As so many of us working moms realize, juggling career and family can seem like an Olympic endeavor. It takes Herculean strength and endurance—as we all know—and a lot of money. In other countries, working moms get more help. Can you imagine having the ability to take six months off with paid maternity leave? How dreamy would it be if your partner took a month of paternity leave with his job intact upon return? In America, these scenarios seem like pipe dreams. In fact, America ranks with developing world countries in its lack of family-friendly policies. For instance, the US is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t provide paid leave to mothers (163 others do). Australia is the only other industrialized country that doesn’t give paid leave, but it actually guarantees a year of unpaid leave—compare that to our meager twelve weeks. And surprisingly, forty-five other countries offer paid paternity leave to fathers.
Because families aren’t supported, new mothers are often forced to make compromises and hard decisions. Just ask my sister. She gave birth to a premature boy last August—eight weeks too soon. Sadly, as a social worker for her state government, she received no paid leave and could only take the twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave as guaranteed by our Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This was quite hard for her to do financially. She had many medical bills and had used all her vacation time, so extending the maternity leave just wasn’t an option.
As the time to return to work approached, her physician actually told her that she couldn’t put her son into day care. He said flatly “putting your premature baby into daycare is tantamount to child abuse.” Can you imagine how a social worker must feel hearing that? He explained that placing a child into day care when its age is the equivalent to a newborn’s, with a weakened immune system and special needs to boot, would put him at risk.
The sad thing is that my sister graduated top of her class when receiving her master’s degree in social work. She was the one, out of my four siblings, who aced her SATs without trying and is an amazing pianist. She could have chosen a field that paid more, clearly, but she wanted to give back to our society as a social worker. Well, it’s not giving much back to her in return.
Luckily she found a friend, a music teacher, to agree to be a part-time nanny and she cut back her hours at work. A part-time social worker who is a single mom doesn’t necessarily earn enough and I worry about what it will mean when it’s time for my nephew to enter preschool—as the costs can be astronomical. (For more information, see “American Child Care: Poor Quality at a Sky-High Price”)
Stories like this don’t surprise Joan Blades. In fact, they are the reason why she felt compelled to do something. As the former co-founder of MoveOn.org, Joan is a veteran in motivating people and giving them the technical tools to impact change. She’s now giving those tools to families with her latest endeavor: MomsRising.org. Like MoveOn, MomsRising pushes for policy change by galvanizing it’s now 80,000 members to begin demanding family-friendly policies, often through email campaigns that require only a digital signature from its members to participate. Some of the policies the organization supports include paid maternity leave, paternity leave, equal pay for mothers, and higher pay and standards for day care workers and facilities. Last week, I chatted by phone with Joan, a working mom of two in northern California. She outlined her goals for MomsRising and her hopes for a future that provides more support to America’s working families.
Laura: Is it realistic to expect the government to pass legislation mandating paid maternity leave of some length in the next ten years?
Joan: Yes, it’s a very realistic goal. In the long term, not only is it something right to do, it’s something smart to do. When you don’t give parents the ability to take care of their children, you are not only undermining the parent, but our future. In twenty years, these kids are going to be the engine of our economy.
Laura: Is our government failing working mothers and families?
Joan: The data tells me they are not succeeding. When having a child is the top cause for a poverty spill for families, we have a problem. That is just sad. We can do many things to improve that.
Laura: What are you seeing through your work with MomsRising?
Joan: That most people in our country have not been thinking about these issues. We’re way below where we should be in supporting families. It’s shocking that we are less supportive (of families) than some third world countries. There are common sense things we can do.
Laura: Such as?
Joan: First, family leave. When you get sick, you can take time off and still hopefully pay your bills. Or if a family member needs your help, you can take time off. Putting in place policies that support us in that way is good… It’s a safety net for people, like Social Security.
Secondly, health insurance. Health insurance costs have caused ever increasing numbers of middle-income Americans to go into bankruptcy. Bankruptcy rates have gone up by 2,300 percent between 1980 and 2001. Seventy-five percent of those who went bankrupt had insurance when their illness started.
Laura: Do you think it possible for a universal health care bill to pass, or legislation providing affordable health care for children?
Joan: Health care is shifting. A single payer bill passed in the state of California, although the governor vetoed it. States are trying to pass legislation on their own. The pain is felt deeply and broadly and companies are feeling it too. The cost (of health care insurance) has increased well beyond the rate of inflation for a decade. I’m seeing more plans put forth to deal with it than I thought I would in the course of a few short years. Most Americans are interested in it, including corporations. The only groups opposed are the pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
Laura: Health care is such a broad topic, what is MomsRising’s goal in this area?
Joan: MomsRising wants to get kids covered. Not having children covered hurts the country. These issues aren’t typically front page issues until something is at a crisis point. (Such as the story of an uninsured twelve-year-old in Baltimore who died from an abscessed tooth.) That’s why MomsRising is so important. We can put forward these issues because there are already huge numbers of families in crisis already.
Laura: Childcare is also a passionate topic in America. What does MomsRising hope to do to help?
Joan: Child care is so substandard in the US. Child care workers are paid less than parking lot attendants. Child care centers can’t afford to invest in training and there is high turnover because the workers have to feed their families. And, ironically, parents still can’t afford it!
Here are some stats:
- A third of kids entering kindergarten have inadequate language skills as their parents are working two or three jobs and not home.
- 40,000 kindergartners are home alone in the evening.
- 14 million kids are unsupervised after school and many parents lament that their children needed them the most during teenage years.
- After-school programs, there are a fraction of them to meet the demand.
We need to invest in the programs that pay back.
Laura: Is Washington State’s family leave insurance bill a model for other states to follow?
Joan: It is definitely a step in the right direction. We have one model, California. People have to realize families need this type of support. Family leave also allows time to care for an elderly family member, or time for you if you are ill. The World Health Organization ranked the United States 37th for child mortality. That’s a high death rate for children under five.
Laura: What can busy working moms do, who care about these issues, but don’t have enough time to sit down and write their congressman?
Joan: That’s why we created MomsRising. When you send a letter, it’s a good thing. But when we do it all together as a campaign—it’s most effective. It takes a concerted effort to get policies passed... When you join MomsRising, you get an email once a week to let you know what you can do. You can sign a petition, which takes a minute; get more involved and tell your friends; or dive in and throw a house party. This week we are working hard to support the passage of paid family leave in Washington State. (Paid leave is not only being able to take care of your new baby, it is about being able to take care of your sick parent, or yourself if you have a serious illness.)