Maternity Leave: Where’s the #MomsToo Movement?
Feminists need to rout some of their commendable passion into making sure that American mothers are cared for.
Whatever one thinks about the roar of noise that is the #MeToo movement, it’s proved damned effective at galvanizing action and debate.
It’s also demonstrated how the world has grown more willing to do something about sexist and misogynistic injustices—ranging from minor everyday ones to graver ones entrenched over a lifetime—that women have endured for centuries.
In which case: why the barely audible squeaks about maternity leave for America’s moms?
In my native UK, contractually employed mums (our brave versions of your brave moms) are entitled to up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 weeks of which is paid. That’s left me continually stunned at how this issue is so rarely touched on in America during these supposedly progressive and enlightened times.
The United States remains the only country in the developed world that does not mandate paid maternity leave. All that’s on the books is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, which requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children. And that’s only if they’ve been working in their jobs for a year and their employers have more than 50 employees within 75 miles of where they work.
The downright pernickety-ness and stinginess of it all is only further exacerbated by the fact that if your spouse works at the same company that you do, your employer can divide the 12-week total between the two of you.
Such splitting of hairs seems almost designed to pummel the morale of first-time or once-again mothers (as well as bleary-eyed fathers). Yet very little has been said—and even less done—to improve matters since 1993. Not by politicians, not by public figures, and, most tellingly for this article, not by feminists, even though the issue is a source of anxiety and woe for so many women. All these sleep-deprived new moms, their bodies and hormones in chaos, their emotions rollercoastering, dragging themselves back to the office.
Seven in 10 moms with kids younger than 18 were in the labor force in 2015, up from 47 percent in 1975, according to the Pew Research Center, which also found that mothers are the primary breadwinners in four in 10 American families.
Given such stats and the miserable implications for families at such a challenging period in women’s lives, it’s odd to observe what battles are not being fought by those feminists who claim to speak for all women, especially right now, when their voices seem to be so effective. Admittedly several states have their own laws that offer partially paid maternity leave. And some employers do offer paid leave of their own volition. But the fact is that, because FMLA is all there is, many women must return to work after those 12 weeks are up.
So why not make more noise about #MomsToo, especially considering that #MeToo surely has some volume to spare?
I put that question to a single mom who works in women’s counseling, child assault protection, and the prevention of intimate partner violence—suffice to say, she is well steeped in matters of men not stepping up or doing far worse. She countered that the #MeToo movement is not just about sexual harassment; it’s about the general way that men and society view women. This in turn, she explained, affects lots of other issues, including maternity leave, though she said that more pressing for her are the terrible maternal mortality rates across the United States. In short, she says, the #MeToo tide is looking to raise all manner of boats skippered by and sheltering long-suffering women.
I’d struggle to argue with any of that. At the same time, though, any worthy movement can become a bandwagon. And I suspect the lack of #MomsToo attention has to do with some #MeToo supporters wanting to look edgy and on trend on social media, which can’t usually be achieved by discussing the dull and antiquated institution of motherhood. Selfless devotion and sacrifice to a little screaming brat who might not even live out the all but guaranteed extinction of the world? Please, girl.
I recently came across a book aimed at new moms that purported to explore the “brilliant, terrible, wonderful, confusing realities of first-time motherhood.” Going off what I have seen of motherhood and speaking to new moms—my sister included, who has had four kids, and does not hold back from offering candid assessments—that description seems apt. It captures the wild spectrum of maternal experiences, which range from utter joy to utter nightmare, with an enormous amount in between.
Yet despite all that, American society keeps its arms folded when it comes to cutting moms some slack regarding their so-called duties to their employers, with barely anything suggested about a duty of care due the other way.
Even more concerning is how the poor state of maternity leave is part of a much larger and more troubling dynamic, one that, once again, the feminists could do more to consider and confront.
The New York Times comes in for a fair amount of criticism these days for its on-trend topics and attempts to appear woke. But full credit to it for running in last weekend’s Sunday paper a devastatingly humane and thought-provoking article—the kind that seems an endangered species—addressing declining birth rates in the developed world.
While acknowledging that the downward trend typically accompanies the spread of economic development that brings benefits to women, it still delved into the nuances of how that trend also reflects a “profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible” due to “the glaring absence of family-friendly policies in the U.S.”
This, the article’s author, Anna Louie Sussman, argues, is the result of the bigger picture that society is missing—and that much talk of feminist empowerment misses too—whereby the current version of global capitalism is generating “social conditions inimical to starting families.”
I think both sexes are being sold a lot of hokum in the name of self-realization, taking back control, and so on. And that peddling is being done in the name of the overarching lord of us all: The Economy.
Sussman aptly addresses this, describing “a secular world in which a capitalist ethos–extract, optimize, earn, achieve, grow—prevails,” while “a lifetime of messaging directs us” towards an “engaging career, esoteric hobbies, exotic holidays.” The result, she says, is the “promise and pressure of seemingly limitless freedom, which can combine to make children an after-thought, or an unwelcome intrusion on a life that offers rewards and satisfactions of another kind.”
This crisis in reproduction, Sussman argues, is compounded by the fact that so many people who are thinking of having a child are wrestling with—and often giving up in the face of—well-grounded anxieties ranging from the increasing financial burdens of child rearing to bringing children into a world wrought by environmental degradation.
Hence Sussman’s conclusion that improvements such as paid parental leave are “only a partial fix for our current crisis, a handful of crumbs when our bodies and souls require a nourishing meal.”
As I’ve previously noted, men undoubtedly still play a role in women-centric issues, and hence have a right to participate in important discussions that ultimately affect all of us.
Some feminists might disagree with that. But rather than calling out men for interfering, how about instead directing some of that commendable passion into achieving important change? How about highlighting those more neglected issues such as maternity leave that remain stubbornly entrenched amid the broader hypocrisies of a supposedly caring society that leaves so many mothers in the lurch?
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the U.S., the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.