Changing Policy

18 Nov

MotherWoman 2010 Fall Fundraising Breakfast – Remarks by Sharon Lerner, author of The War on Moms – On life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation

I first “met” Annette Cycon, the founder of MotherWoman, on the radio. Before I went on WMUA to discuss my book, the host, Leo Maley, suggested bringing the director of a local non-profit into our discussion. Fine with me, I said. I was clear about what I wanted to say. I had just crisscrossed the country talking with mothers about the difficulties they face in the workplace and at home.

The issues were – are – staggering. I think they can be understood best when we look at our country in the context of the rest of the globe. When you do, you see American mothers are carrying a huge financial burden. More women are in our workforce – and working full time than almost anywhere in the world. Yet we still have more children than women in most rich countries. And we’re still handling the bulk of the domestic work, too – more cooking, cleaning and childrearing, on average, than men.

The most striking part of this is that we’re doing all this caretaking and paid work with far less support than is available in most countries. In France, Sweden and Denmark, 99 percent of three, four and five year olds are in good, publicly subsidized care. Here, we’ve been unable to commit to any serious public investment in childcare. Without it, most families now struggle to pay for situations that range from good to terrible. Poor families who pay for childcare spend a third of their income on it.

When you look at part-time and flexible work options, you see the same thing. Many other nations have found ways to make sure that workers, including and beyond mothers, get prorated benefits and pay if they work part-time. Here, we have no such protections and our health care system, which ties most coverage to employment, makes the part-time options that are available less appealing. As a result, many mothers are left with the pathetically inadequate “choice” of either working not at all or way more than they’d like. 62 percent of mothers say they’d like to work part-time. In reality, 26 percent do.

Then there’s paid leave, the guarantee of job protection and income after having a child. As you likely know, we don’t have any national policy there either. Almost every other country has worked that out. 177 nations have paid maternity leave. That includes wealthy countries and poor ones, too. Somalia, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Cambodia, Haiti – these countries have managed to provide paid leave. Because we haven’t, women go back weeks – sometimes days – after birth. Others are essentially forced out of their much-needed jobs.

The costs of all this are tremendous. Mothers have little leisure time. Working mothers report being in bed less than 6 hours a night. Our depression rates are high. American mothers’ poverty rates are high. So are our children’s. Everywhere I went, I met women who were stretched to the limit by the effort of balancing the emotional, practical and financial needs of their families. I wasn’t surprised that so many felt besieged. But I was struck that so many women felt personally responsible for being overburdened.

Despite the myriad ways that our national policy has failed them, they felt responsible. So I knew what my message had to be on Leo’s show – and the dozens of others I went on: Somehow, I needed to let mothers know they’re not alone. I wanted to show them that their challenges are not their fault. Rather, they’re systemic – the result of policy decisions we’ve made as a country.

So back to Annette. In the first few minutes of our interview, it became clear to me that she not only shared my analysis, she was already doing the work, putting it into action. For years, I learned, MotherWoman had been both addressing mothers’ immediate, individual problems with mothers’ groups and postpartum support and attacking the policy problems at their root.

I’ve spent the past five years doing research on the issues of motherhood, scouring the nation for people and organizations that share my concerns. I’ve spent the last six months since my book came out talking about mothers’ struggles, and I have never before or since that interview found an organization anywhere else in the United States that is addressing these issues with this kind of impact.

I can’t imagine a better strategy for improving mothers’ lives than MotherWoman’s: offering immediate relief while at the same time working on law and policies. After all, this structural level is not only where we’ll find the causes of our troubles. It’s where we’ll find their solutions, too.

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One Response to “Changing Policy”


  1. And just like that « Needs New Batteries - November 18, 2010

    [...] I had a chance to hear Sharon Lerner, author of The War on Moms, spoke this morning at the MotherWoman breakfast here in Northampton. I learned that 62% of mothers report wanting to work part-time and [...]

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