Nobody really declared war on moms in America, it only feels like it. No one knows this better than the people Sharon Lerner interviews in her first book, The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation.
If you’re a mother in the U.S., you know it well. Too-short maternity leaves, paid only after cobbling together sick time, vacation time and the few weeks that only the most generous of employers bestows on its most valuable workers. Expensive childcare and preschools that you clawed at a waiting list to get into. Higher health insurance premiums. A no-win choice of 40+ hours or no work at all.
This is modern life as a middle-class (and working-class and upper-class) parent in the U.S., falling especially hard on mothers. What’s funny is that Americans were once so close to having government subsidized childcare for all (passed by Congress! Vetoed by Nixon!). We were once this-close to having maternity insurance, which would have covered lost wages during time off after a birth, at the turn of the century the last century!
Mothers have already hit rock bottom and things, believe it or not, are looking up. Lerner explains how in an interview with Strollerderby.
MH: What’s really striking about your book is that it seems to be the first book that takes seriously the idea that there are moms who didn’t attend Ivy League schools and aren’t on the track for being CEOs and partners in law firms. What made you see it from this perspective?
SL: If people with huge incomes are falling apart, what about everybody else? Because admittedly, it’s very interesting and we’d love to see ourselves that way, as if we have lots of options.
MH: Linda Hirshman’s Get Back to Work, bloggers, essayists and writers everywhere have spent the past seven years sort of admonishing women who left careers for their kids. I’m one of them, but it’s not as if I opted out; I didn’t have a whole lot of choice, considering the cost of childcare, the logistics and the fact that when I returned from maternity leave, I really didn’t get to spend enough time with my baby. I was a first-time mom!
SL: There is so much castigation going on, “You should do this! You shouldn’t do this!” … as if there are so many options. The point isn’t the individual decisions that individuals make, but the context in which we make them. We don’t have a whole bunch of choices. Anybody’s choice is made under real constraints — those are the problems, not the choice they wind up making.
MH: Maternity leave is really screwed up in the U.S. What is the reality of maternity leave?
SL: We don’t have paid leave. Our unpaid leave only applies to half the private sector workforce and many of those people can’t take it because they can’t afford to take it. And yet, this situation makes us an outlier in the world. We’re the only industrialized nation without paid leave. And we are one of the tiny handful of countries that don’t have it. And still there’s all this resistance. I just got done with this radio interviewer, a male interviewer, who said something like, “my wife stayed home and that’s a good model.” People are very defensive about our model, which in the international context is really nothing. Because we don’t have paid leave and because so many people can’t afford unpaid leave, we have the majority of working women going back to work before 12 weeks. They’re going back five weeks and four weeks and three weeks — sometimes days after giving birth. How are they doing that? Days after birth, you’re not sitting up, you’re nursing all the time, you’re not smiling.
I think we’re just used to the way it is in our country. We’re sort of nose to the grindstone just enduring in a way that doesn’t allow us to pick our heads up and look around and say “wow, it doesn’t have to be this way.”
MH: We also get push-back on paid leave with “personal responsibility” rhetoric. If you can’t afford time off from work, don’t have kids, that kind of thing.
SL: That’s what this interviewer was saying to me. “We figured out how to do it, so what’s wrong with that model?” Of course the answer is, not everyone can afford to to it. Of course, having paid leave as an option doesn’t mean you have to take it. It’s really about, if you want to do this and you can’t find another way to do it, then you’ll be able to do it.
MH: Do we just hate moms in the U.S. that we’re so comfortable with this?
SL: No, no we don’t hate moms. I think we’re in denial about the reality of life for a lot of people. On some level, we’re not acknowledging how tough it is for some people. If we did, there’s no way we could go on in good conscience. We’re all so inured to it. We can’t imagine that it could be different. But it can, we can. I’ve seen it in other places. The way it is right now is like holding a mirror to our own lives. It doesn’t jibe with our notion of a family-friendly nation.
MH: Toward the end of the book, you lay this at the feet of feminists.
SL: Oh, oh, let me clarify. We were discriminated against in such fundamental ways that feminists had to focus on what was directly in front of them. Getting into the workforce, ability to retain own last night, ability to own property in their names, not be raped by their husbands, get divorced. We were getting out of a pit. But we were so focused on that there wasn’t really time — you couldn’t really say, “Oh and by the way, you need to accommodate our care-taking responsibilities.” Now, ideally, these shouldn’t be women’s care-taking responsibilities, it should be split. But the reality is women are the primary caregivers most often. Men who take on the work of primary care-taking, they’re going to hit the same obstacles.
MH: What would it look like, knowing the U.S. like you do?
SL: People like to trot out Sweden as the example. They get 18 months off, paid. After that, they’re entitled to work part-time until that child is 8. They also have a month of use-it-or-lose-it time, which is for fathers. The 18 months can be split between men and women. That other month can’t be split; if the father doesn’t take it it goes away. That’s one end of the spectrum. We’re on the other. There’s so much in between.
The reality is when children are little, there’s often a need for reduced hours and flexibility. I know better than to think we’re going to wind up with 18 months paid. But zero time paid? There’s a huge sea between us and Sweden and we just need to start swimming that way.
MH: What do you think we could tolerate here? We barely got healthcare passed.
SL: I think some people think of my book as depressing. But I’d like to talk about it as inspiring. Healthcare bill was a huge deal — big for moms. We just need to keep going. I think as these things get in place — as healthcare becomes the law of the land and it’s put into action — I think people are going to appreciate it and it’s only going to help.
The truth is, things like childcare — when you get these policies out in front of people, the public overwhelmingly supports it. The battle is just overcoming the rhetoric. Like the 1971 Comprehensive Child Care Act. Both houses passed it.
MH: That was an incredible story you included in your book. We were so close to universal childcare! In the 70s!
SL: It had the support of the general public. That’s the kind of thing that did pass in other countries. You get to the end when I talk about paid leave. We had this incredible momentum … in 1919! I just feel like it’s a matter of time — an incredibly long time — but I think we’re headed in that direction. It’s about getting fired up again and realizing that it’s possible. Women are already at their limit. Our workforce numbers are very high, relative to men. Women just can’t do it all and we can’t keep progressing and not supporting the work of care-taking. Women can’t keep doing what they’re doing without some help.