July 2006, Editorial for SearchMothers.com
By Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner co-authors of the book, "The Motherhood Manifesto" and co-founders of MomsRising.org.
With her newborn son stable in the hospital neonatal intensive care unit, but not knowing how long until he could come home, Selena had to choose between taking her couple of weeks off from work when her son was in the hospital or waiting to take time off when the baby was later released from the hospital and could come home. "There was no way we could afford for me to take off more than we planned," recalls Selena. She made a difficult decision with her husband: After Selena had the baby on Thursday, she was released from the hospital Friday, and was back at her desk on Monday morning. Her newborn son stayed in the hospital.
Selena shares a fairly common experience with new mothers across America---one of financial difficulties and time stretched too thin with the birth of a child. Yet Selena's experience isn't as common in other nations. In fact, a full 163 countries, of 168 studied, give women paid leave with the birth of a child. Fathers often get paid leave in other countries as well-forty-five countries give fathers a right to paid parental leave. The United States doesn't have a federal paid family leave program for mothers or fathers at this time.
American moms--and their families---are in trouble in more ways than one. Frankly, families in our nation are near crisis: A quarter of families with children under six live in poverty, and having a baby is one of the top reasons families enter into a "poverty spell," a time when their income is less than what's necessary to meet basic needs.
This is an equal opportunity motherhood crisis. The absence of family-friendly policies is felt across the board by both full-time parents and employed parents: Families with a full-time parent are seven times more likely to live in poverty than those with two employed parents. Not surprisingly, the majority of families (61%) have two employed parents; and most need those two jobs to stay afloat (In order to maintain income levels, American parents have to work 500 hours more per year than in 1979).
These are just the basic economic indicators of the family crisis. These numbers don't show the incredibly high number of families in bankruptcy because their heath coverage evaporated when they needed it most. Nor do the numbers show the parents who had to choose between going to work so they could feed their children and putting their kids in sub-standard childcare; the parents who had to go back to work just days after a premature baby was born because they couldn't afford the time off; or the 40,000 kindergartners who are home alone every day after school because they don't have access to affordable after school programs.
At the same time families deal with the lack of family-friendly policies in our country, the motherhood wage penalty remains profound: A recent Cornell study found that given equally qualified resumes, mothers are 44% less likely to be hired than non-mothers, and offered an average of $11,000 less starting salaries for high wage jobs. Amy Caiazza, from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, notes, "We did a study that found if there wasn't a wage gap, the poverty rates for single moms would be cut in half, and the poverty rates for dual earner families would be cut by about 25 percent."
This motherhood wage penalty is tied to our lack of family-friendly policies such as paid family leave and child care. Countries with such policies in place don't have motherhood wage gaps the size of ours. Truth be told, the United States is behind most other industrialized countries where family support like universal healthcare and paid family leave are standard, and it shows in our poverty statistics.
There's a lot of talk about balance these days. The work and family balance. Moms in a balancing act. And so forth. Yes, everyone should be able to do what works best, what balances best, for their children, work, and life. But it's not just up to mothers to figure out how to balance it all single-handedly. When this many people are sharing the same problems, we have a societal issue, not a personal failing at perfecting an illusive "balance." It's not up to moms alone to support our children who are the economic engine of our future, but to our society.
It's time to work together to put policies and programs into place that help mothers and families. And, mothers have the power to make a difference. So please join us to help make that difference. Start by visiting www.MomsRising.org.
About the Author
Written by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner co-authors of the book, The Motherhood Manifesto, and co-founders of MomsRising.org.