Monday, May 11, 2015

America’s lack of respect for mothers

This is going around on Facebook: John Oliver on Last Week Tonight excoriates American companies who promote shallow materialism for Mother’s Day but work against policies that would extend paid maternity leave.  (Note: I’m not embedding the video because while a few cuss words are bleeped out, there are a handful of elements that you might not want to watch with younger children in the room.)

I realize that for many culture-warrior types, paid family/maternity leave is something the “other side” cares about.  After all, don’t traditional women stay at home with their own children, at least until the youngest child is school-aged (and way beyond that if you also homeschool)?  So why should we care about policies like paid family leave?

One reason we should care is that many women end up working outside the home whether they want to or not.  Even if they really do want to stay at home to raise their children, they’re not always able financially to do so.  We’ve based so much of our economy on the two-income family for so long that younger women may find themselves choosing not between being a SAHM or working, but between working and being able to qualify to buy a house (and good luck raising multiple children in an apartment or rental home these days), or even between working and being able to put food on the table.  And that’s before we consider that a married couple in their middle or late twenties who have both graduated from college may owe as much as $66,000 in combined student loan debt, and they may still have five to eight years of their ten-year repayment period left before that debt will be gone.  Corporate America is trying to talk young women into undergoing IVF treatment and freezing their eggs during this time period so they’ll be able to have kids later, but we Catholics have obvious problems with this; helping two-income families with things like maternity leave is obviously better than promoting a culture of putting off one’s family altogether for the convenience of one’s employer.

Another reason we should care is that like most things, America’s lack of paid family leave hurts poor families the most.  While a woman of higher income may be able to take as much unpaid leave as she wants, up to the full twelve weeks, or even to decide to stay at home with her child longer than that, John Oliver’s video features women who had no such choice, including a woman who had to go back to work a month after her child was born because she couldn’t afford to stay home longer than that and a woman who had to leave her premature infant in the hospital and return to work less than a week after giving birth so she could save her leave time for when the baby came home.  This is absolutely wrong; no mother should have to make such choices.

And that leads to yet another reason we should support greater family leave: the lack of decent paid maternity leave in America as compared to most other nations is just the flip side of the disrespect all mothers get here.  America pays a lot of lip service to the ideals of motherhood, but when it comes right down to it, the attitude on display is that children are an optional lifestyle accessory, a luxury for those who want them, and that any notion that it is in society’s best interests to see to it that children are well cared-for is sort of like insisting on tax breaks for pet owners or government subsidies for stamp collectors.

Go to any place where these issues are being discussed, and soon you will see commenters (many, if not most of them, male) insisting that it is a woman’s choice to be a mother, and that if she wants a kid that’s nice for her, but she shouldn’t expect her co-workers to pick up her slack so she can take time off.  When pressed about this attitude, most such commenters will insist that helping women by giving them maternity leave just punishes all the male employees as well as the women who are “smart enough” not to have children.  The attitude that motherhood is something that lesser women do, that it’s just “breeding,” that it’s not at all essential to society or good for anyone other than the woman who wants it is far too prevalent these days, and it is an attitude that is growing.

There was a time in America when we realized that motherhood was a vocation, and a highly sacrificial one.  There was a time in America when we realized that our society would come to an end if every woman decided she’d rather have a lucrative corporate career than children.  There was a time in America when the biggest defenders of mothers and motherhood were fathers, men who understood and appreciated the sacrifices their wives made to see to the well-being of their children.

These days, far too many men act as though fatherhood is for fools and a woman wanting a child is sort of like a woman wanting a diamond necklace: fine, provided she’s willing to do all the work required to  pay for it.  Standing up for motherhood, and standing in solidarity with our sisters who work outside the home when it is necessary (as it often is these days), is a good way to fight back against that attitude.

Of course, when we manage to get a decent paid maternity leave policy passed at the national level, the next battle will be to reward stay-at-home-moms too with tax breaks and other incentives that show that we do, as a nation, recognize how important it is to the well-being of children and families for mothers to stay at home and raise their own children at least until they are old enough for school whenever this is possible; but that’s a blog post for another day.


JoAnna Wahlund said...

Yes, absolutely! I'm one of those "reluctantly working" moms; my husband and I have run the numbers time and again, but the long and short of it is that it's worth it for me to work, even after the cost of paying daycare (we have 5 kids on earth and 1 on the way).

There are also women who want to grow their families but for whom unpaid maternity leave is simply too cost prohibitive - especially families where the mother is the breadwinner and the dad is a SAHD (or only works part time, or is in school, etc.).

These kinds of discussions are why I started the Catholic Working Mother blog ( So many Catholic moms desperately want to stay at home but simply can't afford it for various reasons. Others feel a strong calling to work in their field (teaching or nursing, for example) but don't want to have to choose between their calling as a professional and their vocation as a mother. It's a delicate balance, that's for sure.

Alisha De Freitas said...

Yes!, Thank you for this Erin!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The difference between a conservative argument and a reactionary argument is neatly framed by the distinction between what Erin says her, and what the "culture warrior" types are saying. (But then, Erin already told us she's not a Republican).

What has been missed by almost every ideology imaginable is that raising children is a substantial amount of hard work, and in a monetized economy also requires a substantial sum of money. This doesn't grow on trees. Whether it is provided by stay-at-home moms (and fathers with income to pay all the bills), or by universal day care, or by an enlightened Christian socialist culture that allows young adults at the peak of fertility to work part time, go to school part time, have the support of an extended family network plus excellent day care, and ease into career without fear of being left behind... There is a substantial investment to be made.

Right now, neither the market nor feminism are really ponying up what it takes.