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Let's Really Value Motherhood:
Commentary on the Mommy Wars

SearchMothers.com - Copyright 2006

Editorial by Martha Burk, Ph.D., Director, Corporate Accountability Project National Council of Women's Organizations, and Author of Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It.

We're in the middle of another media-created "conflict" between working moms and those that stay home. Stories are popping up in leading newspapers and magazines about how mothers don't want to work outside the home anymore, and are leaving the workforce in droves. Don't believe it. Most moms work outside the home because they don't have any choice economically. And a healthy chunk of those that do stay home do so because the support system they need isn't there. Work/family balance is impossible without policies that support it.

As individuals, we're pretty fond of our mothers. But as a nation we don't value motherhood all that much. We lag far behind Europe in granting leave for the birth or adoption of a child, for example. Our system of unpaid leave applies only to those who work for the largest corporations, and most new mothers (or fathers) can't afford to take it anyway. CEOs and their lap-dog lawmakers say paid leave, the norm in most of the rest of the developed world, would cost too much. Guess it would. After all, we have to save money -- for tax breaks and corporate bailouts benefitting the same employers that don't provide any family benefits.

Child care is another area where we're neanderthal when it comes to social policy. No president has had the guts to propose a comprehensive, federally subsidized child care program since Richard Nixon vetoed such a plan, calling it the "sovietization of American children." Most moms are now in the paid work force out of economic necessity-- but still make only 76 cents to a man's dollar -- so they can't afford private child care that can run $5-$10 thousand per year per child. The result is a generation of children characterized by a phrase unknown to our grandparents - latch key kids. The situation certainly makes you wonder what all that "no child left behind," rhetoric really means.

Many mothers, but few fathers, take traditional "women's jobs" (nursing, schoolteaching, housekeeping, child care) to be at home when their children are. For this they are punished with the historically low wages attached to female-dominated occupations. Is there a reason other than ingrained sex discrimination that dog-pound attendants make more than child care workers, and parole officers make more than social workers? If employers were really "family friendly," they would seriously evaluate their pay scales to see where the inequities are, and bring women's pay up to par. And they would also encourage fathers to take advantage of the few programs that do exist, like flextime and job-sharing, without labeling guys who want to do it "girlie men"-- or worse.

However much of our younger moms have to scramble, the older ones are worse off. The U.S. has the highest percentage of elderly women in poverty of all major industrialized nations. A big part of this is what I like to call the "motherhood tax ." Women have much less money in private pensions than men, due to those historically lower wages, working part-time, or having to drop out of the work force altogether during years when kids are young. And each year of stay-at-home caregiving for kids is counted as a big fat zero when it comes to calculating benefits in the Social Security system.

Twenty five percent of elderly women living alone rely on Social Security for 100% of their income, and forty percent count Social Security as 90% or more. But as a nation we're still talking about giving our mothers the "gift" of a privatized system, removing the only guaranteed income they have and replacing it with risky and expensive stock-market schemes that will primarily benefit investment houses. Ask yourself this: "If my mother (or grandmother) lost her Social Security today, could I afford to write her a check every month.?" This is no idle question. When those great private investments go the way of Enron, it's the kids who will pick up the slack.

We should all be thinking about fixing a system that doesn't work moms. The majority of mothers, like fathers, now work outside the home -- they need the money to support their families. We need national policies and workplace practices that reflect that reality. June Cleaver doesn't live here anymore.

About the Author
Martha Burk, Ph.D. - Ms. Burk is author of "Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It", just released from Scribner. She was Chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations from 2001-2005 - http://www.womensorganizations.org; and Founder and President of the Ctr for Advancement of Public Policy in Wash. D.C.

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