Work-life balance is a hot topic these days. Famously non-feminist Marissa Mayer caused a recent stir by eliminating telecommuting at Yahoo!, a move that many mothers decried as family unfriendly and economically counterproductive. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is sparking heated conversations about women, workplace, leadership, and motherhood. Each time a powerful working woman joins the conversation about family and work, the media reacts as though this conversation is new when it is anything but. It’s been circulating around the kitchen table and the office water cooler for quite a while. And it’s time we moved it to the courtroom.
Here’s the ugly truth about the way America handles families and the workplace:
- Maternity Leave: As you can see in the chart above, the United States is sadly behind similar countries in providing paid maternity leave for new mothers.The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provided covered workers with 12 weeks unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. And that’s the only legislation we’ve got to help new families deal with having a baby.
- Paternity leave? Well that’s just crazy talk. You’d need a reason for something like that—say, an increase in the number of stay-at-home dads. Or research showing the caregiving concerns of working dads.
- Pregnancy Discrimination: Many women are still facing pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
- High-Cost Childcare: In 2011, the average annual cost of full-time child care for an infant in a center ranged from about $4,600 in Mississippi to nearly $15,000 in Massachusetts.
- Inflexible Work: According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 56% of working moms and 50% of working dads say they find it very or somewhat difficult to balance their jobs and their family life.
Work, Family, and the Middle Class
In her New York Times article entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” Stephanie Coontz describes a situation that many middle-class families with young children know only too well: “For more than two decades the demands and hours of work have been intensifying. Yet progress in adopting family-friendly work practices and social policies has proceeded at a glacial pace.”
Every family comes up with its own solutions to this problem: for most families, as Ms. Coontz describes, the bulk of childrearing and housekeeping falls to women, whether they work or not, and in spite of egalitarian attitudes from both parents. And women are far more likely to drop out of the work force to care for children than men.
This is where the political gets personal.
In October of 2003, I quit a well-paid job as a technical writer at IBM to stay home full-time with my infant daughter. In 2006, I had a son. The next year, I began working part-time as an English professor, making much less money than I had at my former job. These were all my choices, and I made them with both my own interests and those of my children in mind. I’ve used the time that I’ve slowly gained, as my kids have aged, to complete a novel and begin my feminist work. I consider myself fortunate, as my family has been able to make ends meet and I’ve slowly been discovering my life’s true work.
That doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
There were days, particularly when my children were very young and I was sleep deprived and suffering from health issues, when I felt I had lost myself entirely. I was experiencing the modern version of the problem with no name—but the current rhetoric of choice meant I’d brought it on myself, in the name of motherhood. This is the game mothers (and fathers, though we don’t discuss it as often) are forced to play. Pit yourself—your ambitions, your needs, your creative will—against your children. Their needs, their desires, their creative wills and growing intellects, their homework and activities. We scramble to find enough time for everything, but always it comes down to this: Choose.
Work, Family, and Poverty
For millions of people, many of them women of color living in poverty, choice is not an option. The conversations the middle class has about flexible work hours and telecommuting, stay-at-home dads and shared household duties, belong to another world.
Here are some more ugly facts:
- Childbirth and Poverty: Having a baby is a leading cause of “poverty spells” in the U.S.—when income dips below what’s needed for basic living expenses.
- The Working Poor: There are 10.4 million low-income working families in the United States.
- Poverty and Single Mothers: Single mother poverty rates are much higher in the U.S. than in other high income countries. Many factors are at work here—low minimum wage, low wages for traditionally “female” work, unaffordable child care, and child support delinquency among them.
- Poverty and Women of Color: Poverty occurs at much higher rates for women of color. In 2010, the poverty rate was 50.3% for Hispanic single mothers, 47.1% for Black single mothers, and 32.7% for non-Hispanic White single mothers.
What We Need
In my post An Open Letter to Anne-Marie Slaughter, I urged Ms. Slaughter to be an impetus for changing how we handle work and family. As I feared, her article about work/life balance became a sound byte about “having it all,” which meant we didn’t have a real conversation about policy. The conversation might have begun with the middle class, but it could have—and should have—been expanded to include the working poor.
It is long past time that we created policies for paid maternity and paternity leave, flexible work hours for both parents, options for working part-time and from home, and quality, affordable childcare options—not just at some companies and in white-collar jobs, but for all working families. Until we do, we will all be trying to fit modern life into a workforce operating on a paradigm that shifted beneath our feet long ago.
Check out these resources for information on workable solutions for work and family: