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Momasphere Interviews Sharon Lerner, Author of The War On Moms: On Life in a Family Un-Friendly Nation

Momasphere recently caught up with award-winning journalist and author Sharon Lerner. Ms. Lerner’s new book, The War on Moms: On Life in a Family Un-Friendly Nation tells overworked, stressed-out American moms two things: that they're not alone, and they're not to blame.  According to Ms. Lerner, working and non-working American mothers are pressed for time and money, unable to find decent affordable childcare, and wracked with guilt at falling short of the mythic supermom ideal. In short, we have it harder today than they have in decades, and we’re worse off than many of our peers around the world. Momasphere will be hosting the author's first Brooklyn The War On Moms book launch, which will include a riveting panel discussion on Thurs, May 13.


Momasphere: You say in the introduction of the book, that in this country, women and families are under a ‘full-on attack.’ This problem is certainly not new. Was there a specific incident that propelled you to write this book?

Sharon Lerner: It was more of a gradual process. I knew I wanted to write about women, and I knew I didn’t want to rehash the same subjects, particularly the subject of whether we should work or stay home. It seemed to me that there were problems with both options, so I decided to look at the larger policy context that frames those options.


Momasphere: The stories you share are indeed heart-wrenching. How did you find your subjects?

Sharon Lerner:  story within the larger story. So, for the chapter on childcare, for example, I read about the issue and then chose to write about people on the waiting lists for subsidized childcare. Within that, I chose Florida because that state had a particularly long waiting list. Then I sought out the organizations that maintained the waiting lists and asked for their help contacting people who were waiting for childcare subsidies. Then I went to Florida and visited a bunch of those people, spending time with them and their children. I took similar approaches with different chapters, seeking out individuals as a way of understanding and explaining larger problems.


Momasphere: Here in Park Slope, Brooklyn there is a perceived ‘war’ between stay-at-home moms, and working moms that often gets played out in the playground or PA Boards. In the book, you explain how this conflict has more to do with outside forces than the women’s animosity for one another.  Can you talk a little bit about this?

Sharon Lerner: There’s been so much talk about the “mommy wars.” But, judging from the many women I’ve interviewed and my own personal experience in both of these supposed “opposing camps,” it seems that most mothers want the same things: to be able to take care of their children and also have income. Certainly, some of us are more interested in careers than others. But, given how much we have in common, the idea that the biggest threat to mothers comes from another group of mothers strikes me as absurd. Taking a step back from it all, it became clear to me that one of the biggest problems we face is a lack of decent part-time work options, which leaves many women with the choice of two inadequate options: either to work more than they’d like or not at all.


Momasphere: Our current President is the father of two young girls, was raised by a single,

working mother and has had the good fortune of seeing how essential maternal grandparents are, for added support. He no doubt understands first-hand the struggles of working families, particularly working mothers. Given how difficult it was to pass the healthcare initiative and the current financial climate, do you think this administration will be able to make a difference in this area? Why or why not?

Sharon Lerner: I certainly hope the Obama administration will be able to make a difference in these areas. Already, there are hopeful signs. First off, the health care law will do much to help women, not just in securing them access to care but also in freeing up some people who were tied to full-time jobs because of the health benefits and can now get them in other ways. The White House just convened a task force on flexible work, which is promising. And there were little nuggets in the 2011 budget, which hasn’t passed yet, that showed that child care is on the president’s radar. The economic crisis means that we can’t expect all the progress we might see otherwise, but I’m hopeful.


Momasphere: The chapter that describes the social systems in other countries can make any working American mom drool. If you had a niece or friend who had an opportunity to live and work abroad, which country would you recommend?

Sharon Lerner: It depends on how long they were going to stay, since some of the benefits you’re talking about are reserved for citizens. Still, it’s fun to fantasize about taking the year-and-a-half of partially paid leave that Sweden offers, especially since that’s followed by the option of working part-time until your child is eight. Eight! Another situation that I find very appealing is the part-time economy that The Netherlands has built. Because you can reduce the hours of pretty much any job, in many families there, both parents work part-time while the children are young. From what I saw, that made for a pretty sane and reasonable way of life.

Momasphere: You have been writing about this for many years, but I guess the book allowed you to really focus on the topic more intensively. Were there any surprises for you?

Sharon Lerner: I was struck by how easy it was to find people with stories to tell. So many people have faced difficulties staying afloat while caring for their families. It’s one of those subjects on which almost everyone has something to contribute.


Momasphere: There are so many issues: paid sick leave, paid maternity leave, and a real system of affordable, quality child care, just to name a few. It will be difficult to address all of them at once. If you had to start with one, which would you recommend?  

Sharon Lerner: I really don’t want to choose. But I’ll say this: paid leave is pretty straightforward. Given that almost every other country in the world has figured out how to get women some guaranteed paid time off after having a child, I’m confident we can do it out, too.


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