When I was a little girl, I’d stand in the kitchen at my mom’s side, “helping” her make bread every Saturday. She’d measure warm water, yeast and honey into a big yellow bowl, then a few minutes later stir in a bit of salt and several scoops of flour. She’d give the mixture a few brisk strokes with a wooden spoon and then, as the dough held together, turn it out on to the table to knead. This was the part I loved. Dusting our hands with a bit of flour, we’d push and fold the dough until it was smooth and satiny. A couple hours’ rising, a bit more kneading, an hour in the oven and then: fresh bread for the family to eat.
Bread making, like childrearing, isn’t particularly complicated. The ingredients are cheap, the process is simple. But they both require time and attention. Childrearing of course wants very focused time and attention; it can’t be squeezed into intervals of free time like bread making. So when my mom went back to work full-time, when I was old enough to spend the full day in school, bread making fell by the wayside, replaced by breadwinning. Her forty hours outside our home didn’t allow the time at home for both bread making and childrearing; she had to make a choice (and I like the choice she made!).
But we really shouldn’t have to make that choice. There should be time for childrearing, breadwinning, bread making, and whatever else a mother wants to do. This is the radical claim of The Motherhood Manifesto (Laura Pacheco, 2006), a short, sharp, consciousness-raising documentary produced with MomsRising.org, a group “for breadmakers and breadwinners.” The movie presents a compelling combination of personal stories, expert testimony, old film clips and even corny cartoon interludes: Bev Betters offers sardonic tips like sending your child to daycare in the “Safe-T,” a padded shirt to protect the kid from the slings and arrows of inferior care. The mix effectively makes the case that government should do better for our working families. The film focuses on working moms, including some whose situations turned them activist, suggesting implicitly that if there’s something you don’t like, you can fight to change it.
First, we meet the compelling, articulate Kiki Peppard, a single mom who moved to rural Pennsylvania looking for an affordable place to raise children, only to find that the state discriminates against employees based on family status: asked about her role as a parent in job interviews, she was told mothers don’t make reliable employees, and wasn’t hired, again and again and again. We learn from her story that motherhood is the single greatest predictor of poverty for women. She’s been fighting ten years to update Pennsylvania’s 1955 Human Relations Act and today there’s a bill in the state legislature to do just that.
Then there’s quiet Selena Allen, who, like one in seven US workers, wasn’t offered paid leave for the arrival of a child. She could only afford to take a month’s unpaid maternity leave and was forced, when her son arrived prematurely, to make the wrenching decision to postpone her leave until her baby was home from the NICU. “I gave birth on a Wednesday, and on Monday I went back to work,” she says, choking back tears at the memory. “It was like a piece of me got left in that hospital, and now I had to pretend that I’m ok.”
Finally, we’re introduced to the dynamic Angentina Tanner, who runs a cheerful daycare in south Chicago for the children of “poverty parents.” They pay what they can, the state offers $20 for each child in her care, and she makes up the rest by juggling her creditors. She puts her clients’ needs well before her own, often waiving fees for job-seeking parents and those just having trouble. “We had one parent,” she relates with compassion, “she just slid down the wall and started crying, she said you know what, I can’t pay for childcare.”
Sit with that image a minute–the desperate mother defeated by the paradox: she can’t feed her kids without working; she can’t work without childcare; her work doesn’t pay enough to cover her childcare costs. So her knees buckle and she slides down the wall in despair.
Our government isn’t doing enough to help women like this, though the film builds toward an optimistic conclusion by introducing us to some people who are. We meet Jim Johnson, a conservative CEO who, inspired by hearing Joan Williams (Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It), reassessed the entire structure of his company to allow greater job flexibility and other benefits to his employees. Now a quarter of his employees work from home, costs are down, and business is booming. We also see a group of young lawyers whose group, “A Better Balance,” lobbies for legislative changes. And finally, we’re reminded that we do have representatives in Congress like Lynn Woolsey, a former food stamp recipient whose bill, “The Balancing Act,” legislates paid family leave for part-time workers, quality after school programs, and a host of other improvements for families.
Ultimately, the main point of The Motherhood Manifesto is this: working families have it hard in this country and we shouldn’t. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world and yet still can’t find it in its heart or in its wallet to offer the benefits provided by other nations to make life easier for families. We need to work for change.
I watched this film in the company of five other women, strangers who had connected via MomsRising’s invitation to screen the documentary at neighborhood “house parties.” We have little in common but motherhood and a San Francisco address, but that was enough to make conversation flow easily for over an hour as we chatted about the standard playground topics: pregnancy discomforts, nap schedules, preschools. Then we watched the movie, and we were moved to become activists. Now, we’re all busy moms, protective of our private family time, and not as generous as we’d like to be with our public energies. But before we said goodnight, we’d made our wish-list of three local legislative changes we’ll work for, exchanged email addresses, and promised to meet again in a month. The Motherhood Manifesto is that motivating.
I’m a bread maker right now, not a breadwinner. I learned at my mom’s elbow, and I carry on the tradition with my boys. But the next time I’ve got them occupied with a game, and the loaves rising on the counter, I’ll do all I can to help keep moms rising, too.
To sign up with MomsRising, purchase The Motherhood Manifesto (book and/or dvd), volunteer to host a house party, sign a legislative petition, or any other information, go to http://www.momsrising.org/