BY SABINE SCHOENBACH When Beth Messersmith was a kid, she ran presidential campaigns for her dolls and created an imaginary United Nations that met on her family’s couch. This comes as no surprise if you’ve ever met Beth. Whether you’ve read Beth’s blog posts on MomsRising.org; heard her address thousands at Moral Mondays last summer; or participated in any of the many, creative events that NC MomsRising pulls off, you know that Beth believes that North Carolina moms and families deserve better and that policy changes can give us what we deserve.
In honor of Mother’s Day, we sat down with NC MomsRising Campaign Director – and recent Defenders of Justice award winner – Beth Messersmith to talk about motherhood, the origin of a mothers’ movement in North Carolina, and the importance of lifting up diverse voices.
Tell us about your family and your work — and the ways in which you balance a demanding job with family responsibilities.
I’m a mom of two amazing kids, I’m a partner to my best friend, and I’m an activist. My husband and I are both really close to our parents and we knew that when we had kids, our children would be at the center of our lives. I am so fortunate to be a stay-at-home/ work-from-home mom and to dedicate my days to my two great passions: my family and activism.
I became the first staff member of NC MomsRising a few years ago. It’s a dream job for me. MomsRising not only advocates for issues of work-family balance, but it’s an organization that walks the walk. It allows us to do good work while being good parents. I wish more workplaces, especially those that employ low-income women, would think through ways in which good workplace policies benefit us all.
You were an activist before you were a mother. How did motherhood change your perspective on activism?
I worked as a community organizer before I became a mom, and activism has been a part of my life for a long time. But activism became personal in a profound way when I became a mother.
Nine years ago, my son was born two and a half months prematurely. For many days, sitting next to my son’s little NICU incubator, I was the only visitor in the room. It wasn’t because other parents of preemies didn’t want to be there; it was because they didn’t have a choice.
Parents who were lucky enough to have maternity leave saved it for the doctors’ appointments when their babies came home. Other parents didn’t have any leave at all; there were moms who, a couple of days after a high-risk birth, had to go back to work because they had no other option. Many of the moms didn’t have health insurance, and some of them lived hours away with no transportation to even get to the hospital.
My experience helped me connect the dots in a deep, personal way. I knew these were not just individual problems. They are societal, structural issues that needed to be talked about and addressed.
Tell us about MomsRising and the birth of the North Carolina chapter.
MomsRising is a national online and on-the-ground organization – over one million strong – that works to build a nation in which families thrive and moms’ voices are heard.
I first read about MomsRising when it was featured in a magazine article on Mother’s Day in 2007. I immediately signed up online. I had been looking for a community of moms who were hungry for conversations about motherhood, economic security, and policies like paid leave, flexible work hours, and fair wages.
I emailed national MomsRising and asked them to connect me to folks in North Carolina, but they didn’t have the capacity at that point to facilitate those connections. I found out later that there were moms from all over the country emailing them with the same request.
So I started reaching out to moms I knew and we had conversations in our own living rooms. Soon, we connected with other moms at events, swapped emails, and we kept growing and growing.
Eventually, MomsRising decided to make us their first state chapter, and we are now a model for efforts in other states. It’s exciting! We have 28,0000 members across the state and members in every North Carolina county. We work on so many issues that affect families’ wellbeing in our state: public investment in public education and early childhood; toxics and healthy families; and work-family workplace policies.
You often talk about the importance of lifting up the voices of moms. Why is this so important here and now?
MomsRising creates a vehicle to lift up diverse families’ stories and provides them the chance to stand with others. It’s a way to connect across artificial lines and really talk about the universal experience of being a mother.
We’ve seen changes in our state government – massive cuts to education and the ongoing undermining of early learning. We’ve seen serious harms to environmental protections we need and policy decisions that hurt the unemployed and the middle class.
These are difficult times for many North Carolina families, and it’s really important that mothers’ voices and fathers’ voices are heard.
I don’t always feel optimistic. Sometimes I feel heartbroken. But I believe that the voices of mothers matter. And the voices of fathers matter. And that we can’t give up. Because it’s not just about my kids; it’s about all of our kids.