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Living Full-Throttle
Motherhood, Balance, and Another Women's Movement

page two

One Tuesday earlier this year, I was watching Oprah while my son and I cooked dinner. Dr. Phil--he of blunt opinions and homespun aphorisms--was trying to figure out why the couples on the show weren't having sex. No-sex-for-six-months, no-sex-for-two-years kind of not having sex. He listened to one woman describe her full-to-bursting life: mothering, a job, school. It turns out the couple didn't have all the typical Oprah problems: trust issues, childhood abuse, spiritual bereftness. The woman was, Dr. Phil said, just too busy for sex.

"How many times have you heard a woman say, 'I'm so lucky… ' and they're talking about the little crumbs they have. You know: 'I'm so lucky I have a husband' or 'I'm so lucky he makes a living' or 'I'm so lucky I have a job that doesn't destroy me and destroy our family,'" Ann Crittenden recently mused. She had just given a speech in a Washington, D.C., suburb as part of a conference on caregiving. "But they're not saying 'I deserve to have the right to have my profession and time with my child. I deserve public support the way elder people have public support from society.'"

Crittenden, a former New York Times reporter and Pultizer Prize nominee, wrote The Price of Motherhood after experiencing first-hand the lack of respect full-time caregiving gets: After she left the Times to be with her infant son, someone asked her in all seriousness, "Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?"

In The Price of Motherhood, Crittenden peers into the vast divide between the lip service paid to mothering and the economic reality of mothers: "Motherhood is the single largest risk factor for poverty in old age," she writes. In a compelling economic analysis, she details how mothers--whom she claims contribute up to eighty percent of this country's unpaid labor--get, in a word, screwed. The list is long and, frankly, a little depressing: It begins with the unpaid six weeks of maternity leave available to most women (the U.S. is one of the five industrialized nations left that doesn't offer paid maternity leave, she says). After the magical six weeks are up, our choices in work arrangements are pretty slim; without a "rich and vibrant part-time labor market," the choices seem to be full-time employment or none at all. Perhaps most disturbing, though, is the economic fate of those of us who caregive full-time: loss not only of wages (and the pay raises that come with time spent at a company), but of Social Security benefits. Holes in resumes that may one day be submitted to employers who might regard child-rearing as nothing more than babysitting--the old bon-bons-and-soaps vision of motherhood. And, should divorce happen, the negating of that "choice" the spouses made together, the choice that one would stay home while the other brought in a paycheck. With no compensation for the time the caregiving spouse took out to raise the children, forty percent of all divorced women in the U.S. "tumble into poverty," she writes.

While American parents scramble for that precious commodity--time--the rest of the First World countries are managing more life balance with some grace. Near the top of the who's-got-it-good list is Sweden, where the government subsidizes a full year of paid leave for mothers at seventy-five percent of their salaries, where every parent with a child under the age of eight has the right to an eighty-percent work schedule (that's four days a week), and low-income families get checks to cover the cost of child care. And, Crittenden writes, "The very suggestion of cutting mothers' and children's benefits, I was told, 'would be political suicide.'" In contrast, the major U.S. program designed to help poor mothers and children, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was abolished in 1996; so-called welfare queens--whose checks were treated as handouts in the first place, not compensation for caregiving--were told to get back to work. In its sixty years of existence, this aid never amounted to more than one-half of one percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

So, is it time to develop a taste for gravlax, or might the U.S. take a clue from Swedish policy?

"We're never going to be a Sweden. We'll have to do it in our own way," Crittenden says of this land of capitalism and cowboy mentality. "We have this cultural sense that we're all individuals, that we're not really in this together, that we're all going to make it ourselves, we don't need any help. That ethic of the individual. And it's a strength; it explains a lot of our success economically, that entrepreneurial spirit. But it's a huge weakness because we don't really fully appreciate how we are indeed all in this together. I think [our country's] being heterogeneous, it makes it a little harder to see other people's children as our children and understand that, 'If all these other people's children are well-raised, it's going to help me.'"

By Crittenden's figuring, if we live eighty years, we're dependent over forty percent of our lives: the first twenty years and the last fifteen. "So who's taking care of those dependents?" she asks. "A good chunk of people in the prime working age. So the idea that we're all independent and don't need each other's help is just a myth. Women need to make that point very loud and clear: We're caregivers and we need a caring state. But I think it's going to take another women's movement to get that across."

Crittenden's book may be the push that gets this new movement rolling. At the end of The Price of Motherhood, she offers some solutions: Employers should redesign work around parental norms, including offering the right to a year's paid leave, shortening the workweek, and providing equal hourly pay and pro-rated benefits for part-time work. The government could do much to create a caring state, like offering on-the-job insurance to those of us who do the unpaid work, setting up universal preschools for three- and four-year-olds, and providing a "child allowance," instead of a tax deduction or credit. (A deduction does nothing for the thirty percent of low-income parents who don't pay taxes, and credits don't help families where one parent is the caregiver.) One of my favorites of Crittenden's ideas is that, upon the birth or adoption of a child, a family should become a formal financial unit, like a business. Members of the family would have equal claim on the income. Along the same lines, Social Security credits would be split between the adults of the household, no matter who's bringing in the paycheck and who's doing the lion's share of childrearing. This would benefit "working and stay-at-home mothers alike, and …divorced women, who are among the poorest old people in the country," Crittenden writes.

the pursuit of balance

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