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10 Things Moms Can Do to Challenge America's Hostile Environment for Working Women

Mothers are maxed out — and often too busy to organize for economic or workplace reform. But we can still do small things to fight back.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Excerpted from Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.

You may feel trapped. You may have gotten into this working-parent thing thinking, as so many of us do, that it would be different. Now you have kids, and you’re too busy racing around to organize for economic or workplace reform. But doing something,no matter how small it may seem, will feel better than doing nothing. When a lot of people do a lot of little things, it can add up to real, lasting change.

Below is a list of ten things you can do right now. Each thing on this list is about simply pointing your feet in the right direction to create change in your home, in your heart, at your workplace, or in society at large. Pick one thing from this list and do it. It doesn’t matter which one. Just pick the one that calls to you most. Then let the walking take over.

1. Practice saying no

Many working moms are allergic to the word no.We feel compromised that we’re not able to give our all as workers or as moms, and so we feel obliged to say yes,again and again. But our energy is a precious resource. If we keep giving it all away, one day we’ll find we have nothing left. We have to cultivate compassion for ourselves and find ways to say no:to our bosses, to our coworkers, to our kids, to anyone who is claiming too much of our time.It’s not about letting other people down. Saying noto others is about saying yesto yourself. Write “Say no to someone” on your to-do list. Do this every day for a week. See what happens.

2. Be an ally to other women

We’ve all felt judged, at one time or another, about our choices to work or not work. Often we perpetuate this cycle by judging other women, even though we know better. All this judgment is, of course, a distraction. The real conflict we all feel, either directly or indirectly, is between all parentsand the economic policies and social institutions that don’t value the act of caregiving. This is what makes it so difficult to raise our children (or care for other family members), stay economically viable, and keep ourselves and our relationships intact. We have to find ways to cut each other slack.

3. Tell your partner what you need

I get emails fairly often from women who say their husbands leave all the thinking work—planning the birthday parties, setting up dentist appointments, remembering to clip the kids’ nails—to them. It’s possible that these women married insensitive, hapless men. It’s also possible that they’re in relationships with men who love them deeply but aren’t aware of how they’re coming up short. Try stating, as clearly and evenly and with as much confidence as you can muster, exactly what you need from your partner, and see what happens. If you are a single parent, this exercise is about telling a friend or family member how they can make life a little more manageable, like taking the kids for a few hours on the weekend. It won’t make you less busy, but it will make you feel less alone.

4. Tell your boss you want to work from home

The next time you’re at work, look around. Are you sitting at a desk? Do you see three walls, pictures of your kids, and a computer screen? Congratulations! You should be able to work from home one day a week, maybe more. Studies show that about 50 percent of jobs are compatible with working from home at least part-time. Besides saving commute time, you may find the peace and quiet makes you more productive and saner. The benefits of telecommuting extend to your company, too, from boosting productivity and company morale to decreasing turnover. Check out the Telework Research Network’s interactive calculator, which will allow you to calculate the potential savings to your employer, at www.teleworkresearchnetwork.com.

5. Tell your HR manager about ROWE

Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) is a management strategy gaining traction in corporate America. Its purpose is to make the workplace more humane, not only for working parents but also for anyone who wants to have meaningful work and a meaningful life. ROWE goes beyond flexible scheduling, emphasizing employee results over traditional measures like the number of hours you work. Rather than costing money, companies find that these practices save money and boost productivity. Learn more at www.gorowe.com.

6. Start a Babies-at-Work program

After I left my job, the company started a formal “Babies at Work” program, and it was a big hit. According to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, the program costs almost nothing to implement and has been shown to increase employee retention, improve workplace morale, and lower health care costs. The Institute offers free assistance to parents who want to get their employers on board. More at www.parentingatwork.org.

7. Sign up for MomsRising

MomsRising is a leading advocacy organization for moms and the people who love them. With the help of more than a million members, they have lobbied for parental leave, flexible work, affordable child care, and other policies that improve the lives of families. I’m donating 10 percent of the proceeds of Maxed Out to MomsRising, because I believe they can make a significant impact on the issues I raise in the book. Sign up for the MomsRising newsletter at www.momsrising.org.

8. Register for an absentee ballot

Nothing changes in a democracy until people vote. Unfortunately, America has lower voter turnout rates than most European countries. If you’re one of those people who intends to vote but gets too busy on Election Day, sign up for an absentee ballot. Save a trip to the polls and do your voting after hours. Start here: www.canivote.org

9. Donate to EMILY ’s List

Half the population is women, yet we still hold about one-fifth of the positions in national government around the world. Moving more women into positions of power is an important step toward changing government policies to benefit women and families. Thanks in large part to groups like EMILY’s List, the U.S. election in 2012 ushered a record number of women into Congress. Keep that trend going by giving a donation here: www.emilyslist.org.

10. Change the conversation

Far too often, the discussion about whether or not women can “have it all” devolves into a discussion of personal choices. (You need to decide what’s important to you: a career or a child!) What gets left out of the conversation is that our choices are profoundly influenced by the cultural and institutional forces around us. Until we understand the real problem—that we lack the social and systemic supports that we need in order to realize our potential and share our talents with the world—we won’t ever be able to address it. Join the conversation about what’s wrong with the workplace and how to fix it here: www.workingmomsbreak.com

Katrina Alcorn is a writer and an experience design consultant. She holds a master's degree in journalism and documentary filmmaking from UC Berkeley, and is a regular blogger at WorkingMomsBreak.com and for The Huffington Post.

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