Politicians and pundits may call 2012 the year of the woman, but it's really the year of the mom. Mothers aren't settling for catchy bumper stickers or vague promises in this presidential election. How do we know? With the help of an all-star moderator, Soledad O'Brien, anchor of CNN's Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien, Parents recently hosted a luncheon roundtable with 21 moms from across the political spectrum. We admit we were a little nervous when we saw a Barack Obama supporter sitting between a Mitt Romney backer and a Ron Paul fan, a social conservative next to a gay mom, and an environmentalist hoping the government will do more across from a pregnant mom of four who wants it to do less.
We heard dramatically different opinions about solutions, but there was a remarkable consensus about the problems facing families right now. Together, the women helped us hammer out a bipartisan mandate for the candidate who wins in November:
Our moms have spoken: These are the five issues they care most about?and expect the candidates to address before Election Day.
In this first of our three-part election series on moms' top priorities, we focus on two charged topics: education and the environment.
Education was on everyone's mind: Standards are low, schools never have enough money, and parents have too few choices. O'Brien, a mother of four, asked the group for a show of hands, and all the women agreed that schools aren't up to snuff. "American students are not necessarily being prepared for the world that they're entering," O'Brien said. "So how do we close the achievement gap? And what's the best way to raise those standards?"
Many of the moms with the strongest opinions work in schools and understand the struggles of both parents and teachers. "My concern is that the push toward pencil-and-paper tests, and then assessing teachers and students solely on those exams, doesn't focus on the whole student," said Allison Casal-Dunn, 30, Democrat, a special-ed teacher and mother of a 2-year-old.
Some moms were frustrated with education spending decisions. "I'm not against unions, but some of the salaries and pensions that teachers and administrators in the public sector earn aren't sustainable," said Jessica Grant, 34, Republican, mom of children ages 7, 4, and 21 months. "Wouldn't that money be put to better use by putting more teachers in the classroom?"
Alicia Harper, 28, a committed Obama voter and mom of a 4-year-old, attended struggling inner-city schools in Brooklyn and taught elementary school there for several years. "The achievement gap is so devastating that by the time they are 9 years old, children in low-income areas are already three or four grade levels behind their more privileged peers, and it gets wider with every school year," she said. "Now that my son is in pre-K, I can make sure he's got all the resources he needs. But for the kids who don't? It's tragic."
O'Brien summed up the scope of the challenge: "The reality is, school budgets are being cut; educators are being cut; music, even sports, are being cut. How do we figure out how to both increase those things that we see as valuable and at the same time balance a budget?"
Amy Julia Becker, 35, who defines herself as a moderate, has a 61/2-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, as well as a 4-year-old and a 20-month-old. Her older daughter received early intervention from the time she was born, sometimes with four in-home therapy visits per week, and now she's in a mainstream classroom. "Schools are set up to say, 'it costs x number of dollars per child,' but it costs a lot more to educate my daughter than it does to educate another child," she said. "We need to figure out what we want in our community. Do we want kids educated side by side? Do we want to send kids out of district? There are a lot of conversations we need to have."
Natalie Diaz, 35, Republican, a mother of 7-year-old twins, agreed. "One of my twins has special needs. His disabilities are not severe enough to put him into a specialized program, but he's not high-functioning enough to be in a gen-ed class with 35 students. So we opted for Catholic school, where he's in a class with only 22 other kids. Knock on wood, everything is turning out perfectly. But I feel the education system hasn't given me any options."
Even if it is expensive, moms agree that a quality education that prepares all children for the future should be a national priority. "When you hear individual stories of kids who fall through the cracks, it seems brutally unfair and makes you want to cry," said O'Brien. "This seems to be a middle- income problem today, and I feel like there's been a shift from when I was growing up. Being middle income doesn't guarantee that regular, perfectly fine public school anymore."
Our moms were also fed up with politicians' ineffective attempts to tackle environmental issues, including climate change and chemical reform. "I'd love to see the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 passed," said Anna Grossman, 40, Democrat, whose kids are 8 and 3. "We now have more than 100,000 chemicals on the market, and the EPA cannot assure us of the safety of those chemicals. Only 200 have been studied properly, and yet the others are produced in massive volumes. Once they have entered the environment, they don't go away. Cancer rates, birth defects, and fertility issues are all rising." She hopes the winner of the election will take a stronger position. "We need better regulation," added independent voter Jen Rabulan-Bertram, 36, mother of a 5-year-old and an 8-month-old. "Our children are getting sick and they need to be protected."
The environment was not a top priority for all the moms, including Suzanne Venker, 44, who describes herself as a conservative and has kids ages 12 and 9. She said, "There are just too many other more immediate and pressing issues to confront, like the disintegration of the American family."
And increasingly, our weak economy is pitting stricter regulation of pollutants against jobs, noted O'Brien: "Coal miners in West Virginia have told me, 'Environmentalists care more about saving a salamander than about my ability to feed my family.'"
"I don't pretend to know how that feels," admitted Grossman. "But I believe we have the right to breathe fresh air. And I believe we have the right to raise children who are safe from harmful chemicals."
After she moderated our election roundtable, the host of CNN's Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien sat down to answer a few of our questions. (First the mother of four checked for texts from her kids and babysitter. "Good," she said, smiling, as she put the phone down and poured a cup of tea. "Everybody still has their eyeballs. Now we can talk.")
Q. What surprises you about this group?
A. How diverse their voices are. People see themselves as hyphenated, a mixed combination of philosophies trying to fit into a label. They describe themselves as "left-leaning Republican" or "a Democrat thinking about Romney." But I was also struck by the degree to which I heard what I would call the meh vote. There was not a lot of love for either candidate.
Q. These women really wanted to talk about the economy. Why?
A. Everything is about funding. We live in a zero-sum game. Spending on one thing means less money for another. They want very practical solution-oriented information, like, "How will we get jobs?" And while the tenor of the room changed when we talked about social issues, even those topics related back to the economy. You can see the contradictions. The list of what people want is long and expensive. And yet it's driving a sense of frustration and a tone of anger, sometimes even hostility.
When people say, "Well, special education services are expensive," the next questions, for this group, are, "Expensive how? What do you give up? What do we believe? What is the cost of our values?" Today, we had moms in the room with kids with Down syndrome, talking about questions like, "Should parents have the right to abort? How do we calculate the cost of educating that child?" These are policy issues.
Q. One mom resents seeing loan forgiveness while she is paying off $300,000 in student loans. Another is frustrated that she keeps up with her mortgage while others have walked away. Are we seeing bailout fatigue?
A. For me, that's about, "Who is watching out for the middle class? We are the ones who have done everything right. We haven't done anything crazy. We picked out the homes we could actually afford. Who is paying attention to us?" I looked around the room and saw every head nodding. That crossed all boundaries.
Q. Several moms mentioned being aggravated that they couldn't get past the candidates' spin to get the information they need to make a decision. Do you think that means they are frustrated with you and others in the media too?
A. Not at all. I am a hopeful person. When I heard that, I took notes, and thought, "What a great opportunity." They were very clear in saying, "The media needs us to help navigate what is baloney and what is accurate." That was a wow moment for me. They don't want to hear us chatting about the issues. They want specifics. They want to hear things like, "There are four things wrong with this ad." So I feel like they're giving us marching orders. These people want a service!
Q. What do you see as the major differences between this election and 2008's?
A. People are hurting and scared. There is a tenor of divisiveness. That's why I think there is tremendous hope in all this hyphenization of identities. Congress may be very polarized, but the people who say things like, "I am a left-leaning GOP" are much more real. They have a better sense of themselves than the false categories we put them in. So in this election, they will be asking, "Which candidate is articulating for me?"
Q. The election is a huge story. How important will it be in your life in the next few months?
A. In many ways, it's not a big part of my life at all. I'm just like these women, and my life is about taking care of my kids, bringing them to school when I can, picking them up when I can. My oldest is 11 now, so I'm thinking about things like sending them to college. So not as a journalist but as an individual, I'd like to hear where the candidates stand. What are their values? Is what they are telling me consistent with the way they've actually behaved in the past? I identify with these women. We're all in the same boat. And as one of the moms said, we all put our families first.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.