America's Conflicted Relationship With The Working Mother

working mothers in AmericaFor the first time in U.S. history most new mothers are receiving paid maternity leave. The U.S. Census Bureau tracked 3.1 million first-time mothers, who worked while pregnant between 2006 and 2008, and found that 51 percent received paid leave. That's a leap from 42 percent between 1996 and 2000, and the highest since the bureau began collecting these numbers in 1981.

Two-thirds of mothers worked while pregnant in this period, the survey found. Only 13 percent of college-educated mothers quit their jobs during or soon after pregnancies. But half of the women without a college degree did, no doubt because a much greater proportion of them did not have paid leave.

Paid maternity leave is an issue divided starkly along class lines. Eighty-two percent of employed new mothers without a high school degree did not get paid leave, according to the census. These women are less likely to have jobs with good benefits, and they're more likely to be very young.

The lack of any mandated paid maternity leave also exacts a much greater cost on the single mothers who raise a quarter of this country's children. Thirty-eight percent of single mothers struggled to pay for food in 2010, reported the Institute for Women's Policy Research/Rockefeller Survey of Economic Security.

"Having a baby is a leading cause of poverty spells, and the people who need that time are least likely to have access to it," Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the advocacy group, told Bloomberg News.

Family Values

Many media outlets have spun these numbers as a victory for women. At 51 percent, we have crossed a threshold. But this still means that 49 percent of women use sick days or vacation time in order to recover from childbirth and care for a newborn. Or they take a slash to their paychecks or quit their jobs altogether.

There are only three other countries in the world that do not guarantee paid maternity leave to all women: Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

"Despite its enthusiasm about 'family values,' the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families," said Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch.

But it is precisely this country's understanding of "family values" that may explain its resistance to paid maternity leave. For many Americans, family values and working mothers remain a contradiction. Although women became the majority of the workforce last year, the image of a successful working mother still makes many Americans uncomfortable. She's reduced to caricature, scrutinized and berated: But what about your kids?

The "Tiger Mother" is the latest iteration of this. Amy Chua's account of parenting her children to prodigal achievements sparked a frenzied reaction from all corners. Some called it inspiring. Some called it child abuse.

This image of the overbearing, career-driven supermother is a major shift from the fears that accompanied married women's first forays into the labor force. In the 1990s, at the height of the "mommy wars," politicians, sociologists and even mothers themselves worried that by working they would cause long-term psychological damage to their children, as well as long-term structural damage to the American family.

When Hilary Clinton defended her career in 1992 with the comment, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas," she was widely considered a liability to her husband's campaign. A New Yorker cartoon soon after depicted a woman asking a salesclerk for a jacket and cautioning him: "Nothing too Hilary."

The Soccer Mom

Three years later, Susan Casey, a presidential campaign manager with a Ph.D., ran successfully for local office in Denver under the slogan: "A Soccer Mom for City Council."

The "soccer mom" tag was there to reassure voters that despite her credentials and full-time career, Casey was a doting caregiver who stood on the sidelines for every Saturday morning soccer game. Americans seemed to need this reassurance. Even in 2005, when the journal Developmental Psychology published a study concluding that children do not suffer when their mothers work, the conservative press struck back.

That gave mothers permission to "stash their kids in day-care centers ... the way one might board a poodle," warned columnist Tony Snow, who the next year became White House press secretary.

Sarah Palin managed to gain a following as 2008's Republican vice presidential nominee with an Alaskan update of the soccer mom moniker, when she branded herself a "hockey mom." Palin convinced her fans that she could be an untamed political animal, without compromising her motherly duties. She was the Queen Mama Grizzly.

The Helicopter Parent

When the country seemed finally convinced that working women could still be attentive mothers, our concerns swung in the other direction: They were too attentive.

When the first generation of children raised by majority working mothers reached college age, admissions officers were baffled by all the phone calls. "How could your school possibly reject our darling, talented child?" They dubbed them "helicopter parents."

Mothers and fathers were now too involved in their children's lives. They chauffeured them to Boy Scouts, and tap dance, and Mandarin tutoring. They obsessively co-crafted their college essays. And when those kids graduated and entered the workforce, their parents were on the phone with their new employers, negotiating salary and benefits.

"It's driven by guilt, to prove that they're not depriving their children of any kind of attention," suggests Sonya Michel, the Director of United States Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and an expert on child care policies and mothers' rights. "And often they can't be home with them, so they want to make sure they're entertained."

"Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" came out in this anxious climate. How could a successful Yale Law school professor, who has authored tomes on empire and democracy, still have the energy to stay up all night while her daughter practiced piano? If my child didn't secure a place at Harvard, was I not overbearing enough?

Smothering To Hovering

Concerns over how much attention women should give their children predate even women's entry into the labor force. The "helicopter parent" of the 2000s is in fact an uncanny parallel to the "smother mother" of almost 70 years ago.

In his best-selling 1942 book, "Generation of Vipers," Philip Wylie referred to "moms" (as opposed to perfectly wonderful "mothers") as the "thundering third sex" who are responsible for the "mealy look of men today." "Moms' Denounced as Peril to Nation," announced The New York Times in 1945, in a review of a stormy speech by Dr. Edward Strecker, one of the nation's pre-eminent psychiatrists.

We've come full circle. At midcentury our anxieties were about bored, overbearing mothers. Then it shifted to neglectful working mothers. And now it's about working mothers, who also manage to be overbearing.

"It really is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation," says Kathleen Gerson, author of "The Unfinished Revolution."

As a country, we're still very concerned about the working mother. Yet we haven't introduced mandatory paid maternity leave, which almost every other country in the world agrees is a fundamental way to help new mothers provide safe, secure and loving homes for their newborns.

Perhaps it is because the working mother we're really fixated on is white (or Asian) and middle class. The soccer moms, helicopter moms and tiger moms in our imagination are not black or Latino, and they can afford private piano lessons. But it is low-income women, and especially low-income black and Latino women, who can get plunged into poverty by motherhood. And this week's census bureau statistic is unlikely to mean much to them.

Next:The Evolution Of The Housewife

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