Friday, February 18, 2011

Precipices and canyons

Since I last posted in early December over 7ft of snow has fallen in Campusville; one American President has come back from the precipice; two Middle Eastern Heads of State have been pushed over the precipice; and a little person I know has started skating a little too close to the edge for my liking.  
Little Teadrinker has officially reached the ‘pre-toddler’ phase. In many ways its been a magical whirlwind.  Where there were gurgles there are now genuine giggles; where arms reached out there are now heartfelt cuddles; where there were indiscriminate smiles, well remembered friendships are now formed.  Every day a new word. From the fragile helpless little baby, a multi-faceted human being is emerging and I feel myself falling deeper in love by the hour.   
Yet in spite of this, the idea of continuing as a stay-at-home mom is losing its appeal. In my naivety I’d imagined that bumptiousness, bossiness and bloodcurdling tantrums were reserved for the ‘terrible twos’.  The reality of mealtimes with a just turned one-year-old evolving into forty minute food fights, and attempts to put snowsuits and mittens on being met with a head butt has taken me by surprise. In peacetime the job is only marginally less demanding - the library visits and toy-shop sing-alongs that used to pleasantly break up the days now involve complex negotiations, chasing up and down isles and frantic efforts to put things back on shelves. To top it off, the nanny who we have been sharing with another family for a few hours a week has quit, citing artistic differences...  
So, where do we go from here?  Mr TD and I have concluded that the best scenario would be for one or both of us to go part-time and combine this with part-time nursery care. This would allow me my sanity, not to mention the chance to reclaim salary and career, and give LTd more of the social stimulation she craves whilst maintaining the one-to-one time she still seems to rely on.  
But if I’m looking for a decent part-time position anywhere round here, my luck is likely to be out.  In contrast to the UK, where workers have a legal right to request flexible work (albeit limited) and the most common pattern in two-parent families with children under-14 is that one parent works part-time, most American moms - and dads - face a stark all or nothing choice when it comes to combining work and family life. 
Other than for a few high income occupations such as pediatric medicine, most part-time opportunities offer vastly inferior pay and conditions. There is no requirement for parity of pay for part-time work and it has been proven that, for the lip service corporate America pays to ‘family friendly working’, even those women who take-up offers to take more flexilble or shorter hours find themselves discriminated against and overlooked for promotions.  Under these conditions, it is little surprise that most  moms feel they have little option than to bite the bullet, going back to work full-time and accepting the long hours (often 50+pw), limited holiday and family sacrifice that entails.  Meanwhile, the minority of educated professional moms who choose to stay at home have long been fetishized in the American media as self-sacrificial ‘opt outs’ - a trend started in 2003 with a NYTimes article by Lisa Belkin  which ignited major feminist debate. 
In well-to-do Campusville, the cultural divide between stay-at-home moms and worker moms is plain to see. I have a vague memory of this dynamic from when my own mum used to complain about the ‘worker mums’ who’d patronise her at North London dinner parties in the early 80s.  But I’ve not encountered anything like it at home yet since reaching the motherhood age, and can only think that its disappearance must be down to the rise of part-time working as a life-style choice in the UK.  Here, by contrast, it can be hard to escape the group politics (small ‘p’).  Feminist stand-points aside, each camp has their own set of support groups, their children often don’t mix until they reach school age and if you raise the subject of the ‘other’ with either it won’t be long before disparaging or perplexed comments are muttered.
Of course, the stay-at-home/worker-mom chasm is not the only division that is made wider by the poor prospects for part-time workers.  New analysis from UMass shows that low income women face the greatest ‘motherhood penalty’ in terms of earnings - and largely this is down to dropping their hours.  The authors speculate that low paid women who overcome the initial childcare conundrum and stick it out at work often quit altogether later on to accommodate family crises, lacking sufficient paid time off. Interestingly, the same study finds that there is a fatherhood income premium which is also linked to hours worked - in other words, as women drop out of the labour market, or accept poorly paid part-time work, dads are having to work longer.  It's the traditional breadwinner model plus.

Improved part-time work opportunities would help our family out, but I don't pretend they offer a panacea for gender equality - just look at the state of the remaining gender pay-gap in the UK.  Yet if US employers and regulators could get to grips with the issue they'd be swiping a significant blow at gender, class and cultural divisions all in one shot.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mobilizing Moms

Everyone from students to workers to anti tax-evasion protesters have taken to England’s streets in recent weeks. And yesterday, British mums stormed Whitehall.... or so my day dream went.

Monday saw the High Court in London throw out a legal challenge brought by the UK’s leading gender equality campaign, the Fawcett society, against the Coalition Government over its 2010 ‘austerity’ budget. Fawcett’s analysis showed that $5.7 billion worth of cuts, out of a total $8.1 billion cuts, are directed at women - yet the Government had neglected to meet its legal obligation to conduct an equalities impact assessment which would have exposed this and potentially prevented it from happening.  The case was kicked out on grounds the point was “unarguable - or academic”.
The idea that these events would prove a tipping point for women is surely not so far fetched.  But in the end, there was no revolt; the day ended on more of a whimper. The protest outside didn’t attract more than a hand-full, despite the backing of a number of prominent female MPs and Fawcett’s best efforts to rally the troops on Twitter. All trudged back onto the tube at the end of the day, in time to make the tea.
Would the story have been the same if this had happened in the US?  My reckoning is: probably not.
As regular readers know from previous blogposts, when it comes to election politics, I don’t believe that America's political parties have a great amount to teach the UK on representing women’s political issues.  The narrative that emerged in the mid-terms campaign this year was indistinct at best, and at worst negative.
But look beyond electoral politics and you’ll find a strong, strategic popular American women’s movement, and specifically a ‘moms’ movement, the likes of which I don’t see paralleled in the UK.  
Since 2006 the organisation has provided a cogent voice for women, spearheading campaigns across the country.  Their manifesto is primarily about achieving family economic security and wellbeing and the issues they work on include: paid parental leave; health insurance; quality, affordable preschool and after school programs; flexible workplaces; fair wages and ending salary and hiring discrimination based family responsibilities.  And their results are not to be sniffed at: they count US’s Fair Pay Act and legislation to eliminate toxic toys amongst their achievements, and also played a crucial part in supporting the Health Reform Bill
The key to Momsrising's success is that they are not a traditional lobby group.  They are a virtual organisation, headed up by a handful of volunteers and paid staff who live in different places across the country, meeting up in person every 6-12 months for staff retreats. Like Fawcett they run excellent, professional campaigns, disseminating information to the public and issuing press releases.  But like Mumsnet they encourage members to join online for free and actively participate in debate - albeit in a more tightly administered blog format rather than free-for-all chat-rooms.  
This approach has enabled them to build support and connections at grass roots level, going further than Fawcett or Mumsnet and actually mobilising millions of busy moms.  They interact with members of the community frequently, providing them with the tools to become advocates for their own cause.  Join their mailing list and you will be supported to make timely representations yourself - email updates keep you instantly informed about all relevant votes and policy decisions taking place, as well as details of the political representatives and law-makers you should contact - whether by phone, letter or email.  Public rallies is not a central campaign tactic (most moms would struggle...) but, as a result of their mass membership, they have also proven to be able to summons a fearsome mom-crowed at very short notice when needed.   
In the wake of yesterday’s decision at the High Court, the women’s movement in the UK must take stock of its future.  If we can build a mass movement with clear policy mandate and an effective strategy we could come out fighting yet. America's Momsrising is a model to aspire too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

People like US

Wanna get your child on the development fast track?  Got $400 and time in the day to spare for a course of classes? Live in an affluent area in the US? Then do not fear, commercially run parenting centres like this Boston based chain may be opening in an area near you soon.  
Little Teadrinker and I sampled our first session last week - we chose the Movers and Groovers developmental class for 9-11 month olds. Having navigated our way through the centre’s enticing posh baby shop to the ‘studio’, we were greeted by a circle of 10 cheery moms and their babies.  Our Akela was an uber parenting expert and Masters qualified early years pedagogue - Brits: think Floella Benjamin meets Tanya Byron.  After an initial exchange of baby related woes and advice, events kicked off with songs and stories, the moms and the brightest babies fluently baby-signing along. Next up was a range of motor development activities involving high-tech props including a parachute. The moms enthused from the sidelines as the babies crawled clambered and toddled around happily in the centre of the circle. The vibe was relaxed, although the competitive under-tone irrepressible “Has Aiden crawled through the tunnel yet?”, “Did I hear Josie say quack already?”.  Akela rounded up with some Thanks Giving advice on safety and dealing with sensory overload, finally sharing some Christmas shopping tips on where to buy the best wooden toys.
The pushy posh parent phenomenon is by no means exclusive to the US, yet in the UK we have not seen the likes of private parenting centres.  Could the reason be that the state has captured the market?  After all, Sure Start Children’s Centres now exist across England offering families with young children universal free access to everything from baby massage to dad’s stay and play and breastfeeding consultations - where they are run well, middle class parents come flocking.  The US equivalent, which started in 1965 and was an antecedent to Sure Start, is not open to better off families.  Typically for the US, Head Start is targeted exclusively at those on low incomes.  Obama is a firm believer and used the Economic Stimulus Package to boost its funding to the tune of $2billion.
Yet in the UK the principle of a universallity is proving hard to defend in the face of massive pressure on public finances - why shouldn’t “middle class freebies” be first in line for cuts?  Ministers are hinting that Children’s Centres could go the same way as Head Start, and as the UK's Child Benefit system, with only the most disadvantaged drawing the full benefit in the future. 
The argument for targeting Sure Start seems, initially at least, pretty compelling. The original architects of the Sure Start programme argued that universal, free access was necessary to avoid stigmatisation of services - something which had been a problem with Headstart. Yet England’s Sure Start experience has shown that even an open-to-all service does not necessarily entice those in the most dire situations, many of whom run a mile from anything that looks like authority or institution.  An early evaluation showed that Children’s Centres were failing in this respect, and a lot more money had to be pumped in to reach out to those families.
But before throwing the baby out with the bath water, politicians in the UK should take time to look once more at the US experience.  It reveals at least three troubling trade-offs...
1/  Targeting early years services could be culturally divisive. As our little venture last week illustrates, while it may be pleasant to be surrounded by “people like us”, the US’s targeted approach has led to a socially segregated, two-tier system.  A sorting effect happens of course to an extent anyway when children reach school age (watch Waiting for Superman for a powerful tale on the divided US school system), but by drawing the line so clearly about who accesses what so early in a child’s life differences between social classes are being reinforced at every level: social networks, peer effects, parents’ aspirations expectations, notions of tastefulness - remember the wooden toys...
2/ There’s a risk of disenfranchising the wrong groups.  A large proportion of families are likely to be left out of the equation all together - not poor enough to qualify for publicly subsidised services and not wealthy enough to fork out for the private alternative.  Many of the would-be excluded families make up the “squeezed middle” whose needs politicians both sides of the Atlantic are now claiming to acknowledge.  
3/ A minority services is often a weak service.  Headstart has survived an incredibly long time, but only just.  Most would acknowledge that it has remained a marginalised service with significant shortcomings: notably, the most comprehensive evaluation to date came out in January showing that children's attendance in Headstart had no impact on their academic, social-emotional or health status at the end of first grade. The lack of sustained benefits has been troubling its proponents for years, but attempts to fix it have been relatively limited.  Such drift would likely not have been tolerated had pointy elbowed middle class parents seen it as in their interests to agitate for a solution.  Crucially, the lack of broad public support is now putting the programme at risk, in spite of Obama’s wish to improve and build on the programme.  

Last week, a vote to renew the fiscal stimulus money for early years was kicked into the long-grass by Congress, meaning that it might be ditched entirely and hundreds of thousands of children could be kicked off the Headstart rolls. The issue hasn’t even made the national press.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Toy store story

Every Thursday morning a sea of strollers covers the entrance to Campusville Toys.  At the back of the shop, the East Coast’s answer to Rolf Harris strums his guitar and sings, egged on by around thirty under-4s. 

Rolf is not a bad performer but, in truth, his uncanny resemblance to a chimpanzee must be a boost to his kiddie X-factor. He takes up his guitar and monkey mayhem ensues.  Pre-crawlers flap arms and down lego pieces and other floor debris, while the more mobile little chimps swing from the rafters.  They snatch toys, pull things off shelves, and bounce around, jostling for position at the front when a favourite tune comes on. Enthusiastic nannies, moms and the odd dad sing along mouthing the words with tremendous gusto.  Probably, like me, they’ve come just as much for themselves as their kids - a little adult contact goes a long way in breaking up long hours spent caring for a young child.  For an hour or so after the event beleaguered shop assistants tiptoe around us stragglers hoovering, sorting and running an inventory of the damage. I wonder sometimes if all this can be worth it for the store, we didn’t even pay to get in after all. But of course it is - the tills have taken more in a couple of hours than the rest of the week combined.
In small town America, it seems that just about every high street big enough to have a post office also has an enticing independent or small-chain toy store. Hosting weekly parent and baby sing-alongs, story-times and coffee hours is pretty standard - a lot see it as their bread and butter. Events typically attract dozens of local families, thus etching out the place of toy-stores as meeting places for young families and community hubs.
We’ve looked to publicly funded Sure Start Children’s Centres and libraries for this kind of thing in the UK in recent years. In the face of radical plans by the new Coalition Government to pay back the deficit and reduce spending, both are now facing significant cuts and potential closures. So, might our toy shops go the American way?  
On one level, its a no brainer.  State provided services shrink enabling small businesses to grow into the spaces they once occupied.  Profits get boosted and children and parents are able to access equivalent services to the ones they used before. The shopkeeper’s community knowledge and desire to get people through the door might even lead to events which are better attuned to the needs and desires of local families.  Its the perfect allegory for David Cameron’s “Big Society” master-plan.
Yet in cultural terms, UK retailers have a distance to travel to take up their spot in the Big Society.  In contrast to the US service culture, some still seem to see their customers as the enemy.  At our local London toy shop, patrons are greeted by a sign on the door that shouts “KNOCK BEFORE ENTRY.  NO TOUCHING.  CHILDREN ONE AT A TIME”.  Once you’re through the door, if you don’t accept immediate assistance, you’ll feel the shop assistant’s eyes burning holes in the back of your head. Its a stoney stare that says in no uncertain terms: your-brat-breaks-anything-and-you-both-get-booted... Thanks very much.
A more serious question, however, is whether families can really draw value from playing along with what is essentially a private business’s marketing strategy.  I don’t think the answer is straight forward.  There are obviously a lot of good things going on at Campusville Toys’s sing-a-long, just the same as they would in a Children’s Centre or library (exposure to language, child social interactions, adult networks being established, etc).  But a toy store is not a Children’s Centre.  It is not designed with child development in mind, and that’s not the priority of the people who run it.  Some of the toys are educational, but a lot are simply designed to be eye-catching.  The sheer amount of toys around is enough to bring on a bout of ADHD in the most focused child - which would explain the rafter swinging.  And the frenzied grabbing at stuff off shelves is not just an unfortunate side-effect from the retailers point of view.  It is the very purpose of the event.  The more children grab, the more their parents buy. 
As services are cut back in the UK, its worth looking at the way things are done in the States where commercial and civic society play a larger role (this is something I intend to do more of in this blog). But as always, its important to drill beneath the surface to see what’s really going on. A dose of toy-lust? A little frivolous spending? A momentary shortening of a child’s attention span?  On the face of it, these trade-offs don’t sound too major.  But writ large they could lead to an undesirable creeping commercialisation of public life.  

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mid-terms: Mom read-out

Following up on my Falling-Mama Grizzlies blogpost, here’s a quick bit of post-match analysis...
Female political representation has taken a pretty bad knock this election.  In line with predictions I reported in my earlier post, all the fanfare around women candidates has amounted to little. Female Republican wins have been off-set by Democrat losses overall and the number of women in Congress is down by three - the first decline in 30 years according to an NPR report.   
Regardless, it might be argued that the whole ‘its cool to be a mom’ tone that was present throughout the campaign has been in of itself a victory of sorts for gender equity.  In last week’s New York Times supplement Judith Warner described the ‘new momism’: ‘being a mom is now frequently spun as a prime career asset... “Mom” in both Democrat and Republican speak is political shorthand now for good common sense and authenticity, an antidote to the effete sensibilities of the so-called Washington elite’.  
But the problem with seeing this election as a success for women even in these terms is that a lot of the candidates who became most associated with the ‘mom’ brand faired particularly badly. The electorate apparently didn't buy the whole authenticity, common sense thing. My favourite young-blood Democrat mom Krystal Ball suffered a harsh defeat in Virginia’s 1st District.  And from the twenty or so Mama Grizzly candidates Palin endorsed, first time women won governorships in three states but the most high profile candidates (Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell...) floundered.  Terms such as; shrill, rational, stupid have increasingly been used to describe these women. Deserved or not, this is far from new momism - negative maternal stereotypes have been reinforced. 
One final observation: the greatest impact of this election on moms, and on all of us, will be through policies taken forward - yet the precise shape of those policies is still largely unknown. Much of the uncertainty is down to split party control. Healthcare reform is unlikely to be repealed though is sure to be compromised, but nobody knows by how much. Gridlock is expected on whole range of tax and spending issues - helpful explanation here from the Brookings Institute.  All this has been heavily reported, yet the unpredictability is not merely down to the result..
The Republicans, whilst repeatedly calling for cuts, have been very elusive about where exactly they’d like to see the axe fall.  When challenged some murmur 'discretionary spending' whilst others, more bold, say 'federal entitlements'.  Stunningly, no-one has managed to pin them down about whether its education, social security, defence or what.  There was a similar scenario in the run-up to the UK election but ultimately politicians were forced to get into far greater detail so that people knew what they were voting for.  The fact that this hasn't happened in the US suggests to me something about how the negative (masculine?) style of campaigning which currently prevails in American politics can obscure important democratic principles.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Creepy Cops

We’ve just got back from the police station.  It wasn’t a pretty experience.  The place was brimming with menacing characters, the walls were blood stained and the air was thick with the voices of screaming children. My main thought was to make it quickly through the maze of corridors and get Little Teadrinker out of there just as fast as possible.  Our crime?  Choosing to attend the annual Campusville West District police halloween haunted house...
Its no exaggeration to say that Americans take halloween very seriously.  The build-up has been going on for weeks now, with temporary costume shops popping up everywhere and frenzied exchanges on on subjects as diverse as where one can find a lobster costume for a 10 month-old and the most suitable ghoul outfit for a pregnant mom. One gets the feeling that babies born in Campusville General’s maternity ward this weekend will be delivered straight out of the womb into pumpkin suits.
Yet the irony of police here dedicating a whole building and a significant proportion of the local constabulary to scaring small children for two whole evenings (oh yes two), just as UK police face 20% cuts is hard to ignore.  Even when the public purse was flush, such an event would scandalise spendthrift Brits - you can see the headlines now: Cop-Shop Shuts for Fuzz Freak Show. Its interesting that in contrast, in the midst of a financial crisis in a culture where tax is widely regarded as legalised robbery, this particular bit of state sponsored family fun is not something that the community chooses to forgo.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fall-ing Mama Grizzlies

Sweet, shiney toffee-apples abound, pumpkins sit on doorsteps and the leaves are luminous. Yet amidst Campusville’s clear, crisp autumnal air, there’s an unmistakable whiff. For as sure as Fall is upon us, the US political season has arrived. 
The mid-terms are in less than two weeks - campaign posters are popping up in front yards and every time Little Teadrinker and I pass by the mall, we’re accosted by canvassers - “Are you a Campusville voter ma'am?”.  The asker yesterday morning was a Green Party activist, keen to let me know about the threat to the town’s skyline from large billboards. But in spite of the wide eyed little face staring up at us from the stroller, he failed to make the obvious argument: that I should vote Green for the sake of my child’s future.
This is not the kind of mistake you'd expect these days from an activist from either of the two main parties.  Both Democrats and Republicans are keener than ever to appeal to voters’ maternal instincts. With their swing-voter tendencies, moms have long been a key target. But since Sarah Palin arrived on the scene in 2007 they have risen dramatically in the consciousness of US electioneers and spin doctors.  
On the Republican side, the approach has been less dog-whistle politics and more a loud-as-you-can-bare-it cat call.  Palin’s Mama Grizzly video  is a case in point. Speaking in San Diego last week she made a rallying call for all Grizzlies to “rise up on our hind legs and say no”. The party is now trying to capitalise on her fan-base with Palin endorsed Mama Grizzly nominees standing for office across the country.  But while their brand is unmistakable, their policies are pretty indistinct from the wider far-right/Tea Party movement within the Republican party.  They tend to be driven by Christian values (most are anti-choice) and are fiscally conservative (all oppose the Health Bill).  They provoke a mixture of devotion and scorn but it is not very clear how their demands will meet the needs of America’s great many over-worked, under-paid and currently financially insecure moms. NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently described them as “the ideal nihilistic cheerleaders for an angry electorate”.
The Democrats were late-comers to the momification of political marketing but have now cottoned on that while the Hilary Clintons and Nancy Pelosis of this world are  highly skilled champions of women’s policies, to win votes younger female faces are needed from outside the traditional political elite.  The most promising poster girl for this is the Democrat Congressional nominee for Virginia’s 1st district.  She is impressive 28 year old mother of two, entrepreneur and software designer Krystal Ball who has nobly fought off  sexist internet smears.  If she wins, she will be the youngest ever female congress woman. However, much of the Democrat effort to win female voters is based on slating the Palinites and even Ball seems shy about using her platform to tell a positive story about what has been achieved and where we must go next in terms of issues such as fair pay, education investment, health reform and maternity rights.     
Before the last leaves turn, we will know much more about whether all this mom-talk has really changed anything.  But looking at some of the polling data from the last few weeks, prospects do not look promising.   Three major points of note: 
  • Beyond Palin herself, the “mama-grizzlies” are failing to win-over Republican women. For example, Fox has reported that in  in Connecticut, Delaware and Nevada, Palin-backed Republican female candidates are polling behind Democrat men. 
  • Women across the spectrum are becoming disaffected with politics, more so than men. Since the mid 1980s women in the US have turned out to vote in greater proportions than men, and the gap in voter participation between male and female eligible voters reached its widest in 2008.  But the latest data from Gallup suggests all that might be about to change.  When asked about their enthusiasm to vote, US women now lag 13 percentage points behind men.
  • The number of women in Congress looks likely to fall for the first time.  Independent analysts are predicting 5-10 fewer women, despite the Republican party putting up a record 128 female candidates.  Susan Page of USA Today explains that this is to do with voters, both male and female, turning away from the Democrats (who have greater female presence) and opting for what they believe to be a “safe” pair of male hands in these tough economic times. 

So, after all the noise it seems as if America may be no closer to achieving a political system which is genuinely responsive to the needs of women.  Disappointing? Yes. Inevitable? Maybe.  The idea that the huge appetite for change that existed in America in 2008 has crumbled under the weight of financial crisis is now widely accepted.  Just as Obama’s Rooseveltian moment has passed, so it could be argued has the moment for a new mom-politique. But this explanation on its own feels too fatalistic. Even in hard times, it must be possible for politicians to speak directly to the needs of moms, and women in general. But, unlike a lot of what we've seen, the approach needs to be serious and content driven. Eye-catching and insubstantial is fine for a toffee apple, but it won't do for women.