`Parent Power' Is on the Rise

Families are grasping the reins of their own lives as they press demands for social and economic change

FOR the past 18 months, lunch hour has taken on new meaning for a small band of parents at Genentech Inc., a biotechnology company. Twice a week, instead of heading for the cafeteria, groups of employees gather in a conference room for an unusual meeting - a company-sponsored discussion group called Parents at Work. On this spring Tuesday, six parents - five mothers and one father - arrive promptly at noon. After exchanging pleasantries, they draw their chairs into a circle and turn their attention to Patty Wipfler, the discussion leader.

``Let's begin by talking about what's been going well in your families this week,'' says Ms. Wipfler, director of the nonprofit Parents Leadership Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. A weekend trip to Arizona, a Gymboree class with a toddler, a young son who is ``just this blossom of creativity'' - the parents' accounts are brief and upbeat.

Then the mood turns serious. One by one, participants speak frankly, often emotionally, about the deeper issues they face in raising children and maintaining strong families.

One woman who is expecting her second child this month says tearfully, ``I'm having trouble focusing on things at work until the birth of my baby. I had a difficult delivery the first time, and I just want to get this baby here and have everything OK.''

Another mother tells the group, ``I'm trying to refigure a relationship with my mother-in-law. I'm really tired of sitting and listening to all the things that are wrong with my children.''

The group's lone father expresses concern about his preschooler's antisocial behavior.

A fourth employee, whose 18-month-old son stayed with her sister while she and her husband visited relatives in Europe, says, ``I keep thinking I'm a really bad parent for leaving him. People can call me a bad mother if they want, but I know better.''

Another mother's voice breaks as she says, ``Trying to keep up with all my responsibilities is hard. I don't feel that I'm the best mother and the best employee and the best wife. You set these expectations for yourself, and the anxieties build up.''

But as each participant talks, and as Wipfler offers gentle support, at least some of those anxieties appear to fade. By the time the hour-long session ends, smiles have replaced tears and the challenges of parenthood seem less daunting, at least for now.

As Rita Malden, Genentech's benefits administrator, explains, ``It's an effective program in reducing the stress of juggling work and family life.''

Although programs like this are still rare, they signal a growing realization on the part of corporations and other institutions that, as Wipfler puts it, ``We need to nurture parents so they can then nurture children. Many parents feel all alone - that there's nobody to talk to. They're trying to do a big job. They care a lot, but sometimes they just don't know what to do.''

Helping parents ``know what to do'' is a collective effort extending beyond corporate offices to private and philanthropic organizations. Here in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Foundation recently convened a group of 20 people to consider the development of community-based and school-based family support programs.

``Rather than working from the viewpoint that families and parents have real deficits that professionals are going to fill, it is more of an empowerment approach,'' says the foundation's Sylvia Yee. ``It involves seeing families as real partners rather than as clients.''

Partners. Again and again, that word runs as a theme through conversations with professionals and parents alike, seeming to signal a new philosophy in helping parents across the country. It is also the approach taken by California Family Action, a fledgling advocacy group that seeks to create a statewide movement to improve family life. Funded by foundations, it operates through county chapters and several city chapters.

``We believe change is going to have to come from the grass roots,'' says Judy Pope, executive director. ``We're educating public policymakers about the needs of the changing family, and empowering all kinds of families throughout the state to rise up and say, `We're doing the best we can, we're doing the most important work. We need help.'''

Yet getting parents to ``rise up'' and send that SOS can be difficult, Wipfler concedes. First, she says, ``These are people who feel they couldn't possibly do one more thing.'' She blames the ``poverty of time - so many parents have no discretionary time. That is a rare commodity.''

Then there is a second hurdle. As a group, parents are still at what she describes as a ``pre-political stage - they haven't yet begun to understand that they have rights. Parents' expectations are so low.'' In addition, any parents' movement ``has got to involve working-class people as well as middle-class. We won't get very far if we don't.

``Parents are a group of people aching for change,'' Wipfler continues. ``But their key national leadership hasn't emerged. We haven't had a Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus.''

Even without any such galvanizing incident, leaders of a new nationwide organization, Parent Action, plan to launch a national public awareness campaign later this year directed at ``politicizing America's parents and increasing their awareness of the benefits of collective action,'' says Marijean Hall, the group's president.

Describing Parent Action as a broad-based membership organization similar to the American Association of Retired Persons, Ms. Hall says, ``We want to teach parents that they have external roles and responsibilities in addition to a private one. We want them to know that they can change things for the better.''

She notes that many organizations are very good at dealing with at-risk families. By contrast, she says, ``Ours is really directed at maintaining the structure of the family so it doesn't become at risk. We also recognize the realities of today - working parents, and the need not to diminish the growth of women over the last 20 years. We have to be able to blend the growth of women and the women's movement into a new family movement, rather than moving backward in time.''

Hall adds, ``I don't think parents are ready to march. They may never be. What they are ready to do is to become involved in a very personal way.''

In addition to dealing with workplace issues, one of the group's expected goals will be reforming the tax system to benefit families. ``The value of the personal exemption has eroded over the past 20 years,'' Hall says.

David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, notes that taxpayers can now deduct $2,000 for each dependent. ``If that amount were the equivalent of what President Truman instituted in the 1940s, today it would be worth $6,000 or $7,000 in inflated terms,'' he says. ``Someone with two children could get it up to $15,000. This would give parents a much greater option to not work every last hour earning money for their family - they could spend more time at home.''

Even without the support of advocacy organizations, parents themselves are suggesting ways to bring about legislative and social changes. ``If politicians received at least a million or 2 million letters about day care and health care, something would be done,'' says Lenette Nierman of Chicago, the mother of a four-month-old son.

Beyond getting a handle on the practical problems of family life, serious parents are trying to take a greater responsibility for the values affecting their children. This means, among other matters, resisting the influence of what Phyllis Nickel of Evanston, Ill., the mother of two children in middle school, calls ``the broader cultural milieu - MTV, rap music, the stuff parents have very little control over.

``These things have a life of their own,'' she adds. ``All of a sudden you wake up and say, `How did we get here?' This stuff is just rolling over you and taking over.''

In an effort to regain a sense of their own authority and protect their children from what has become a surrounding climate of violent entertainment and aggressive consumerism, parents are devising small strategies and achieving small victories. Although they recognize that ``You can't turn the TV off at other people's houses,'' as one father puts it, the switch can be thrown in their own homes.

To control the time their son spends watching television, Karen Ami of Chicago says: ``We pulled the TV out of the family room and put it in our bedroom. We put music in the family room. Now when we watch TV, it's a family thing, even if it's Sesame Street. We're reading more. When the boob tube is on, the brain is off.''

Reading is also a goal at the Chicago home of Mary Suma, a mother of four. ``We have so many wonderful books, but they were sitting there like statues on the shelf,'' says Mrs. Suma. ``We decided that at 8:15 every evening, for 45 minutes, everyone in the family would read. At first there was a lot of balking, but now it's working well.''

Other problems require a collective approach. Mrs. Suma's two oldest children attend a private school. During a parents' meeting, she says, the group discovered that there will be 34 bar mitzvahs this year among 7th-grade students. ``These involve big gifts. They're almost like weddings.'' The parents, says Suma, want to scale down the festivities in order to emphasize their religious meaning. As one step, she adds, ``The parents are talking to rabbis to bring back spirituality.''

Parents of all denominations are concerned that religion is not the influence on family life it once was. ``I think the churches could help a little more,'' says Richard Porraz, a father of three in Watsonville, Calif. As a beginning, he would like to see more church-based social activities for families and children.

Other parents feel sustained by working-parent support groups, baby-sitting co-ops, and drop-in community centers for parents. Speaking of the companionship she finds at the Family Focus center in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, Karen Ami says, ``It's very relaxed. You feel like you are part of this world community of moms. You're not alone.''

Deborah Granite of Chicago, the mother of a two-year-old son, speaks for a consensus when she says, ``Parents need time to get involved in schools. Jobs need to provide sabbaticals. Fathers and mothers need a certain number of personal and parental leave days.''

A new term, ``public familism,'' expresses the determination to make all public and private institutions more responsive to the needs of parents and children. At the same time, parents know that public familism can never substitute for their own day-to-day efforts. The American family is perceived finally as a private enterprise whose members alone can define the limits as well as the dreams.

``Parents have to have the courage not to knuckle under,'' says Annette Meade of Chicago, the mother of a 20-month-old son. ``They need to say, `This is all I have to give right now.''' Using the workplace as one example, she adds, ``The emphasis has to be on the quality of work rather than the hours.''

Summing up the interplay between the family and the community, Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development at Yale University, comes back to that very '90s word, ``partnership.'' ``Parents ought to be very involved with their child-care workers, and more involved with education,'' he says.

But, Dr. Zigler adds, ``The senior partners are parents. The message has got to be constant that only families raise children. Child care doesn't raise children. Head Start doesn't raise children. If we want children raised properly, it's got to be parents.''

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