Can mommy bloggers harness their political power?

When weighing the good and bad technology has brought us, here's one to add to the plus column: mommy blogs.

The cutesy name is deceptive. These online diaries reveal the messy reality of raising children American-style - which has been relatively isolated in each family home. But these web writers chronicling the ups and downs of parenthood have fashioned community support for millions.

Starting small in the late 1990s, the mommy-blog phenomenon has exploded to about 4 million writers in North America, according to online marketers, and many times more readers. One of the most popular writers, Heather Armstrong of, has over a million followers on Twitter. Mommy blogs have multiplied so rapidly that parent website expanded its annual Top 50 ranking last year to the Top 100 Mom Blogs. The 2012 list came out last week.

Of course, the profit motive being what it is, companies with products to sell began wooing the bloggers a half-dozen years ago. Disney, Walmart and Procter & Gamble, among others, recognized them as "influencers" of buying decisions. And lately, they've been attracting political attention as well.

In August, seeking re-election, President Barack Obama opened an annual female blogger conference in New York City live by videoconference. Last month, the premier of British Columbia, Canada, Christy Clark - who is polling badly among female voters - invited blogging moms to her Vancouver office for a chat.

Overtly courting women's votes dates back at least to the soccer moms - married, middle-class suburban women with school-age children - in the 1996 American presidential campaign. Women have cast between 4 million and 7 million more votes than men in recent elections, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. And this year, for the first time since the Gallup Organization began keeping this sort of record in 1952, the candidate that men overwhelmingly preferred lost.

So, are mom bloggers exercising political power? As it turns out, they don't blog about much that you'd call political. They're generally not endorsing candidates or advocating for legislation. Instead, their topics are often mundane - recipes, shopping, cute things the kids did, pets, frustrations - and also personal: depression, sex, drinking, rage, boredom, self-doubt.

Catherine Connors wrote on her top mommy blog, "I am a bad mother according to many of the measurements established by the popular Western understanding of what constitutes a good mother. I use disposable diapers. I let my children watch more television than I'd ever publicly admit. I let them have cookies for breakfast. ... I have thought that perhaps I am not at all cut out for this motherhood thing."

She goes on to reject the idea of a "community consensus" about what makes for a good mother. In the 50-plus years that child care experts have been judging whether mothers are good enough based on employment, sleeping arrangements, grocery choices, self-abnegation and 1,001 other criteria - having mothers confess who they are and receive the acceptance of a vast online community may be among the more political acts of our time.

Perhaps if we can get past the artificial barriers of who's a good-enough mom - call a cease-fire in the so-called Mommy Wars - we could begin to act collectively and exercise some real political power. We could harness those millions of readers to advocate against cuts to child care subsidies and in favor of paid leave to care for infants.

The Internet has given mothers this platform. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Tougher life choices for this generation

Entering adulthood used to be like wading into a gently sloping lake. You got your feet wet with a degree or job. Then maybe you found an apartment, and eventually a life partner. Soon, you were swimming in deep water.

But today, it feels as though the water gets deep fast. Young people can't just splash around and "find themselves" anymore. The world has changed.

Work can disappear with little warning. Skills grow obsolete fast. Lifetime employment and corporate loyalty are mostly things of the past. Compared to two decades ago, the average American worker puts in an extra 164 hours per year on the job, according to economist Juliet Schor. And adjusted for inflation, middle-class U.S. workers make less than they did in 1971.

These pressures mean that anyone who wants to "have it all" - career, family and leisure - needs to look way ahead. We parents would be wise to talk through the choices very explicitly with our children, especially the majority who are likely to want both work and kids.

We can explain the need for a sharply different perspective on career planning. For example, a friend of mine in her 20s who just got married says that she and others her age won't rely on working for an employer. The long hours and lack of security aren't worth it. Her plan is to run her own business and live frugally. Great idea; I hope for her sake it works out.

Another option is to choose an explicitly family-friendly career, something women have been doing for ages - a career with predictable hours and even some job security. Men increasingly are doing likewise; they make up ever more of our nurses, school teachers, bank tellers and food servers.

Even for the most ambitious, there are ways to craft a career that allows for more family time. A study of nearly 1,000 women who graduated from Harvard College between 1988 and 1991 showed that, 15 years after graduation, the ones who became doctors and lawyers had an easier time combining work and family than did those who later got an MBA. The doctors and lawyers had shifted to part-time work, opened their own practices with like-minded colleagues, or moved into the nonprofit sector or government work. The businesswomen, by contrast, faced an either-or choice: Put in grueling hours or quit.

Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo chief executive, is an example. She's 37, will give birth this fall, and plans "a few weeks" of maternity leave during which she will continue to work. But if you want a different sort of work-family balance for yourself, then perhaps you shouldn't plan on following in her footsteps.

Stories about families working together to make hard choices are encouraging. Austrian tennis player Sybille Bammer, for example, had a child at 21 and quit competing. She went back to tennis after her life partner, and the child's father, became her coach, hitting partner and Mr. Mom. For a while, they lived on $500 a month.

Then there's Angela Braly, chief executive of health benefits giant WellPoint, whose husband left his family business for a more flexible schedule in real estate and teaching. They have three children. How do we discuss the complexities of the modern balancing act without blunting our kids' ambitions? I can hear them mocking us now: Settle for the mommy track early, dear, and save yourself a lot of angst. But that's not the message. On the contrary, what's important is figuring out what you want and planning for it, precisely so you don't end up sidetracked.

Couples considering a family should talk openly about their expectations, too. You know the old saying: If you don't know where you're going, you're sure to get there.

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Time for a 'living wage' for the middle class?

With millions out of work, complaints about the decline in middle-class wages may seem misplaced. But without some shoring up, the middle class will remain dispirited -- and our economy, which is 70 percent dependent on consumer spending, will remain in the dumper.

It may be that there's a role for government to play in buttressing these eroding wages, which result not only in a declining standard of living, but also in a family life so pressure-filled that it leads to its own problems: angry homes, fast-food diets, dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Calling for any sort of government role during these tea party times can raise charges of socialism. But the idea of a wage that supports some minimum standard of living -- shelter, clothing, food -- has been broached on and off for more than a century.

In the late 1800s, social activists began protesting wages earned by a working-class man that were not sufficient to sustain his family, without the additional wages of working children and mothers. The Catholic Church published a fundamental social teaching, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor), that read, "Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others."

Shortly afterward, Australia's courts ruled that an employer must pay a wage that guaranteed a standard of living that was reasonable for "a human being in a civilized community" for a family of four to live in "frugal comfort."

In the United States, these ideas led to laws forbidding child labor, making education compulsory and protecting women from exploitive labor conditions. The campaign to establish a "family wage" was defeated, but in 1938, a lower standard, the federal minimum wage, was passed.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan and in 1968, a group of 1,200 economists including Paul Samuelson and John Kenneth Galbraith, have all supported some kind of minium income guarantee.

Echoes of this debate are being heard now, in the Vatican's critique last week of the global financial system, and in places where labor unions still have some sway: In the New York City Council, which at the urging of retail workers may require employers in commercial developments built with public subsidies to pay at least $10 an hour, a "living wage" higher than the minimum wage of $7.25; and in Albany, where the State Legislature in April passed an increase to $9 an hour for home health aides, who are represented by the influential 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East. That increase takes effect on Long Island in 2013.

It's easy to see why the lowest-paid workers would need a boost from someone powerful enough to argue on their behalf. But to make the argument for the middle class, one has to believe that this great swath of America, nearly half the country, has special value. And it does: The stability and upward mobility of the middle class not only underpin the U.S. economy but give America its famously optimistic and innovative spirit.

That spirit is on display as the middle class makes the best of things today: The average American has added around a month's worth of work, 164 hours per year, in the last two decades. One-third of American families have reduced their savings for college, according to a 2010 Sallie Mae/Gallup poll, and another 15 percent are not saving at all. Retirement savings are in similar decline.

How much more can the middle class cinch in its belt, before we lose what's precious about this way of life?

First published in Newsday.

Down times, empty suburban storefronts

Atop sports bleachers and inside minivans across Long Island, gloom about the economy is never very far from mind. The current generation of middle-class householders is used to the normal ups and downs of the economic cycle, but none of us is prepared for a second "down" right now -- the terrifying, rumored double dip.

Recently, as I rode with some other parents along Route 110 from Huntington through the busy Melville corridor to Farmingdale, the conversation turned to how many empty buildings we were passing. One man recalled visiting a now-vacant office center to close on the purchase of his house. A favorite wedding reception hall had been demolished. The Checkers drive-through was suddenly out of business -- open one day, and stripped of its signs the next. Even the dollar store -- maddeningly misnamed "Things Over $1" -- has closed.

How does a dollar store fail during a recession, when everyone's looking for a bargain? The unspoken fear is that perhaps this time, it's something worse.

The Week magazine recently concluded that we aren't in an ordinary economic cycle, but that Americans are in the process of paying off mountains of debt. We had grown used to living on credit, and we are now regretting having covered ourselves with piles of bills just as the economy was about to stumble. For an economy that was 70 percent propelled by consumer spending, tight home budgets are incapacitating.

Others say that the emerging economy -- outsourced and technology-dependent -- is unfavorable to the middle class. It can only benefit those at the top. While economists pull apart the numbers to make sense of it all, the middle class is endeavoring to persevere.

Many are forming new philosophies about kids and college, for example. Two years at a community college add up to a potentially employable graduate with an associate's degree. Meanwhile those same two years at a four-year institution equal, perhaps, nothing more than a college dropout with loans to repay.

One acquaintance told his high school senior that if she wanted to go to a private university, she would have to pay the difference between that tuition and SUNY's. There is praise for the child who chooses the practical -- accounting or engineering -- and a roll of the eye for liberal arts majors.

Nobody says directly that money is tight, but that thought is always lurking. Without asking if we needed it, my daughter's orthodontist offered us a financing plan. While we were school shopping, the clerk at Macy's warned that the jeans we were considering cost a whopping $89.

These small kindnesses are a balm in difficult times -- especially because the opposite coarseness so often confronts us, too. School clubs demanding payment for expensive class trips. The classmate whose outfits display Abercrombie & Fitch logos. The burgher purchasing a case of good red wine, and tipping the clerk to carry it to his Cadillac Escalade SUV.

There used to be far more class trips, designer clothes and Escalades. Or, so it seemed. The new polite is to talk cheap. Where to find the best thrift stores, and bargains at the gas pump. Good buys in used cars. Off-price movie tickets.

Because even if we aren't having financial troubles, we know many who are. The new adult horror story is the acquaintance who hopped the Long Island Rail Road to attend nine job interviews with a potential employer -- only to have the company eliminate the opening in light of more bad economic news. A divorce lawyer remarked that he used to divide up assets; now he parcels out marital debt.

Long Islanders can be resilient. But we'd like to know, how much longer?

First published in Newsday.

Economic trends threaten families' health

After listening to President Barack Obama's job-creation address last week, I kept coming back to the idea that he wants to give payroll tax breaks to businesses that offer people pay raises. That struck me as odd, given that unemployment stands at 9.1 percent, and you'd think that this hard-times president would be focused exclusively on getting people back to work.

But even people with jobs are facing time and money pressures in this economy, pressures that are bad for families' health.

Certainly, putting cash in people's pockets should help to rev up the listless consumer economy. But it looks like the president is also acknowledging just how much wages have eroded in the last couple of decades.

Real wages have been declining since 1983 and that means the middle class has less buying power. At the same time, the average American has added around a month's worth of work -- 164 hours per year -- in the past two decades. The number of dual-income households has risen, as well as the number of people working multiple jobs. It's not hard to imagine that people are putting in more time at work to make up for the erosion in their wages. That sounds like a very busy -- an overly busy -- middle class.

This busyness has consequences for the mental and physical health of parents and children -- and study after study substantiates this. A six-year study of 11,540 working parents in France, published in 2007, showed that people who had higher work stress or greater family demands were more likely to miss work due to poor mental health, particularly depression. Research on working parents in New York's Erie County demonstrated a relationship between family-work conflict and depression, heavy alcohol consumption, poor physical health and high blood pressure.

Time pressures also contribute to weight problems. For the first time in history, there are more overweight than underweight adults worldwide, according to new research at American University. A study published in the January-February issue of the journal Child Development found that children's body mass index rose the more years their mothers worked over their lifetimes. One explanation offered is that working parents have limited time for grocery shopping and food preparation.

Not so long ago, as a society we were asking, is it better for families if parents stay home with kids or work outside the home? Moms were usually the parents in question. Now, because of steadily declining purchasing power, for most people, it's less a matter of choice than necessity.

I have to ask myself, was this a conscious decision? Did Americans choose "working parents" as the better alternative? Was it a good direction or have we lost something in the translation? Have we perhaps given too little thought to how parents can give both their employers and their children what they need?

The financial and time pressures on families are what make us so vulnerable to implied criticisms, like those on display in Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." It registered so strongly with American parents because we're insecure about having adequate resources to meet the challenges of raising children now.

It's too early to tell if the Obama tax break, if adopted, will be effective in raising people's wages, or even whether, if we made more money, we would choose to spend more time with our children. But it's worth trying to reverse some of the trends that are putting so much pressure on families' health.

First published in Newsday

I consume, therefore I am

It shocks me how the imperative to consume is worming its way into our intellectual life in America. When I first observed it, I laughed and thought it was passing. I suppose that's how every insidious idea begins. As I watch the discussion now about how to "stimulate" America into better economic health -- a defibrillator metaphor, it seems -- many of our smartest commentators seem to assume that what will lead to long-term health is Americans spending our very last dime. Here's the New York Times' editorial board today, writing about President-elect Barack Obama's economic agenda:

That argument starts with the correct premise that a stalled economy needs all the juice it can get, hence the need for the roughly $800 billion recovery package to spur consumption and create jobs, taking shape in Congress and championed by Mr. Obama.

The need to "spur consumption" is so assumed by these writers that it doesn't even bear explaining. The American economy runs on consumption, I guess, like America runs on Dunkin'. Nobody is questioning the premise that we need to spend in order to maintain the health of our economy.

And here is the New Yorker in "Talk of The Town" this past week, written by Adam Gopnik, with a similarly embedded value that consumption is good:

Consumers have stopped consuming, the papers say, for the same reason that the child has decided to cry: I’m really damaged, we want the world to know; attention must be paid.

As though we, as Americans, don't have a right to be royally pissed off that our retirement and college savings have declined precipitously along with the hogwash that is the investment banking business-as-usual -- a high-risk gambit with the Big Hamptons Home in sight.

So, we American consumers want to save a little money now, as a hedge toward the future, and Mr. Gopnik believes that we are crying babies. If I'm reading Mr. Gopnik's essay correctly, he is attempting to convey to us uninitiated masses that economics is an emotional venture, as well as a social science. It's lovely of him to explain this to us, and I do applaud it as a student of economics myself, who has understood this concept all along. But then, would it not also make sense that we consumers here in America would react to tough economic times, emotionally, by socking a little something under the mattress? This could be expected. And it could be accommodated in econometric models. Disatrous times = people getting frightened and stashing money away. Don't begin to tell me that this is irrational, or worse, unpatriotic.

Which leads us, of course, to the very worst of the worst pleas for Americans to act as consumers, as opposed to something larger. It was the call by President George W. Bush for us to "spend money" as a way to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. We women know what it is to be objectified -- to be wanted for our bodies or our body parts. Imagine the leader of the Free World calling on Americans to respond to the murder of nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens by advising a shopping trip to K-Mart. Lost is any sense of what we are as humans.

I admit that this Sept. 11 complaint is a long-ago irritation by now. I assumed that, in the interim, it had been identified and observed as completely insane; but now I see that the New York Times and the New Yorker are echoing Mr. Bush's views that we are consumers first, consumers uber alles. Second, maybe we will have to send our sons and daughters to be killed in Iraq.

It's insanity, in the George Orwell "1984" sense, to believe that "consumption" can make us what we need to be. I can get behind railroads buying American steel. But I can't think that I have to have a dazzling new blouse at work every week for our economy to remain vibrant. It's not that I believe that our economy is not organized to need continuous injections of consumer dollars. It may be. It's that I think that it's wrong to set us on a treadmill where everything we own must be new or "the latest" for us to survive as a nation.

When I lived in Togo, in West Africa, people owned so much less. They had one or two sets of clothes. And yet they knew how to find happiness, perhaps in a way that we have forgotten here. Their happiness was based on family and community. Granted, it's an easier task to be happy when the goal is simply survival, not superlative success, as it has become in the U.S., and especially in New York.

I wish that we could use this economic crisis to re-evaluate what's right in our lives, and what we hope to live for. That would be a far better lesson, I think, than getting a hybrid Hyundai or an Ann Taylor jacket on the cheap. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

Living with less

I used to wonder how the people around me could afford the lifestyles they were living -- two new cars in the drive, often Lexis or BMW or Mercedes brand. Kids wearing designer clothes and cashing out with the newest X-Box or Wii systems each holiday. Disney World trips, European vacations. I decided that I just had to ignore it and live my life my way. I made up a fantasy in which everyone else was overextended on car leases and home equity lines of credit with huge penalties for early repayment. And who knows? Maybe the fantasy was true. I had to laugh when gas prices soared and it looked for a while as though flashy SUVs would be impossible to re-sell. My 11-year-old minivan might not impress anyone at the village intersection, but it sure got better gas mileage.

The world has changed since those heady luxury days -- which were the norm just a year ago, really, although the warning signs were upon us by then. I don't believe that we are now in a cyclical downturn. It's more permanent. I don't think we'll ever forget the pain from the risky mortgages that has essentially gutted our financial system in these past few months. We won't return to the long extensions of credit, not in our lifetimes, anyway. This weekend, writing for the New York Times, Peter S. Goodman has uttered the unthinkable for people who are holding out for the return of the good times. He quotes Peter Schiff, president of Euro Pacific Capital, a Connecticut-based trading house.

Our standard of living must decline to reflect years of reckless consumption and the disintegration of our industrial base. Only by swallowing this tough medicine now will our sick economy ever recover.

Reckless consumption, as Schiff points out, is only half the problem. For the other half, we need to return to my good friend Larry Summers, who is now director of President-elect Barack Obama's National Economic Council. Summers likes to point out that globalization lifts the standard of living for people in poor but industrializing countries. He also says that means that rich countries' living standards will fall. This frankness is part of what makes Larry Summers so unpopular -- but of course, he is right. If he would only temper his doomsaying for the Pittsburgh steelworker a little, he might be heard by more people instead of infuriating them.

In any case. Off the Summers soapbox. Our standard of living has been falling for decades, we have just been in denial about it. We have been able to deny it because...

1. It has been happening to specific industries -- manufacturing, mostly -- of which many of us are not members. 2. Spouses have entered the workforce since the 1970s, so the drop in the living standard doesn't seem so severe. Household income has been maintained, more or less. 3. We've been living on credit, like home equity loans, and higher home values to finance retirements and college expenses.

Now the pain is spreading and eroding 1 and 2. The loss of one job in most households makes the lifestyle unsustainable. And the bubble has burst for No. 3. I can't see any way out but to embrace a new way of life.

Merry Chri$tmas

I ask you, did someone really have to die in an early morning Wal-Mart purchase lust to point out that American consumerism has gone too far? It has, and particularly around Christmas. As a third-grader, I developed a questionnaire for my classmates to gauge whether they had the "right" take on the Christmas holiday. OK, maybe it was an early journalistic instinct. Or perhaps I'm a closet evangelist who has yet to realize her calling. The students of Mrs. Doherty's class at Tarkey Elementary School in Woburn, Mass., were my field test. I asked them whether they believed Christmas was about presents or Jesus.

My subjects were pretty evenly divided at first. But, eventually, word of my objective got around, and everybody began answering, "Jesus." So go the good intentions of even the best pollsters.

I don't really believe that Jdimytai Damour's death is a wake-up call for consumerists. He, like other unfortunate people, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it all adds up to nothing. Like the victims killed in Mumbai this week. We don't live in a just world. But I will say that the purchase-lust aspect of Christmas has gotten me down for a long, long time -- perhaps since third grade in Mrs. Doherty's class. Every year, a gloom descends over me as I consider how few people really need the gifts I'm giving. Or how many people must be given a gift to avoid hard feelings. This list has grown as I have matured and now includes the paper delivery folks, the house cleaners, the hairdresser, a couple of babysitters, religion teachers, classroom teachers, classroom aides and the mailman. My family qualifies as its own small economy.

I'm not a stingy person -- not with money, anyway. But I do mind all the time it takes. The days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to me, seem so bleak with obligation. This year, I have begun creating space for small indulgences of personal time to keep myself from succumbing to the depressing waves that accompany being over-scheduled. On Monday, I wrote a page of a short story that I've been working on. Today, I got my car washed after a long Thanksgiving trip that left it looking very junky. Little things, I'll grant you. But they keep me sane.

So, I guess that I am positing selfishness as an antidote to Christmas consumerism. Or maybe it's taking moments to stop and live life amid the demands. It feels right, and I believe that whatever satisfies our souls comes from God.

The vicious shopping cycle

Unemployment rates hit a four-year high in July, says the federal government, peaking at 5.7 percent.

At the same time, consumer spending fell in June, the poorest showing since February.

You wonder sometimes if the Powers That Be recognize that there's a connection between these two statistics. Families that are out of work don't spend money. A shocker! But, hey, just keep sending those stimulus checks, Uncle Sam. Maybe we'll somehow be fooled into thinking that a one-time check for $600 is as good as having a steady job, and we'll spend, spend, spend.