As the end of the year draws near, I find myself looking back. Because the future is uncertain (both the country’s and my own) there’s more nostalgia wafting around just over the keyboard than usual. Let me try to convey some points I hope you remember in the event I’m not regularly popping up in your inbox in 2017.
1. Mothers Are Doing It All
The majority of women are in the workforce, and mothers are no exception. Even with children of under a year old, most mothers are drawing paychecks. Women have been earning more academic degrees, even PhD’s, than men for decades. Now women are more than half of US law students.
Strikingly, in addition to these increased hours of paid work and educational attainment, women are still doing most of the unpaid domestic labor in homes and for families. Women are also spending more time actively engaged with their children than men, even in comparison to their own mothers who were not employed. We are also the ones who get pregnant, birth, and then breastfeed our babies, thereby perpetuating the species, ensuring the future of the citizenry and all players in the economy upon which society depends. (And they call us the weaker sex? Please.)
2. Mothers Are Getting Very Little Back
In spite of mothers’ achievements, basic employment standards available around the world are lacking in the US. Of paramount importance is paid time off for new parents and paid time to visit the doctor or take a day to recover from the flu or care for a sick family member. The net result of this policy failure is lower women’s labor force attachment than comparable countries which drags on the economy. New parents are under more stress and going back to work sooner, which negatively impacts their physical and mental health. Because lack of paid leave drives down the number of mothers that breastfeed their children, children’s health is negatively impacted. Infants are also less likely to get well-baby check ups and regular vaccinations.
The cumulative impact of privatizing the risks of motherhood strains household budgets, drives women out of employment, and increases the poverty rates of both women and children. Our child care mishmash means children that need care and early ed don’t get it, families that can find it can’t afford it, and those that can’t afford it end up leaving the workforce. A fifth of US children live at or below the poverty line, and the cost of inadequate health, care, and education translates into lower educational attainment, chronic (and costly!) physical and mental conditions in later life, an uptick in incarceration, and a greater need for public assistance. Those costs are spread throughout society and paid for with tax revenue. A policy failure which begins in infancy mushrooms and ends up implicating all of our public and private institutions. It is much less costly to make sure parents and children have what they need from day one. Yet updating our policies to address the needs of families – very different now than when workplace standards were formulated decades ago – is still resisted by lawmakers.
3. Mothers Must Exercise Their Power To Make Change
Mothers are the busiest people. They are also unlikely to expend their time and energy to further their own interests. It strikes me that mothers will organize themselves to the summit of efficiency against:
These are all worth and valuable causes. We devote ourselves to the well-being of others, and fail to recognize that our well-being, too, plays a vital role in achieving that. I’d so love to see organizations focused on mothers in political office, mothers for family economic security, mothers for equal pay, or mothers for respecting motherhood in tangible ways that will change the norms and expectations that only disadvantage women.
Mothers will not find themselves in a better situation because they deserve it, or have earned it, or because “it’s the right thing to do.” That has never been the way of the world. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Frederick Douglass understood something that women thus far have refused to act upon. Respect for the care we do, respect for the work we do, and justice for half the population will elude us until we simply insist upon these things. Until then, we are complicit in our own social diminishment and economic devaluation.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington