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The least worst choice

page three

The other Big Picture

One major reason work and family conflict in America is because our social policies -- which are a direct reflection of the national ethos -- run contrary to having it any other way. Other than sustained efforts by feminist organizations to secure workers’ rights to parental and medical leave and expand access to affordable child care, easing the strain the system puts on working women with children has not been a political priority.

The peculiar reluctance to actively address the needs of working families in the United States results from a muddled confluence of ideology about women, work, family, children, personal responsibility and the power of the free market to serve the true needs of the people.(20) According to Dr. Sheila Kamerman of the Clearinghouse on International Developments in Child, Youth & Family Policies at Columbia University, the U.S. sends

“mixed messages about how to balance work and family life. We believe that it is in the best interest of our children to be with their mothers when they are very young, and more recently, have come to see the benefits of fathers spending time with their young children. We also believe that it is the responsibility of both parents to contribute to the economic well being of their families. Yet we continue to hold back from putting policies in place that will allow working mothers, and fathers, to succeed in both the workplace and at home.”(21)

Although a 1998 survey found that 82 percent of women and 75 percent of men “favored the idea of developing a new insurance program that would give families some income when a worker takes a family or medical leave,”(22) the U.S. remains one of only two wealthy nations lacking a national program of paid parental leave for working men and women. Australia, the other laggard in the paid leave department, offers working women up to 52 weeks of unpaid, job protected leave for the birth and care of a newborn. The 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave guaranteed to American workers who qualify under the provisions of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (23) look downright skimpy compared to the benefits provided to working families in Western Europe. (24)

31 states are currently studying the feasibility of implementing paid leave programs. In 2002, California became the first state in the nation to pass legislation providing up to 6 weeks of wage replacement benefits to workers who take time off work to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent, domestic partner, or to bond with a new child. However, the national campaign for paid leave -- which is coordinated by the National Partnership for Women and Families, an organization which was instrumental in securing the passage of the FMLA -- suffered a serious setback in October 2003 when President George W. Bush revoked the “Baby UI” rule -- an experimental regulation allowing states to tap into unemployment funds to cover wage replacement for leave takers who were caring for a newborn or newly adopted child.

The campaign for universal, affordable child care -- which was a centerpiece of the feminist agenda in the 1960s -- is now so politically untouchable that advocates have been forced to “reframe” the public debate to focus on universal access to “early childhood education.”(25) Child care remains a problem issue, and not just because Americans remain uneasy about young children being cared for by someone other than their mothers. (Despite the regular bashing child care takes in the media, nearly every reliable study has shown that a moderate amount of high-quality non-parental care is, in many cases, beneficial to the learning readiness and social development of young children.) A more immediate concern is the economic marginalization of low-income female workers -- often mothers themselves -- who typically provide child care for more affluent families. On the other hand, low-income families spend as much as 25 percent of their household earnings on childcare, and in some urban areas, low-income families spend more on center-based day care for their young children than they do on housing. (26)

So far, the private sector has failed to produce an acceptable solution to address the fact that when parents must work, someone else has to take care of their kids. But don’t expect the state to step in to pick up the slack any time soon. Lurking in the shadows of our national mentality is the unhealthy fiction that if we could just get every working mother happily married and send her back home to stay, some of our more pressing economic and social problems would magically evaporate.(27) But the old “normal” -- that idealized retroland of 1950s family life -- is gone for good. We’re living in the new normal now, and it’s high time we figured out how to do a better job of it. Meanwhile, the pressures on working families are only getting worse, and mothers are especially likely to feel the squeeze.

Push comes to shove

There will always be women -- and men -- from all walks of American life who passionately believe that the only way to bring up happy, healthy children is to do it the “old fashioned” way: mom taking care of things on the homefront, dad out bringing home the bacon. Couples who hold this view are not necessarily anti-feminist reactionaries longing for a bygone era where men were men and women were housewives (although some of the most vocal proponents of traditional “family values” definitely fall into this camp).

Anecdotal accounts suggest that a number of single-earner couples with children share a more enlightened understanding that unpaid care work and wage-earning work contribute equally to the security and well-being of the family. Some mothers and fathers ultimately decide the most realistic way to manage the range of responsibilities that come with the job-marriage-children package is for each parent to "specialize" in a different kind of work. While dual-earner families are by far the norm, the number of children being raised by full-time stay-at-home mothers in the U.S. rose 13 percent between 1994 and 2002. Analysts believe both economic and cultural factors fed this trend.

In families with two married parents and children under 15, the parent that specializes in caregiving is predictably more likely to be the female one. In 2002, 5.2 million married mothers stayed at home to care for their families while their spouse was in the full-time labor force. Young children living in two parent households are 56 times more likely to live with a stay-at-home mother/employed father than they are to live with a stay-at-home dad. (28)

While cultural attitudes about male and female roles contribute to this disparity, there are also economic considerations. Women’s earnings are, on average, 23 percent lower than those of men with the same qualifications in comparable jobs. Of married mothers who worked for pay in 2002, 46 percent of those with at least one child under 6 years old and one or more children aged 6 to 17 earned less than $5,000 in wages or salary; 80 percent earned less than $30,000 a year – in other words, less than the baseline living wage for a family of four in most U.S. communities. (29, 30)

When the cost of child care and the rate of taxation on the wages of secondary earners is factored in -- not to mention the advantage of having one parent available to act as a buffer when the primary breadwinner brings home negative spillover from paid work -- some middle-class couples with children may conclude that it’s more cost effective and better for all concerned if mom quits her job.

Plenty of women who trade in fast-paced careers for a life lived on child time are happy with their decision. They see the work of child rearing as personally rewarding and socially important and take enormous pride in being the primary caregiver for their families. However, not every mother who's retreated from the paid labor force -- temporarily or for the long haul -- is prepared to describe the stay-at-home arrangement as her first, best choice.

Joan, a 38 year-old mother of one living in the Midwest, left her well-paid IT job four years ago when her son was born -- not because she felt caregiving was a higher calling, but because she was convinced there were no other realistic alternatives. “In my utopia, benefits like health care and retirement wouldn’t be attached to a particular job -- they’d be available to all citizens. The workweek would be 30 hours and there would be state-funded child care. Part-time jobs employing high-education skills (with prorated advancement possibility) would be available,” she says. “If I lived in my utopia, I would not be a stay-at-home mom. But the way things are now, being the stay-at-home mom is simply the least worst choice for our family.”

Joan doesn’t know when she will return to paid work, or what kind of work she may be doing when she does. “After four years out of the IT workforce, my skills are obsolete. But I can’t see myself wasting my time working for a minimum wage at WalMart.”

Moms determined to stick it out in the paid labor force hold another piece of the motherhood-and-work puzzle.(31) Julie, an architect living in Southern California, is expecting her second child. She works 32 hours a week in an office of 70 people. “Half of the employees are women. I am one of two women with children. My male co-workers who have children (about 20) have wives who stay home. Many of these men have said to me, ‘I wish my wife could work part-time so I could spend more time with my children, but as the single bread winner I cannot push for family-friendly work options for fear that I will be out of a job’.”

Julie worries that no one will be left to agitate for a change in the workplace if more high-powered women opt out. “What do I tell the younger women I work with now? ‘…Don't focus on your work, honey, you better get yourself married to a guy who can provide’? Furthermore, what do I tell my daughter?” Julie says that she battles thoughts of leaving the workforce versus staying with it every day. But she adds, “It’s hard for me to see how the women who ‘opt-out’ will lead a revolution in the workplace when they are not there to push for things to be different. I think that everyone's choice has a place, I just think a complete rejection of the system has the potential to create a different (perhaps parallel) system rather than changing the one we have.

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