How Do We Build a Mothers’ Movement Around Workplace Flexibility?

washing dishesMy memories around my mother’s worries when I was a child are still crystal clear. As a single mother, she had a lot on her plate. She was struggling with two small children, working two jobs, and trying to earn a graduate degree. When she first started in these jobs, she did not have any benefits, so missing work would also mean missing wages that were crucial to pay the bills. I vividly recall her particular concerns over what would happen if we got sick at school. She would have to come and get us, and her paycheck would reflect it.

My own personal experiences guided my research into a set of five mothers’ groups located across the United States: Mocha Moms, Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), Mothers & More, The National Association of Mothers’ Centers (NAMC), and MomsRising. Each of these groups promotes the health and happiness of its members by highlighting the ways in which mothers who want to or need to work for pay can do so with the help of workplace flexibility options. I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with mothers in these groups who came from all walks of life and a variety of backgrounds. I asked them all, whether they were currently working for pay or staying at home, to imagine their “ideal” job. Over and over, I heard the same thing. Mothers want workplace flexibility at their ideal jobs. They most frequently mentioned time-off options to take care of expected and unexpected needs, as well as flexible work arrangements, such as part-time work and flexible start and stop times.

But when I asked them whether they thought they were part of a mothers’ movement on behalf of workplace flexibility as part of their affiliation with their groups, they were much more divided. Many of those with doubts understandably talked about the daily tasks of motherhood that prevented them from even thinking about engaging in a larger political movement.

So what can be done to match the desires of mothers in the area of workplace flexibility and their ability to effect change on a national level? American political history tells us that the government as well as private institutions are most receptive to change when voices are organized into groups that articulate their members’ interests. In the case of workplace flexibility, we already have an organizational infrastructure in place. Mothers’ groups such as the ones I studied already exist, but they have several challenges in front of them.

First, they now know that workplace flexibility matters to their members. They should work more vigorously on spreading the word that this issue matters to them as organizations as well. Second, they should reach out to mothers who are underrepresented in their groups right now, such as hourly workers. These mothers have similar but not identical needs in the area of flexibility, and their perspectives need to be incorporated into a broader flexibility agenda. Finally, mothers’ groups need to see work-family balance issues as not something that they must help their members to confront and solve on their own. Work-family balance issues are not individual problems; they are societal problems. And only a motherhood movement representing the interests of women all over the country can successfully demand a societal response.

Guest contributor Jocelyn Elise Crowley is a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Her books include The Politics of Child Support in America, Defiant Dads: Fathers’ Rights Activists in America, and her latest, Mothers Unite! Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life (Cornell University Press 2013).

Image via iStockphoto/David Sucsy

  • Tina

    The problem with this idea (and I think it’s a good one) is that there is a vocal group of people who are childless, the kind of people who call parents “breeders,” who see child-raising as akin to an expensive hobby. “If you get time off for a parent-teacher conference, then I want time off to fly my model airplanes.”

    But it raises a good question. Why not have time off to fly a model airplane? Why not have time off to study Spanish, or care for aging parents, or refinish a kitchen floor, or pick up a sick kid from school? The 8 to 5, two weeks a year plus six measly holidays really doesn’t work for anyone. Even the proverbial Ward Cleaver working dad with an at-home wife and 2.3 kids probably wouldn’t mind a few more days off.

    I think approaching this as a mothers or parents issue will inevitably run into the Model Airplane Guy, saying “why should I pick up the slack at work so you can spend time with your kids?” I think the only way to approach this is a human issue. More time off for everyone, and the option for meaningful part-time work (not just for Walmart greeters) for anyone who wants it.

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