America, we have a mommy problem.
In the United States, we like to tell mothers that they have the “most important” and “hardest” job in the world. But while we build them up with these kinds of pretty sentiments, our policies tell a different story: Americans, it seems, don’t really care about mothers. If a mom can’t do it all, it’s seen as a failing of her individual character, not of a nation whose family policies have not advanced much.
This time last year I called for an end to judging parents. This year, I’m calling on us all to stop with the hollow greeting card sentiments and start acting like we believe mothers are as important as we say they are.
As a mom, it’s definitely nice to hear that people think you are doing something so difficult and important. After all, raising future citizens in a world as hostile as ours is a pretty lofty task. But I’ve come to realize that moms get a pretty raw deal. Studies suggest that more and more women are leaving the workforce, citing child care duties as a primary reason. Despite the popular idea that women are “opting out” of careers by choice to be stay-at-home mothers, many are doing so because it's more affordable in the face of rising child care costs. But even if we stay in jobs, we have to worry about being “mommy tracked” while our male colleagues win promotions and raises. And we’re still largely responsible for the lion’s share of housekeeping and child care. The accumulation of pressures to have it and do it all with little to no help, feels at times like a vise, crushing your ability to take time to take care of yourself. Because the truth is, you’re too busy taking care of everyone else.
This problem lies in not just how we treat mothers, but how the United States still fundamentally lacks institutional supports for families as a whole. Our country is the only developed nation that doesn’t require employers to offer paid parental leave when a baby is born. In last year’s elections, some states voted for some paid sick leave policies. State-level paid sick leave policies are definitely good news, but we need to strive for more. Only a federal mandate requiring employers to provide paid sick leave will ensure that all parents won’t risk losing their jobs if they have to stay home with a sick kid. The exorbitant cost of day care urgently needs to be addressed as a societal problem. Because as it stands now, in some states, decent child care is more expensive than a state college education. And without affordable child care, mothers and families are stuck either swallowing the enormous cost, or giving up a job because the cost is just too high.
A young feminist once asked me: “If it’s so hard being a parent, why bother having kids?” Her question perfectly sums up how many feminists have dropped the ball on addressing the needs of moms and families. A better question would have been: “How do we create a culture and the social structures that allow women to choose any path they want?”
Whether we have children or not, feminists need to acknowledge that many women are hobbled by the daily grind of being a parent in a country that denies mothers the rights that women in the rest of the industrialized world receive. But it’s not just feminists who need to worry about how contemporary motherhood affects women. Everyone needs to care about how both mothers and all caretakers are treated. Not just because it may be you trying to chose between career and child care expenses or deal with a denied request for family leave someday, but because a society is only as good as how it treats its caretakers.
So here’s my call to arms for 2015 and beyond: Let’s recognize that what we have right now is not mommy wars, but a full-blown war on moms. Saying mothers are important and showing that mothers are important are two different things. We need to do more showing. Let’s put an end to refusing to recognize the very complicated sets of situations parents have to contend with every day, and do more to help. Parents, let’s turn our frustration not at each other, but at the real enemy: a social system that is still ill-equipped to take care of us. Starting now, let’s demand more from our policymakers, our employers, our communities and from each other.
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her @susanrohwer on Twitter.
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