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NOW Discovers The Invisible Mother

MOTHERHOOD does not typically rank as a feminist issue. In theory, activists insist they are working to achieve equality for all women. But in practice, because of limits on time, money, and energy, issues such as reproductive rights and women's political advancement dominate their agenda.

Now a few members of the National Organization for Women hope to broaden that focus. They want to find a niche - and a measure of recognition - within the 280,000-member organization for mothers and "allies of mothers." They also want NOW to hold a national conference on the status of mothers in the next three years.

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Last Saturday evening, while other parents were enjoying Fourth of July activities with their families, 15 delegates to the annual NOW convention in Boston gathered in a small conference room at the Sheraton Boston Hotel for an unusual event - a caucus on mothers. Pulling their chairs into a circle, the women, whose children range in age from seven weeks to 30 years, took turns explaining what had brought them to this room.

"I don't see people respecting mothers and fathers as much as they should," said one participant, who is a child-care provider and the mother of two young sons. "They don't value what I do as much as I value what I do."

"What would it take not to feel torn in two, between being a productive worker and a good mother?" asked another woman. Echoing that conflict, the mother of a toddler asked rhetorically, "Do I want to save the world, or do I want to be a good mom?"

Another participant, a mother of three from London who also lived in Australia before moving to the United States, observed, "I sometimes think American women don't know how bad it is here compared with other Western countries. There's no national commitment here to child care and families."

"It's so difficult not to be penalized for being a mother," added a woman whose daughter is 18 months old. "I think this organization should reach out to mothers - take an active role, and see that mothers' rights are represented."

Although NOW has included child care on its agenda for 25 years, Madeleine Para of Madison, Wis., who planned the caucus, says she thinks this is the first time in the group's history that mothers have had a specific forum. She hopes it will mark the first step in organizing mothers and working for child care, fair treatment by employers, workplace flexibility, and adequate income. NOW's goal of bringing women into the mainstream as full equals, she argues, cannot be reached for women with children witho ut substantial change in the way mothers are treated.

Noting that a majority of women eventually become mothers, Ms. Para, executive director of NOW in Wisconsin and the mother of a three-year-old son, expresses surprise that more women with children aren't activists. Why, she wonders, don't mothers with babies march on Washington demanding better child-care options? Or why don't they take local action at shopping malls to get baby-changing tables in rest rooms?

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One answer is obvious: They're too busy.

Para sees a double standard applied to mothers. "Middle-class mothers are told they should quit their jobs for the sake of their children," she says. "Poor mothers are told they're lazy and a burden on society when they stay home to raise their children. We must defend the rights of women to make their own choices."

Rearing children, however fulfilling, has always been a demanding role. It has also become an increasingly lonely one as extended families have scattered and neighborhoods have emptied out while women earn paychecks to support their families. The old Rodney Dangerfield line, "I don't get no respect," could easily have been written by a mother feeling overworked and under-appreciated at the end of a long day.

In the early 1980s, when Betty Friedan, one of the founders of NOW, wrote "The Second Stage," outlining the need for better support for families, some feminists accused her of selling out and going soft. But in the years since then, women's struggles to accommodate multiple family roles have not eased. Perhaps this latest effort by a small band of mothers on a warm holiday weekend will be a first baby step for the 1990s in getting more recognition and help for those rearing the next generation.

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