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Who Speaks For Mothers?

WHEN I was growing up, one of the predictable news stories in our local paper every spring was an article announcing the national Mother of the Year. The story always appeared just before Mother's Day and was always accompanied by a photo of the winner, smiling serenely and seemingly unfazed by the responsibility of raising a family that typically included six or eight or more children. Somewhere along the way - 10 years ago? 20? - those articles disappeared from the papers I now read. But the contest itself goes on, undaunted by changing patterns of parenthood or declining media coverage.

Last weekend 500 women gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria for the 55th anniversary of American Mothers, Inc., the 4,500-member group that sponsors the Mother of the Year contest. They came to celebrate the American family and to select this year's national winner from among 41 state winners.

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As part of their competition for the national crown, each of those 41 women was required to step up to a ballroom podium and deliver a three-minute speech on family traditions - the glue that has helped to hold their particular family together.

For some, traditions have taken the form of small customs - ``a hug hello and a hug goodbye'' - or family mottoes: ``Count your blessings'' and ``Roll with the punches.'' For others, the ties that bind have been strengthened by weekly letters to offspring at college or recipes passed from one generation to another.

But over and over, the traditions that ran like a golden thread through the tapestry of these talks came down to a handful: Faithful church attendance. Family dinners. Holiday celebrations. Vacations together. Family reunions. And above all, praise and love.

As the three-hour program progressed, video cameras rolled. Instamatics clicked. The handful of husbands and children in the audience beamed. There were tears and hugs and brief moments of glory for women who otherwise go unheralded.

When the judging was over, Nadine Matis of Ogden, Utah, was awarded the title of 1990 Mother of the Year. Mrs. Matis, the mother of four, now works as an adolescent counselor. But from 1959 to 1979, she explained, she considered herself ``a professional mother,'' adding, ``I believe `Mother' is the greatest title and most important work on the face of the Earth.''

In a career-oriented society, where worth is measured by corporate titles and fat paychecks, it is easy to dismiss ceremonies and organizations like this as an anachronism. So widespread is the dismissal, in fact, that Nancy Dinwiddie Hawk, the outgoing national Mother of the Year, told members, ``Although I traveled to Chicago, San Francisco, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Mississippi during the year, only in Mississippi was there media opportunity. Contact with all the major media in the other destinations produced no interviews.''

Today media coverage of mothers is more likely to center around articles on ``Mommy wars'' - the divisiveness between mothers who work outside the home and those who do not - and the latest debate about the so-called ``Mommy track'' that threatens to derail women's careers.

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Who would interview Mom when the New Woman is around? Young, ambitious, pushing with muscular elegance against all the glass ceilings, the New Woman has all the good lines. She smells of leather briefcases and power perfumes. Mom smells of formula and floor cleaners. Mom lacks glamour - she lacks rhetoric.

Full-time motherhood has no publicists, no lobbyists, nor would it help much if it did. There is no exciting image to project, as, alas, most of the speeches at the American Mothers conference tended to prove. But as Americans prepare to celebrate Mother's Day next week, awards like these serve as reminders that mothers at home still exist in numbers nearly equal to mothers at work.

In the comparison between the apron and the dress for success, the competition gets unfair. If the measure of value were deeds - the hundred daily acts of nurturing that constitute motherhood - how those deeds might speak for themselves.

It is the shame of the media - and everybody else - that the appropriate words cannot be found to honor a calling that is so eminently honorable.

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