[WHO] Alice Morell, founder of The Mother Movement.
[WHAT] Empowering mothers, many unsupported at home and in the community.
[HOW] Projects including ‘Tough Mother’, which puts fathers in the shoes of mothers.
Motherhood might be the most natural thing imaginable but for many women mothering does not necessarily come naturally. That does not make such women poor mothers, it makes them people deserving of assistance. The demands on all mothers are manifold and can be overwhelming.
Mothering did not draw on many of my interests or skills, particularly initially. And I felt like I was a prisoner in my own home. I was lonely. I was quite bored.
Today's guest in The Zone is a mother who is engineering support for mothers through a grassroots organisation that is also helping fathers better understand just how much their partners have to manage and achieve.
Alice Morell, founder of The Mother Movement. Photo: Luis Ascui
Alice Morell, a former finance executive who left England for Australia to be with her now-husband and the father of her two children, founded The Mother Movement about a year ago.
''The Mother Movement aims to empower mothers to live a life they want. My job as the founder is really to focus in on the challenges that mothers face and to run projects to ease those challenges. What I am after is for The Mother Movement to be something that mothers can draw strength from. It is to be the voice of mothers, really.
''When I talk about strength, that can be strength to ask their partner to be more supportive in the home, or strength to go back to work in a way that works for the entire family, or strength to set up a system with their neighbour to look after each other's children … or, most importantly, to feel like they have the support and not the judgment of other mothers in whatever decision they make.''
A video statement by Morell and the transcript of our discussion can be found at theage.com.au/federal-politics/the-zone. She will be online for an hour from midday to respond to questions and comments, which can be submitted from this morning.
Morell is one of those women for whom mothering did not come naturally and she describes giving birth and being a mother as the hardest things she has ever done. She is now revelling in parenting her children, aged two and five, but found it particularly challenging when they were infants.
She had excelled as a banker, and had strong self-esteem, but was discombobulated by the enormity of the task of mothering, often described as the hardest job in the world.
She sat down and started to compile a job description for mothers. She was ''blown away'' by just how much was involved. When she finally finished three weeks later the description ran to more than 10 pages and included more hours of work than fit into four full-time paid roles.
Morell has transformed the job description into a template on her website so that mothers can adapt it to their particular circumstances. ''It was a pretty profound realisation about how much is involved.'' And it is, she finds, an enlightening way to respond to fathers who return home in the evening and ask their partners what they've been up to all day.
''When I became a mother I was completely and utterly overwhelmed with how much mothers are expected to do, and do willingly, but how little their contribution to our world is acknowledged and celebrated.
''And, specifically, how that lack of acknowledgement and celebration leaves mothers with very little strength, support and power to actually do what they want to do, whatever that is.
''I just found it really, really hard. Mothering did not draw on many of my interests or skills, particularly initially. And I felt like I was a prisoner in my own home. I was lonely. I was quite bored. And I didn't really fully connect with my baby early.''
She ended up connecting with other mothers, and The Mother Movement was born. She found the most common gripe of mothers is the fact that they receive a lack of support and acknowledgement from their partners.
Morell has come up with a practical way to engender in men the empathy and comprehension such mothers are seeking from the fathers of their children. Late last year, The Mother Movement piloted a program for men called Tough Mother.
This is how it works: The mother of the household leaves the family home on a Friday night and returns 48 hours later. During that time the men have to complete as many as 30 tasks so that they do not resort to pizza deliveries and DVDs.
As well as the baseline responsibilities of clothing and bathing, the men need to plan meals and then do the shopping and prepare the meals and then feed the children and clean up the kitchen.
They have to go to the toy shop and get a gift for someone else's child. They have to play with their children. They have to pretend to be a dinosaur. They have to go to a dance class.
And, fellas, after all that, you also need to be ready, willing and bloody well able for physical passion at 10 o'clock on the Sunday evening.
''It was really successful. It really did build empathy. The dads by the end of the weekend were absolutely knackered. And they usually had some really profound insights that they did not have before.
''And if you follow the whole thing through, if you have empathy, you can better communicate. In the long run it is the type of project that will actually keep families together, because it really builds that understanding.''
When she surveyed the men after the event, she found many of them had found it empowering, educative and fun - notions that come through resoundingly on a video made about the pilot program (see link below).
Morell is seeking corporate sponsorship to build Tough Mother into an annual event for tens of thousands of families throughout Australia and believes it will save many marriages.
The primary project of The Mother Movement is called Street Gangs, which draws on the concept that ''it takes a village to raise a child''. Street Gangs are neighbourhood networks of mothers who give each other practical support.
Morell found that many mothers feel not only overwhelmed but isolated. It is simple to set up a Street Gang. Facebook can be used but Morell says the most effective way is a letter-box drop. All you need to do is go to The Mother Movement's website and download and print out a flyer. Morell has found people have responded with gusto.
Through Street Gangs mothers pool their skills and support. ''In my Street Gang, my neighbour cooks for me and I help her with her business plan. I help another neighbour with her financial plan. My husband helps her husband. We look after each other's kids.''
With one of her neighbours, Morell has created a service for mothers wanting to relaunch their careers once their children have started school. Two of the mothers in her street alone have been able to return to work through relying on neighbours for childcare.
The cost and lack of availability of childcare is often cited as one of the greatest impediments to mothers rejoining the paid workforce.
''My friend lives in a street where the Street Gang splits the nights of the week between them and one mother cooks for everybody else one night a week. So each mother only cooks one night a week - you go around and get your food from the neighbour and take it back to your home all the other nights.''
Morell is also finding Street Gangs are hugely beneficial to children, too. Her children have developed a robust sense of community. They know and speak with all the adults who live in their street. They play with all the local children.
In one Street Gang there is a weekly ping-pong tournament; the ping-pong table is taken out into the street and everyone joins in.
Morell readily acknowledges there are many mothers who are profoundly content with their role. ''For them motherhood is something they have always wanted to do and they have found it exactly as they would like it to be.'' She finds that even for these women, though, The Mother Movement proves useful.
She stresses that a tenet of The Mother Movement is that it is not judgmental. Nor is it about parenting advice. It is about action and change.
''The world of mothering is, as we all know, full of people criticising and judging - and that is one of the hard things about being a mother, that feeling of being judged. It's impossible to do it all right. But we are all doing our best, so let's not make it harder by judging others … We're here to support each other because we can only be strong if we are united.''