The Odds Against Mothers

It’s not often that a diaper sitting in the middle of a breakfast table would be warmly received.

But at a fundraising breakfast held last month in Northampton by the advocacy and support group MotherWoman, the diapers (which were clean, and eco-friendly cloth to boot) served as clever centerpieces, filled with, as MotherWoman director Beth Spong told attendees, “things that need changing.”

Tucked into each diaper were rolls of toilet paper printed with a range of real stinkers: the lack of guaranteed paid sick leave for workers; post-partum depression rates that average as high as 10 to 20 percent of women (and 40 to 50 percent of low-income women); the maddening “myth of the perfect mother.”

Breakfast organizers could have just filled the diapers with pages from The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation (John Wiley and Sons), a new book by journalist Sharon Lerner, who spoke about her work at the MotherWoman breakfast. In the book, Lerner offers a persuasive blend of damning statistical evidence and heartrending personal stories that make it clear that, for all our society’s romanticized reverence of “the family,” when it comes to providing real support to real families, we are failing miserably, thanks to a messy mix of political ideology, policy shortcomings and personal demons that leave many parents caught in a web of guilt and self-blame.

But the real enemy, Lerner maintains, lies without. “To say there is a sinister plot against American women is both overblown and exactly right,” she asserts. Perhaps there is no literal, mortar-shells-and-land-mines war against moms, she writes. “But if some sinister think tank had spent the last 30 years cooking up the ideal way to make American women miserable, it likely couldn’t have served up more unpleasantness than women now encounter on a daily basis.”

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Lerner—a former Village Voice staffer who writes regularly for The Nation—is banking on her readers’ recognizing the “unpleasantness” she’s talking about. For many, it begins with the vain pursuit of the mythic “work-life balance” that slick lifestyle magazines urge us to attain, that just-right mix of financial security, professional fulfillment and the time and energy for a full, rich family life.

If you’ve yet to strike that balance, don’t feel bad; for all our obsession with the concept, Lerner writes, it remains “a rare privilege,” available only to the most privileged of families in the U.S.

“Perhaps you yourself work so hard, you don’t have enough time for your family, let alone for yourself,” Lerner writes. “On the other hand, you might have ample time with your children but feel edged out of professional life, unable to earn money—or enough of it to avoid sinking into a financial hole. Or maybe you work hard and still find yourself barely getting by. Any of these scenarios is common.”

Struggling families might be a common story in our society, but that doesn’t make the stories told in The War on Moms any less affecting. Lerner spent several years researching the book, traveling around the country interviewing families about the challenges they face. (The book, Lerner told me at the MotherWoman breakfast, took longer to write than she originally expected because she had two kids of her own while doing the work.)

On her travels, Lerner met working families driven to financial ruin by medical bills; moms (and dads) threatened with firing if they tried to take a leave to care for their kids; parents scrambling to patch together daycare (in many cases, pricey, substandard care) for their kids so they can earn a living; women seething with resentment because, after clocking a full day at work, they come home to handle the majority of the housework and childcare. She writes of new moms tearing themselves away from weeks-old infants because they don’t have maternity leave, of couples who rarely see each other because they work split shifts to save on childcare costs, of single moms living in poverty who technically qualify for support services like subsidized childcare but can’t actually access them, thanks to an overburdened system and miles-long waiting lists.

While stories like these will have a familiar ring for many American families, there’s still a cultural resistance to acknowledging the larger patterns, and the forces at work that create these patterns. That resistance, Lerner suggests, can be traced back to the very American ideal of the rugged individualist, the belief that we alone are individually responsible for our own successes and our own hardships. Add to that a healthy dose of requisite maternal guilt, and it’s easy to see why struggling moms revert to a belief that their problems are the result of their own poor choices.

Even, that is, when their choices are legally limited. Lerner’s travels took her to Mississippi, the poorest state in nation, where strict laws limit access to abortions. “Unfortunately, Mississippi’s apparent concern for unborn babies doesn’t translate into concern for already existing children,” Lerner notes dryly; the state spends comparatively little on support for poor families, such as food stamps and subsidized childcare, and has the highest infant mortality rate, and the second-highest child poverty rate, in the country.

The myth of the “supermom,” Lerner writes, “lives on by hooking into women’s self-doubt, keeping them from looking outward while they desperately scramble to find the time to do everything.” Never mind, she adds, that the “supermoms” offered up by the media rarely live up to the hype. Take Sarah Palin, whose ability to “have it all”—Lerner writes that the erstwhile vice presidential candidate “appealed as a potential Juggler in Chief,” able to govern while raising five kids—has a lot more to do with her big paycheck and paid household staff than any innate superpowers.

Then there are the so-called “mommy wars,” a media-fueled faceoff between “working” and “stay-at-home” moms that might make good talk show fodder but that ultimately has little relevance for the many moms whose families simply can’t function without two paychecks (or, in the case of single moms, without their sole income).

The challenge, then, is to get women to lift their bent and burdened heads long enough to see the bigger picture, to notice all the other families struggling like theirs and recognize the forces that are keeping things that way.

“Our true adversaries are not within ourselves or our ranks,” Lerner writes. “They are the many forces in business and government that elevate profit and sometimes political ideology above human needs.”

Three-plus waves into the women’s movement, those are the forces that are winning. Over the last few decades, women may have entered the workforce in record numbers; broken into some, but not all, male-dominated fields; achieved a level of political visibility never seen before.

But look closer, Lerner says, and you’ll see that many of these women are struggling in low-paying, family-unfriendly jobs. In fact, she notes, data shows that after years on the upswing, women are now flat-lining, or falling, by many measures of professional and economic advancement: in political representation, in workforce participation, in wages earned. (Indeed, the day before the MotherWoman breakfast, a Republican filibuster in the Senate managed to kill the Paycheck Fairness Act, an Obama administration-supported bill that would have addressed gender-based salary inequities. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, women, on average, earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and the gap is higher for women of color.)

“The sad fact is that the simple presence of women in the paid workforce hasn’t meant equal pay, significantly higher earnings, or anything close to an even gendered split of the real power of our country,” Lerner writes. “Equality has most definitely not dawned.”

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So what would a truly family-friendly system look like?

To start, it would guarantee new moms (and even dads) paid leave after the birth of a child. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t grant new moms the right to paid time off, Lerner reports. Instead, we make do with the Family and Medical Leave Act, which offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave—a “benefit” many families simply can’t afford to take. And, indeed, only about half of American workers even qualify for FMLA, thanks to exemptions for small businesses and other restrictions.

A family-friendly culture would also be more open to part-time and flexible work schedules—something, according to polls, that many workers are eager to have, but many employers don’t offer—to ease some of the tension between work and family obligations. And it would mandate high-quality, affordable childcare so that parents don’t have to work all day for a paycheck that’s largely eaten up by daycare costs—and still worry about the quality of the care their kids are receiving.

Some American workers already do enjoy these kinds of benefits, Lerner notes—with the emphasis on “some.” Research shows that professional “elites” are much more likely to receive family-friendly perks, like flexible schedules or longer maternity leaves, than working-class people. A lawyer with expertise in a valued specialty, it seems, has more leverage when it comes to persuading her boss to let her work from home a few days a week; a Wal-Mart cashier, who can be easily replaced, doesn’t have the same bargaining chips.

Indeed, ironically, the more financial resources a worker has, the more likely she is to enjoy a range of better benefits, Lerner adds. Statistics shows that the higher your income, the more vacation and sick days you’re likely to have. (Whether your workplace culture is the kind that frowns on your taking those days off, or opting for a flex schedule, is another matter.)

White-collar jobs are also more likely to provide employer-sponsored childcare support—although Lerner writes, only a “ridiculously low” 7 percent of white-collar workers get this benefit. For blue-collar workers, it’s just 2 percent.

And again, it’s the poorest families who struggle the most to pay for childcare; according to 2006 federal Census figures, Lerner notes, the average American family spends 6.6 percent of its income for childcare; for families living below the poverty line, that figure climbs to a staggering 25 percent. (According to a 2000 report by the Center for Law and Policy, while 15 million kids qualified for government childcare assistance, only one in seven received it.)

And just because a family spends a large chunk of its income on childcare doesn’t mean the childcare is good. Our “marketplace” approach to daycare, Lerner writes, has resulted in an uneven, inadequate system where, according to a 2000 federal government report, 53 percent of childcare was found to be only “fair” in quality, with 8 percent deemed “poor.”

There are no federal standards for childcare, and while individual states do have regulations, lack of funding means they often go unmonitored and unenforced, Lerner writes. And even if they were enforced, some of the standards are just plain lousy; in her research, Lerner visited daycare centers in Florida, where the law requires only one adult caregiver for as many as 11 two-year-olds, or 20 four-year-olds.

“It’s hard to imagine any adult keeping up with the diaper changing for eleven two-year-olds, let alone providing ‘quality child care to enhance the development, including language, cognitive, motor, social, and self-help skills of children,’ which is how Florida law describes the purpose of its child-care subsidies,” Lerner writes.

It’s also hard to imagine adults willing, or able, to do that work for the low pay offered daycare workers: full-time childcare workers in Florida make, on average, $15,500 a year. It doesn’t help that state childcare subsidies for low-income kids are so low; in Dade County, for instance, the state kicks in just $1.85 an hour per toddler, and $2.12 per infant, Lerner reports. Not exactly a serious investment in those kids’ futures.

“The lack of decent, affordable childcare in the United States makes it hard for any working mother to feel good about her situation, whether she’s employed because of a desire for personal fulfillment, out of economic need, or some mix of the two,” Lerner writes. “Without reasonable child-care options, women often feel like the fault is theirs, that they have erred by choosing bad providers, by managing their time poorly, or by simply working at all. This is yet another case of a public policy program masquerading as a personal failing. And, again, it hurts not just mothers, but their children, too.”

If the U.S. were truly committed to improving the lot of its families, it wouldn’t have to work too hard to design a new approach. There are plenty of nations around the world that offer alternative models.

Let’s start with the 177 countries that, unlike the U.S., guarantee paid maternity leave. (“When you hear about paid leave, you think, ‘Oh, those Swedish people,'” Lerner joked at the MotherWoman event, referring to Scandinavia’s reputation as a workers’ paradise. But in fact, she noted, on this issue, the U.S. falls behind even some of the poorest nations, including Cambodia and Haiti.)

The War on Moms is filled with examples of family-friendlier government policies around the world, from Europe to Africa to South America. In Holland, healthcare is universal, regardless of employment, and the law supports part-time work schedules. In Argentina, new moms get three months of fully paid maternity leave and are reimbursed for their childcare costs until their kids are five. In the Czech Republic, parents can opt for a year of leave at higher pay or three years of leave at a lower rate. In France, the government pays for post-partum doulas to help new parents with housework.

In comparison to these models, the U.S. approach—a haphazard, deeply unfair system that provides benefits to some families but not others; that fails to adequately fund many of the programs it supposedly guarantees the poorest families; that’s heavy on political posturing but light on substantive support—looks nothing short of inhumane.

Given this lack of real support, Lerner told her Northampton audience, she wasn’t surprised, in her reporting, to see so many moms struggling so hard. “What I was surprised by was how many women felt personally responsible for their struggles,” she said.

Lerner first became aware of MotherWoman when she appeared with founder Annette Cycon on a WMUA talk show, hosted by Leo Maley, to promote her book. “MotherWoman is doing what I think is exactly what needs to be done”—supporting individual women and working for larger policy changes, Lerner said at the breakfast.

After all, she said, the individual struggles so many families face are not the result of individual decisions. “They’re the result of decisions we’ve made as a country, and I think that’s how we’ll solve them, too.”

Author: Maureen Turner

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