Forget about the "mommy wars," in which stay-at-home mothers were supposedly locking horns with their working sisters, at least in popular perception.
What's really happening with American mothers of all stripes - from full-time homemakers to full-fledged workaholics, all income levels, all racial backgrounds - is worry about popular culture, and what feels like a tsunami of forces threatening parents' ability to impart positive values to their children, according to a new survey of more than 2,000 mothers. Moms report a cultural onslaught that goes far beyond Hollywood movies and TV, and into the world of the Internet, electronic games, and advertising.
"We heard mothers talking about the kind of hypersexuality that's out there, about violence and disrespect, about body image, all the things that are not exactly news, but cutting across a huge and diverse sample of mothers," says Martha Farrell Erickson of the University of Minnesota, lead researcher on the study, released by the Institute for American Values in New York. "What they would really like to see is mothers and fathers joining forces more effectively to take on some of these issues."
Politics did not come up naturally in these mothers' group conversations; they see the solutions more through the avenue of personal and community action, rather than dumping these problems on the doorstep of government. But there is a stark political fact that strategists from both parties are keenly aware of, and which could telegraph a major theme in the next presidential race: the "married parent gap."
In the 2004 race, President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry by a whopping 19 percentage points - 59 percent to 40 percent - among married voters with children under age 18. Among married mothers of minors, the difference was somewhat smaller, 14 points (56 percent to 42 percent). But it is a gap that Republicans are working hard to keep, and Democrats to erase. It wasn't too long ago that Democrats were winning the married parent vote: In 1996, Bill Clinton narrowly won that demographic.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, an expert on social and cultural issues and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, points to the famous "moral values" question on the 2004 exit poll as a telling indicator of what married parents are feeling. Among those voters, 27 percent chose "moral values" as their top voting concern, compared with 20 percent of the electorate at large. And it is not that married parents identify overwhelmingly as religious conservatives, Ms. Whitehead notes. In the exit poll, 45 percent self-identified as moderates and 16 percent as liberals.
The problem for Democrats is not a lack of policy prescriptions, say party activists, but rather a strong cultural message, repeated over and over. "It's vital for parents to hear [from Democrats] that we know you want to be able to teach your kids good values, and very often you don't think we're on your side," says Whitehead.
If conservatives have cornered the market on the use of the word "values" - another point that Democrats plan to fight - they also say their electoral success with parents goes strongly to the issue of security, especially post-9/11. "A lot of winning the parent vote had to do with the war on terror," says Carrie Lukas, director of policy for the conservative Independent Women's Forum.
When directly focused on parenting issues, mothers in both Chicago and Nashville, Tenn., interviewed by the Monitor agree that it's hard to shield children from inappropriate influences. And they agree, no matter whom they voted for, that kids need a firm parental hand limiting the amount and types of media they consume.
"It's not even just TV," says Erika Waller of Brentwood, Tenn., a full-time mom with four kids ages eight and under. "It's computers and everything."
A mom can protect her children at home, but it's hard once they venture into the world, to go to school or visit a friend's house, says Ms. Waller. Even her two-year-old picks up bad language easily, she says.
Waller uses a parental blocker on the television and keeps close watch when the children surf the Web. She frets most over the TV, where indecency and bad language are the worst, she says: "TV is the hardest. There are no limits anymore."
Diane Snider of Franklin, Tenn., a full-time mother with two young children still at home, says that even though there was a lot of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" when she was growing up, it's different today.
"It's probably more intense now," she says.
She says she and her husband work hard to be good role models. They monitor what their kids watch on TV and teach them to be wary of strangers. "It's doing the right things, as opposed to saying them," she says.
She describes herself as a "liberal Republican" and voted for Bush in November, in part because she feels he can promote a better place for her kids to grow up in. He promotes a cleaner culture without stifling individual rights, she says.
"I didn't really think that I trusted [Kerry]," she says. "[Bush] has God, religion."
In Chicago, the mothers interviewed all favored the rating systems in place for video games, websites, and some TV shows; two said they would like to see more government intervention in terms of rating more television shows for violence, banning violent video games, and not allowing violent TV shows and commercials early in the evening.
Sara Gooding-Williams lives in Evanston, Ill., and has a 17-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son.
"I limit their television; my son doesn't really know about commercial television," she says. "He watches public TV and we'll occasionally buy or rent him a 'Sesame Street' DVD.... My daughter didn't watch much television until she started seeing stuff at friends' houses, which is what's starting to happen to my son."
She wishes there were a way to have a TV control system that would automatically shut out certain shows, the way she was able to block her daughter's access to certain websites when she was younger.
Teresa Sommer is the mother of three children, also in Evanston. "The primary thing is to lead by example, which both my husband and I try to do," she says. "We try to take advantage of teaching moments that are available, to be reflective about those moments, and let the kids think about those questions."
Amy Green in Nashville, Tenn., and Anne Stein in Chicago contributed to this report. [Editor's note: The original version failed to mention the contributors.]