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Choosing Better

We Americans like choice. We like to think we have a choice in most things we do. At the forefront of this, for many women, is whether or not to become a mom.

Often when we talk about choice and women, we are using a euphemism for abortion, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Instead, I’m talking about the way we frame much of motherhood as being a choice and why that’s a problem.

Second-wave feminists worked hard to make sure that women had access to birth control and abortion. Like most women, I thank them duly for this. But an unintended consequence of this is that many people now just shrug off any problem women have as being of their own choosing.

Consider this:

  • Approximately 86% of women becomes mothers before the age of 45.
  • While child-free women earn approximately 95 cents on the dollar of their equally employed male counterparts, mothers earn on average 50 cents. HALF of what men are earning. This is NOT because of reduced hours or less education. (www.iwpr.org)
  • Only 50% of mothers age 18-34 qualify for FMLA, the law that ensures women can return to a similar job after taking time off for medical leave (often pregnancy in this age group). (www.dol.gov)
  • 30% of mothers live below the poverty line while only 17% of fathers do. (Pew)
  • Childcare costs more than in-state college tuition in all fifty states. (www.cbpp.org)

These bleak numbers do not even separate mothers by race. Typically, women of color fair worse than white mothers.

I’ve completed in-depth interviews with nearly 100 women around the US, collected thousands of online responses, and have researched the culture of motherhood for 15 years. During this time period, little has changed for mothers. If anything, the cultural mandate of intensive (and competitive) mothering has only made the work harder – emotionally, physically, and financially.

Here’s where the milk meets the mop: many women, even those who are college educated, cannot earn enough to pay for decent childcare. As a result, women either must quit their jobs and become full-time carers or work at a net loss in order to ensure that they don’t lose the forward momentum of their career and/or health benefits. I’ll say that again, many women are literally paying to go to work, particularly those that have more than one child.

By no means am I suggesting that child-care providers are making too much money. They are often the lowest paid workers in our society. I was surprised how many women reported wishing that they had the funds to pay their childcare provider more.

Meanwhile, former president Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act of 1996 means many women could only receive help if they were working. This is still the case. These women tend to be socially vulnerable and can rarely demand wages that suitably cover childcare. Often, the question is asked: Why am I paid to work at McDonald’s for minimum wage while paying for another woman to care for my child instead of just being paid to care for my own kid?

The logic is hard to dispute.

The short answer is we seldom value women’s work, particularly carework, despite the deep and critical impact that it has on us individually and as a society.

But this isn’t the only answer.

If one spends any amount of time online, it won’t take long to stumble across someone who spouts something similar to: Why is this my problem, she chose to have a kid?

First and foremost, we all agree women are not conceiving children by themselves. The number of men who are derelict on child support payments or threaten women – both physically and emotionally – into not filing for support that is owed to them is high.

Second, until women’s labor, both in waged work and in the home, is valued more, mothers will have little chance of playing on a fair field.

Third, we need to stop talking about the contours of a mother’s life as one she singly chose. Nearly half of pregnancies are still unplanned (which is not the same as unwanted), many men still express a reluctance to use birth control while an increasing number of companies are attempting to cut birth control from health coverage, access to abortion is increasingly restricted, and our culture, ironically, still tells women their greatest calling should be motherhood (i.e., to terminate a pregnancy is sinful and unwomanly). Divorce, family illness, and more all have deep impacts, too.

What needs to change? Well, a lot, as you’d imagine. Mothers need:

  1. Paid maternity leave for a minimum of three months, ideally longer.
  2. Subsidized childcare from 8 weeks of birth on.
  3. Mandatory paternity leave. Until employers know that men will be as likely to take leave as women, they will have the advantage in every hiring process they walk into.
  4. Better protections for those who are precariously employed, including gig workers, shift workers, and anyone earning minimum wage.
  5. A living wage. It is well-known that our minimum wage has not kept up with what is needed even when both parents are working let alone for single mothers.
  6. Make work feasible. Women, on average invest 90% of their income back into their families when they work. Men, on average, invest 35%. (www.un.org)
  7. Reimburse carework. Mothers continue to be the glue that holds are society together. Little else matters as much in a child’s long-term success as a committed, informed, loving mother. If our government and businesses want capable, educated, successful people, we need to invest in the people that get them their: first and foremost, mothers.

At the heart of all of this is a call for mothers to demand respect not reverence. The odds are in our favor. We are more than mothers. We are more together.

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