The Parent Trap: How Should a Working Mother Be?

baby

The first day Amber Scorah left her three-month-old son, Karl, at a Manhattan daycare center as she returned to her nearby job at Scholastic post-maternity leave was also the last day she would see him alive. When Scorah went to visit him not long after dropping him off, so that she could nurse him, she found the owner of the daycare attempting to give her baby CPR to no avail; Karl died less than three hours after being left in daycare. Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece by Scorah in which she focuses not on the decisions made and actions taken by the daycare employees that morning, but rather examines the systems that were—and weren’t—in place which forced Scorah and her partner to make the decision to put Karl in daycare at just fifteen-weeks-old. Or, as Scorah writes:

This article isn’t about day-care safety. This isn’t an indictment of the company I work for; I had one of the better parental leave policies of anyone I know. What this article is about is that my infant died in the care of a stranger, when he should have been with me. Our culture demanded it.

Scorah elaborates on her experience, explaining that, when it was time for her to return to work after having her son, she tried to figure out some way to extend her maternity leave but couldn’t manage to do it. Like so many families with two working parents, Scorah and her partner had no easy solution with regards to which parent might be able to leave his or her job. Scorah’s partner is a freelancer, with no benefits like health insurance, but he earns the higher salary; through her job, Scorah was able to provide her family with health insurance, and the position she held in her industry would be difficult to re-obtain should she decide to leave her career path, if only for a little while. And because Scorah had no ability to extend her maternity leave beyond the three paid months she was offered (which, Scorah notes, is generous compared to what many other working mothers get), she was forced to do not what she wanted to do for her family, but what she had to do. And, in this case, her only, unwanted option, which gave Scorah an inescapable sense of dread, ended in tragedy.

The awful end to Scorah’s story is not a common one, of course—millions of children in this country have started daycare at incredibly young ages without issue, and many parents put their children in programs without any of the qualms Scorah so clearly carried. But the larger problem Scorah addresses is a significant one: Where are the options for parents in the modern American workplace? Why, Scorah wants to know, should a mother “have no choice but to leave her infant with a stranger at 3 months old if that decision doesn’t feel right to her?” And: “Why, why does a parent in this country have to sacrifice her job, her ability to provide her child with proper health care—or for many worse off than me, enough food to eat—to buy just a few more months to nurture a child past the point of vulnerability?”

Compared to every other country in the entire world, the United States allots an abysmally small amount of time for paid parental leave; in fact, paid parental leave isn’t federally mandated at all, and what is offered on a case-by-case basis is generally a short period of time, relative to the rest of the world. The stresses that this policy—or lack of policy—create for working families, particularly working mothers, are manifold. Many families are forced to make difficult decisions about things like health care, child care, and the value of one parent’s job over another; single parents have it even harder, and often have even fewer recourses. A harsh truth is that the cost of quality childcare is so high these days that parents are frequently forced to compromise when it comes to the type of provider they use, sometimes resorting to lower-quality care because they don’t have the luxury of good choices. And if one parent (usually the mother) is able—or forced—to leave her career to care for the child, she risks not being able to re-enter an increasingly competitive job market, where youth is often prioritized over experience, often so that a company can pay its employees less.

Despite the fact that virtually every other country in the world offers mandated parental leave, legislators in the United States persist in framing this debate as one in which parents actually do have choices: They can work on their employer’s terms or they can quit—and whatever they do, they need to stop complaining about it. The rapidity with which arguments about parental leave devolve into demands for women in particular to quit their complaining along with their jobs (with the implicit admonition that home is where women belong anyway) is startling. Some of the comments on Scorah’s article included admonitions against her choices, with one commenter writing that Scorah had an “entitlement mentality” and implying that if Scorah had chosen to “give up things like living in New York City, a second car, the latest electronic entertainment gadgets, or purchasing new clothes relatively more often” her son might be alive. While framing the issue of parental leave in this way is reprehensible, it also makes sense with regards to the internal logic of conservatives, since the removal of women at the peak of their wage-earning years is an effective way of both solidifying men’s positions of power in the work place, thus ensuring that a majority of women won’t be able to ascend the career ladder, and also, as mentioned above, prioritize the hiring of new employees, usually at a lower salary than the departing new mothers were earning. It’s all about the health of the business; corporations are people just as much as mothers and children are.

Scorah addresses this problem for what it is—an injustice of national importance. She’s not alone in seeing it this way; in his last State of the Union address, President Obama said, “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is.” Many studies have demonstrated that countries with paid parental leave have much higher rates of women staying in the work force, post-birth, a reality which would be a huge economic boon to women during important wage-earning years. And beyond instituting better paid leave laws, there must be ongoing efforts to employ techniques that make working amenable to families—particularly women and single mothers—beyond those first few months of parenthood. Our current system makes it close to impossible for women working at jobs with hourly salaries or otherwise low wages to afford quality childcare, in effect, taking away their choice entirely and potentially subjecting children to environments which provide inadequate levels of care.

However, this issue continues to be politically marginalized because even though limited parental leave is obviously a problem for the whole family, since the burden is usually borne mostly by women, this issue is treated with nothing so much as pure contempt by many, including the same powerful men who work to limit access to birth control, abortion, and other family-planning services, but who care nothing about what happens when an actual family is struggling.

It’s not just male conservative lawmakers who are part of the problem, though. There’s often a real lack of empathy for women by other women, particularly with relation to how wealthy and powerful women treat those of a different socio-economic class, with the prime recent example being the “lean in” movement, in which high-powered women have, in effect, encouraged other working women to prioritize work over everything else, something that can be impossible to do with the economic resources to also provide quality childcare for a family. But as women in other countries have shown us, this doesn’t need to be an either-or proposition; in other countries, women don’t have to choose between things like staying home with infants for a couple more months and losing their jobs and attendant health insurance or returning to work before they and their families are ready. It’s our society that is putting women in the terrible position of having to choose between financial stability and the stability of their families. The reality here is that the choice to be a working mother is not always a choice—all too often it is the best recourse for a family, and the only economically viable reality.

Scorah ends her Times article by writing, “There are plenty of good examples of how to create a national parental leave system that works. Our children can’t afford lobbyists. It’s up to us parents to demand more.” And it’s true, now is the time to get mad, get loud, make noise and make change. But until change happens from the top, now is also the time to try and make a difference from the bottom, to demand better not just from the government, but also from individual places of employment, to call out gender discrimination in all forms—including the issue of parental leave—and to work to make a world where our children will grow up to have the choices that we, as their parents, never did.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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