“My friends who stay home full-time with their kids aren’t happy, but the women I know who work full-time and put their kids in daycare aren’t happy either. I don’t know what the right answer is.”
That comment was made to me on Saturday night, as I sat in a pub drinking beer with a friend of mine who loves her job as a speech therapist, but feels like the ever-increasing demands of her career are infringing on her family’s time. While she readily admitted that there is no one ‘right answer’ that will be perfect for all mothers, she initially seemed surprised by my insistence that, despite our constant talk of ‘family values,’ as a society we make balancing family and work hard – particularly for women. Our expectations and our laws are structured in such a way that we tend to force parents into a false choice – work or family.
Take, for example, the myth of the 40-hour work week.
Since “women remain clustered in the lowest-paid occupations,” many women are working long hours, odd shifts, and multiple jobs – factors that can make motherhood seem like an impossible challenge. Yet, even for women who are privileged enough to find entrance into a corporate job, the regular schedule of the 40-hour week is a dream. Fewer and fewer salaried workers have the luxury of leaving as soon as their requisite eight hours are finished each day. In many corporations, the expectation is that those who are ‘serious about their careers’ will stay longer or take work home. This is, of course, problematic for anyone who has a family. Yet, as we still tend to saddle mothers with the majority of responsibility for the care of children, it is women who are routinely labeled ‘less dedicated’ – meaning that they simply can’t work longer than their contracted hours, since they need to pick up the kids from the babysitter or daycare. Of course, it is the workers who agree to take-on longer and longer hours, in the hopes of seeming better than others with whom they are in competition. The result, however, is a sort of tragedy of the commons – while each person makes a rational decision to try to out-stay everyone else (and correctly argues that time is a resource available to everyone), the result is worsening conditions in general. Well, worsening conditions for everyone except the share-holders, that is.
In the United States, the plight of mothers is also complicated by the fact that we are “…one of only five countries that does not provide or require employers to provide some form of paid maternity leave.” European nations generally guarantee mothers more paid maternity leave than the six weeks of unpaid leave our companies are required to offer, and most have laws ensuring some paid paternity leave to new fathers as well. Of course, even in countries where women are afforded decent maternity leave, there can still be a tendency to try to punish them for the decision to have a family – or even for being capable of having children. An article published by the BBC today, for example, warns that employers might be reluctant to hire women, since they do not want workers to take leave. The problem, of course, is that the article presents this dilemma as being caused by maternity leave laws, rather than as a remaining problem that still needs to be addressed.
The push to keep women from pursuing career and family seems to be well ingrained in our attitudes as well as our laws. Even in fields where sabbaticals are common, we frequently hear that there is a resistance to hiring any woman, because she might want to have children. And while countries like France, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Spain, and the UK all offer a year or more of unpaid leave to mothers of new babies, gaps in a resume due to time taken with small children often put women at a disadvantage in the United States.
Yet, the decision between family and career is a false one not just because we could have better laws and outlooks that would make choosing between career and family unnecessary, but also because the decision not to work is a luxury of the upper-class. Few women can actually afford not to work, and that is not a new reality. When I see revisionists try to blame feminism for the plight of women who must be workers and mothers, I can’t help but wonder what ‘good-old days of stay-home moms’ they’re remembering – certainly my mother worked (as a teacher), my grandmother worked (in a factory), and my great-grandmother worked (on a farm). So it isn’t that the problems facing women as they struggle to balance family and work are new, it’s that we aren’t making sufficient progress in resolving them.
The conversation with my friend in the pub on Saturday ended with her asking me where she could go to volunteer or work for an organization specifically aimed at protecting the rights of working women and mothers. She commented that she would be willing to work hard for the causes of equal pay, paid parental leave, and a guaranteed hiatus for new mothers so that they could return to their jobs after taking time off with newborn children. I have to admit – I was stumped. I replied that she could volunteer for Obama, who has been vocal in his support of these changes, but I could not think of an organization that was dedicated solely to advocating for the kind of changes that would lessen the challenges facing working mothers – the majority of mothers.
Does anyone have any recommendations for my friend? Also, if you are from a country where you feel like life is easier for working parents, what laws have given women more freedom to pursue family and careers?
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