For Mom, it’s still 1950
Most mothers work outside the home, yet our system treats them like they don't
I recently met a father, Donte Palmer, who is crusading for diaper changing stations in men’s restrooms. How extraordinary that he should need to do this. If men and women are equally responsible for childcare, then it becomes inconceivable that a father would not have access to changing facilities while out in public. Our architecture betrays our thinking. A dirty diaper is mom’s problem.
Most mothers work outside the home. In 2016, 63 percent of mothers with a child younger than three were employed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In 1950, only 34 percent of women, with or without children, held jobs. This is a seismic shift – one that you would expect to cause major changes to accommodate the new reality. Yet the supports for working parents have not materialized. Our society is still set up for families with an adult who dedicates the majority of their time (Oh, let’s be honest – the majority of her time) to raising children and making a home.
There is no national program of paid family leave; and the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not offer universal paid parental leave. Americans have no legal right to paid time off, in contrast to European Union workers, who get a minimum of four weeks a year. This year, Connecticut and other states are considering paid family leave legislation. A wonderful resolution for policymakers in my home state and around the country would be: Let’s stop treating mothers like it’s 1950.
Employed mothers will still face myriad insults and inconveniences: summer day camps that close at 3 p.m.; schools that ask them to produce cupcakes for fundraisers; an average wait time in a pediatrician’s office of 20 minutes; childcare centers that close at 5:30 p.m. and charge late parents by the minute. But all of these challenges will be easier to surmount with more paid time off.
I work on behalf of mothers in poverty. It is not surprising that these women report high rates of depression and anxiety. After all, they do so much with so little and get more blame than credit for their efforts. It is important to point out, though, that women of all economic classes have higher rates of anxiety and depression than men and that those rates peak during their childbearing years. Having financial resources can certainly lighten a mother’s load. Nevertheless, any woman who is simultaneously trying to work for pay and parent is confronted with a world that still isn’t set up for a person to succeed at both.
These barriers affect fathers as well, of course, but they affect mothers more. Mothers spend 10 more hours a week “multitasking,” a 2011 study found, with most of that juggling related to domestic responsibilities. Moms associated their multitasking with stress and negative emotions. Women spend more weekly hours on housework than men and, according to a report by the Pew Research Center, spend twice as much time with their children as fathers do. Women do more mental and emotional work as well, because in a world where she is told to “lean in,” Mom remains the one held responsible for the children. Again, this is why men’s rooms do not have changing stations.
Unless you are one of the few who has live-in help, an ear infection will throw your world out of orbit between negotiating your pediatrician’s office hours, getting a prescription rapidly filled and planning how to deal with work while you wait for the fever to break so that your child can return to school. Maybe Dad will take on some of these tasks. Either way, there can be losses, in pay or in the care-giving parent’s reputation as a dependable employee. Those losses are avoidable with paid family leave; flexible scheduling; childcare for mildly sick kids; pharmacies embedded in pediatric offices. All of those things are reasonable accommodations when there is no on-call parent who can drop everything.
We don’t have them because we still do expect one parent to drop everything. We call her “Mom.”
Joanne Goldblum is CEO of the New Haven-based National Diaper Bank Network.
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