Why Does Our Country Make It So Hard to Be a Working Mom?

Whenever a conversation turns to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows new mothers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child, I always think about a friend who gave birth to both of her sons here in the United States.

Had she delivered in her native Ireland, she would’ve gotten paid for 26 weeks, plus 16 more unpaid.

If she’d had her babies when she’d been living in London, she would’ve gotten up to 52 weeks off, up to 39 of them at least partially paid.

And if she’d given birth while living in South Africa, where she and her husband are raising their family now, she would’ve been given at least 16 weeks off, though not necessarily paid. Even if she’d wanted to go back after four or five weeks, as so many moms in our country must, it wouldn’t have been easy. South African law states that “Workers may not go back to work within 6 weeks after the birth unless their doctor or midwife say it is safe.”

My point is, our leave policy is seriously lacking. The countries I listed above aren’t even as generous as it gets (countries like Croatia and Denmark give new moms a full 52 weeks of paid leave), but they illustrate how far we fall short.

This is just one of the many flaws outlined in a comprehensive Huffington Post piece addressing all of the reasons it’s tricky for moms to work outside the home. The post is based on a recent Pew report which found that the percentage of moms of kids under age 18 who would prefer to work full-time outside the home jumped from 20 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2012. It’s fascinating, isn’t it, to think that of every three stay-at-home moms you know, at least one would rather be working outside the home, if only it were easier to pull off?

And yet this echoes what we found when we surveyed mothers last year for our story on the so-called Mommy Wars. Of the moms who stay at home, 60 percent said they would get a job if there were more options for part-time work or quality and affordable day care.

The HuffPo piece cites research from Child Care Aware America which found that in 31 states, daycare is more expensive than in-state tuition and fees at public colleges. The cost has doubled in the last few decades, and for some families, child care costs can account for nearly 40 percent of their income.

But it’s not like families who use full-time babysitters, or who have their school-age children in before-care or after-care, have it easy by comparison. Every working parent knows the panic that arises when your child wakes up sick in the middle of the night–the simultaneous “I feel so badly that you’re sick” and “Holy crap, I have to go to work tomorrow.” Our society simply hasn’t embraced the concept of a flex work environment. Sure, lots of us (myself included) have understanding bosses, but that’s just great luck. It’s nothing we’re entitled to. And if we’re a middle- or low-wage earner, research shows we’re far less likely to experience that kind of goodwill, and far more likely to feel real repercussions if we stay home from work with a sick child, or duck out for a teacher conference. How is that okay?

There are so many more obstacles in our way, including how tough it can be to breastfeed at work and even how our culture views stay-at-home dads (less than, somehow). When I start to feel it’s all hopeless, I remember organizations like MomsRising (“where moms and the people who love them go to change the world”). Among the issues this inspiring group takes on are flex schedules and maternity and paternity leave (don’t even get me started on our pathetic paternity leave policies and how they stack up against other countries’). It’s a great site to visit if you, like me, wonder if there’s anything we can really do to change the sad state of affairs for working parents. You’ll quickly see that yes, there are actions we can take. We just have to carve out the time.

Image: Work or family symbol via Shutterstock.

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Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care
Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care
Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care

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