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Will Mothers Unite to Change Work-Life Policy?

How mothers become a force to reckon with

Women have been told to lean in, lean out, be in the office no matter what. No rhetoric or policy to date has solved the problem of work-life balance for all women.

What has been has been proposed or implemented has not changed the culture in satisfactory ways. A majority of women in most socio-economic brackets whether or not they work still struggle to be all things to their partners, their children, and their bosses—their job if they happen to be the boss.

Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D., Professor of Public Policy at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, has designed a solution, one that has an excellent chance of succeeding. Since 2009, she has been studying different mothers’ groups to learn not only what their members think, but also how the groups can interact to benefit the women in them.

Crowley’s findings led her to the conclusion that if mothers join together, they can be the force to bring about workplace flexibility that will in turn change family life. Her new book, Mothers Unite! Organizing for Workforce Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life, spells out her vision of this new “Motherhood Movement.” I asked her for specifics.

Q. What in your research convinced you that there can be a widespread movement that demands sweeping change for mothers?

A. The media tends to highlight divisions among mothers such as whether they should be breastfeeding or bottle-feeding or whether they should send their children to public school or to private school if they can afford it. Perhaps the greatest division played up by the media is whether mothers should stay at home or work for pay. But I find that these so-called "mommy wars" are really a distraction from the concerns facing mothers in the real world. All mothers want the best for their children, whether they are currently working for pay or staying at home and planning to return to employment in the future. Workplace flexibility options can help all of them achieve the fulfilling lives that they want for their families.

Q. In the late 1960s, Shulamith Firestone, one of the early radical feminists, believed women were oppressed and that was the driving force of her efforts. According to Susan Faludi’s article, Death of a Revoluntionary in The New Yorker magazine, Firestone set up groups and said, “that the groups have to have an organizing structure and principles…or else you are just higgledy-piggledy all over the place.” Is your vision similar?

A. Throughout history, the biggest changes that have come about in American public policy have been the direct result of organization. We can clearly see this with the Civil Rights and Women's Movements of the 1960s. Corporations and governmental officials tend to respond much more quickly to voices that are organized into unified groups, rather than individuals raising their concerns in a haphazard way. I think mothers need to do the same: get organized around the issue of workplace flexibility.

Q. You surveyed five national groups with over 250,000 members total: Mocha Moms, Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), Mothers & More, MomsRising, and the National Association of Mothers' Centers (NAMC). These are powerful numbers that can grow into a force that moves employers and changes government policy. What will it take for women in these groups to stop seeing themselves as group members with similar needs and lifestyles and start feeling part of a bigger movement?

A. Mothers' groups play a fundamental role in women's lives. I found that mothers particularly look to their groups for personal friendship, emotional support, and information about parenting and childcare. Yet all of these groups also have missions that directly or indirectly support workplace flexibility goals that can help women be the best workers and mothers possible. I think that these groups should emphasize this critical part of their missions with their members much more vigorously. In other words, these groups can be active in both helping mothers personally, but also in giving them the opportunity to shape workplace flexibility policy on the public stage.

Q. You write that a great challenge is involving mothers with lower incomes, and not only making them aware of the possible benefits of a Motherhood Movement, but also to be involved. What is the key to reaching and convincing this demographic?

A. Middle class mothers involved in these groups all described their "ideal" job to me, whether they were currently working for pay or staying at home and planning to return to employment in the future. Most important to them were jobs that offered time-off options, and flexible work arrangements, such as starting and ending their workday at non-traditional times as well as telecommuting. Some of them were also concerned about being able to transition out from the labor force when their children are young, but also being able to return to employment when their children are a little bit older. Low-income mothers want many of the same things, but they are faced with even greater challenges. If they are hourly employees, they may have little control over their schedules and have no access to any time-off benefits. Mothers' groups need to reach out to these women, listen to their concerns, and make sure that their needs are a fundamental part of their workplace flexibility agenda.


Do you believe mothers’ groups can ban together to become the force responsible for formidable and sweeping policy change? Please add your thoughts and suggestions in the comment section below.

Related: Why Women are Undercut in the Workplace; Go to Work, Mom, the Kids Will Be Fine; The Great Divide: Working Moms Vs. Childless Women