When Leaning In Lands You In Jail: On the Criminalization of Being a Poor, Working Mother

The Myth of Leaning In: On the Criminalization of Being a Poor, Working Mother

In March, Shanesha Taylor was arrested for leaving her children in her car while she went to a job interview. Taylor, who was homeless at the time and had no access to childcare, left her young children in the car with the windows cracked open while she went in to the interview. A passerby called child protective services, and Taylor was arrested after leaving the interview. More recently, 46-year-old Debra Harrell was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play in a park while she worked at McDonald’s. Harrell’s daughter had spent most of the summer sitting quietly in McDonald’s while her mother worked, playing on a laptop with the help of McDonald’s free WiFi. Following a break-in at their home and the loss of the laptop, Harrell’s daughter had little to do to while away the hours and asked to go play in a nearby, popular playground. Harrell said yes and gave her daughter a cell phone; for two days, this plan worked well for mother and child. On the third day, Harrell was reported and arrested after her daughter told someone at the playground that she was alone because her mother was at work. And so once again, a poor mother is criminalized for doing exactly what she has been told to do by everyone from Paul Ryan to Sheryl Sandberg: she leaned in and tried to work and make a better life for herself and her family, but she was thrown in jail instead.

It would be easy enough to turn Debra Harrell’s case into a debate about the value of helicopter parenting and bemoan a society in which children are not allowed to go the playground by themselves and parents are not trusted to make the appropriate decisions about the welfare of their own children. (And, in fact, this case has been made by “free range parenting” evangelist Lenore Skenazy.) Which, the absurdity inherent to the idea that a 9-year-old is better off whiling away her summer days sitting inside a fast food restaurant and playing on a computer rather than getting fresh air and interacting with her peers should be clear to anyone who has a child or, you know, was a child. There is no denying that there are risks associated both with allowing a child of that age to play alone (with the ability to check in via cell phone) in the park or of leaving two young children alone in a car while going into a job interview, but it is also true that those risks are relative, and that there are very real risks associated with just driving the kids to the job interview in the first place, or, for that matter, of leaving children with a babysitter or eating too much fast food.

But let’s not turn this into a game of all the different ways that we tempt to death just by going about our daily lives. The truth is that the driving force behind these arrests and others like them goes beyond a concern for the safety of children (because seriously, if a child’s welfare is the main concern, then maybe don’t arrest that child’s mother and force the child into foster care?) and actually has more to do with the contempt that our society shows its most struggling members, as well as exposing the lack of choices that poor mothers—usually single—face every day. These are women who have been told time and time again that their difficult situations are nobody’s fault but their own and that all they need to do to succeed is find work and be diligent—lean in—and they will be ok. But the truth is that it’s impossible to lean in if you don’t know that there isn’t some protection guaranteed lest you fall flat on your face. For so many women around the country, there are no easy choices—sometimes there aren’t even choices at all—so they take their kids with them to work and hope that they sit quietly, or they leave them in the car for 20 minutes in hopes that they will get a job that can better all their lives.

The real question to ask here is who benefits from the criminalization of these women’s choices? Are the decisions they make imperfect? At times, yes. But so are the options available to them. The children definitely don’t benefit from having their mothers arrested and from potentially being placed in foster care. The only beneficiary is a system which has long marginalized poor, usually minority women so that it can hold them up as an example of what happens when people don’t apply themselves with enough diligence, never mind the fact that these women are doing their best with little to no support. We hear so frequently about the plights of working, middle- to upper-class women and the sacrifices they have to make for their careers or for their families. And, as a working, middle-class mother myself, I know what kind of sacrifices are sometimes required. But I have the benefit of being able to afford quality child care. I have the benefit of having a job with benefits, vacation time, paid sick days, flexible hours, and the ability to work from home. I also have the benefit of being white and having far less of a chance of ever being singled out by law enforcement or society at large as being an unfit mother. And so I’m more protected—and so are my kids. I can lean in and I don’t have to worry about falling over. Every woman should have that opportunity though. Or should, at least, have the option of not going to jail for trying their best to provide for their families.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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  1. Why doesn’t the city and/or state provide free child care services for those who cannot afford to pay? It would be less expensive for the tax payers in the long run than arresting people and putting children into foster care. The underlying fact is that the big corporations have taken over the world and have started to lock people up just for being poor!

  2. As a teacher, I find this heartbreaking but not at all surprising…we see this and so much more happening in the lives of our students. Side note: there is a repeated spelling error in this article- “while away the hours” should be “wile away the hours” and “whiling away her summer days” should be “wiling away her summer days”.

  3. The beneficiary of this situation is business phenomenon called Prison Industrial Complex. It’s a sick business that profits from the incarceration of as many people as possible. It’s a sick society the considers a life behind prison walls more valuable than a life lived in freedom. How fucking sick is this shit?

  4. I work at a community college where we offer training programs for unemployed and under-employed people. These programs sometimes offer day care options, on site, for the participants children. These trainings have been funded but federal and city funds to assist people like these mothers with job training certification and skills as well as placement into employment.
    We of course are not the only provider of such training programs- many workforce 1’s and community boards can refer people to these types of trainings and place them in it themselves. So why aren’t these women, mothers, fathers – taking advantage of what is available to them? I handle the marketing and outreach promoting our programs with NYCHA, community centers, libraries, in the newspapers, online etc. so it cant be for the lack of knowledge about these training programs.
    Instead of locking these women up they should be sending them to sites like mine.