts to move beyond “romantic ideas of motherhood” and tries to build real recognition for the caregiving contributions of mothers.

Many women now believe they are welcome in the workplace and that there is equal access to opportunities — but only until they have children, Mrs. Tucker said. “Then they feel the scenario changes dramatically,” with women forced to choose between career, which brings income and social status, or caring for children, which forfeits both those things.

“We want flexibility,” she said, citing a recent study that found that two-thirds of full-time working mothers would prefer to work fewer hours, and almost two-thirds of stay-at-home mothers would like to work part time.

Author Danielle Crittenden believes the new goal for mothers is “having a family and making it work.”

Going to work or having a career are not novel ideas to today’s young women, she said. “What is a novelty is having a family — having a good marriage, finding a way to balance your ambitions with your desire to be with your children.”

Says Mrs. Wilkinson, “There has to be a balance. … If the mom is not happy, the family is not happy. … Listening to mothers’ stories is worthwhile. It’s central to humanity. It’s what goes on in the family.”

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