Motherhood is the next step in women’s rights

Published 9:18 am Friday, November 26, 2010

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson, Paths to Peace

In sitting down to write this column, I am not sure what to make of my life right now, even though my life is great by American standards. Maybe that is the problem: American standards are not always good for people’s emotional and physical well-being. On most days I feel like a human experiment. I long for peace of mind.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

This is almost entirely due to the strain of being a working mom. I love being a mom, and I love my job as a teacher, but I am terrible at balancing both in a way that is good for my health. They are both full-time jobs, even though I have cut back a little in my teaching contract. To keep up with the demands of these jobs during the school year, I drink canteens of coffee, I have whittled my cooking repertoire down to pancakes, and I get between four and five hours of sleep on weeknights. I never run anymore, which used to be my primary source of stress relief. Now what eases my stress level the most is doing enough laundry to see the basement floor. My new main exercise is lifting my 33-pound son, who is as good as any weight machine.

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My husband and I are thinking about having another child within the next couple of years, and I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I really want another child and I want my son to have a sibling. On the other hand, it seems more like a duty to slog through than a joy to unfold. The blurry memories of how overextended I felt in the year after returning to work, when every day felt like a Sisyphean push in semi-conscious survival mode, give me pause. A voice in the back of my head tells me that motherhood should not feel like being a one-legged woman in a log-rolling contest during the first year or two of my child’s life.

I know I should not complain. My five-month paid maternity leave was a combination of fortuitous timing and four years of teaching without illness. My accumulated sick days covered nine weeks of maternity leave during the spring quarter, which merged seamlessly into summer vacation. A family friend helped with child care for most of the next school year, and then we put our son in a quality day-care phenomenally located across the street from our house. Our son loves playing with the other children there. It is a reasonable cost for one child, and we could easily afford two. I feel lucky that my paycheck covers more than just health care and groceries after paying for child care. We are also blessed to have a robust child who has only needed two extra clinic visits in his 20 months.

For all the lip service paid to motherhood and family values, it seems like our country could be a lot friendlier to working mothers. Most mothers work outside the home, whether they want to or not. I would love to be a stay-at-home mom, but we decided to have a more comfortable household budget instead. There are many working mothers, though, who work full time and still barely make ends meet. It is another layer of major stress for them, and it does not have to be that way.

Looking at the big picture, the U.S. guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, which is Scrooge-like compared with what many other industrialized countries offer. In Norway, women can choose between 44 weeks of fully paid leave or 53 weeks at 80 percent salary. In Sweden, couples can split a total of 16 months of parental leave at 80 percent pay. Child care is subsidized for middle-income families in both countries, but not in the U.S.

Part of the hang-up for getting more benefits for mothers is that the U.S. does not have a declining birthrate or zero population growth like some other industrialized countries. Immigration is effectively restocking the U.S. population, while Russia is resorting to monthly cash payments to entice its women to have more children. As long as moms in the U.S. continue to gut it out and keep reproducing, there is no pressing demographic reason to help them.

Another reason for lack of maternal and child-care benefits is the prevailing notion that the U.S. is overtaxed and social programs create dependency. To me, the idea of extending Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires is ridiculous when so many mothers have to tear themselves apart from their babies to go back to work after six or eight weeks and then have child care swallow a big chunk of their paychecks. I have a much easier time sympathizing with the overtired working mothers than the millionaires. They give new meaning to the word overtaxed.

What we need is the political will to say that supporting motherhood is worth a national investment. It does not have to be as generous as that of Scandinavian countries to be significant. I have benefited immeasurably from the women’s movements that brought women the vote, equal education and equal pay for equal work. To give me peace of mind, even though I am destined to go through a few more sleepless years as a working mother, I am speaking out for this next step in women’s rights.

It is morally right to financially help mothers because it reduces strain on families and gives babies a better start. It has tangible benefits for family stability — Norway experienced a down tick in divorce rates after they began offering more paid parental leave and continuing child care subsidies. Moms in the U.S. should have the real choice of staying home during their baby’s crucial first year and have the right to child-care benefits. This should be an American standard.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of Freeborn County Paths to Peace.