Our Society’s Treatment of Mothers

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On page 134 of the latest issue of The  New Yorker magazine, there’s a cartoon which illustrates one of the main themes of feminism. A woman with a baby in her arms and a little girl by her side is saying to her husband who is sitting in his easy chair in front of the television, remote control in hand: “I know we’re married, but I’d still like to work out a shared-custody arrangement. ”

I can relate to that. I can’t count how many times my husband woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that the baby was crying. Or gave me the third degree every time I left the house alone because he was so concerned that he might have to do something for the kids. (Are they fed/bathed/ready for bed? Are there enough diapers? Do they have clean pajamas?) FindLaw has a check list to help determine which parent is the primary caregiver for purposes of assigning custody. Out of 61 items, the only thing my husband did consistently was help plan our family vacations (i.e., decide where we were going to go).

Most divorced mothers, if they’re honest, would agree that one of the perks of divorce is that their ex-husbands take the kids off their hands every once in a while. But I’m convinced that one reason some divorced fathers don’t fight for sole custody is because they know better. Why would they take on full-time responsibility for the kids when they can just pay child support and have someone else do it? (That doesn’t stop them from bitching about the child support, mind you, but some men are willing to pay it rather than have custody.)

In response to one of my posts, “Danni” wrote that she works full-time, cleans the house and is primary caregiver for her child. “Others may see it as a sacrifice. I do not,” she said. “I see it as [a woman] making the choice that her children and family are more important to her than a career.”

But frankly, it doesn’t always feel like a choice. Our society tells women that they’re not good mothers unless they do take on the role of primary caregiver for the children, even if they also have full-time jobs outside of the home. Even with all the strides made by the feminist movement in the last fifty years, this belief has remained unshaken.

I don’t think there’s a woman alive who hasn’t resented the fact that she has to do everything for the children. And that includes women who have freely chosen to be the primary caregiver. It just feels like too much at times. Children are so needy that it can be a full-time job just to take care of them. Never mind that over 60-70% of women with minor children work outside of the home. [Source.]

Even when women want to stay home with their kids, the economy makes it impossible. In fact, even more women have entered the work force since the economy ran off the tracks in 2008, partly because of high unemployment among men. Does that mean that men are shouldering more of the household burden? I couldn’t find statistics on that, but my guess would be, not so much. That’s how ingrained it is in our society that women are supposed to be in charge of housekeeping and child care.

Whether you’re a SAHM (stay-at-home mom) or a “working” mom, it can get awfully old when you’re not appreciated for what you do for the family. Men are held up as paragons of virtue if they work and help out at home. But women—well, it’s what they do, right?

Feminists aren’t so good about championing the cause of mothers, and that needs to change. Older feminists worked harder to change how women were treated in the workplace than in the home. Younger feminists haven’t been mothers yet, or long enough, for it to hit them how important this issue really is.

All I’m saying is that if we’re going to continue to see mothers as primary caregivers, then they deserve all the support we can give them, physically, emotionally, politically and legally. Because the bottom line is, if we take care of mothers, we’re making this a better society for our children.

And who wouldn’t want that?

Where’s Our Safety Net?

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There’s an article in the latest issue (September 20, 2010) of The Nation titled “It’s Better Over There” that’s about the safety net that exists in Europe (specifically Germany) that doesn’t exist in the U.S. The author, Katha Pollitt, who is a columnist for The Nation (among other things), just came back from spending a year in Berlin and her report about how things are for the poor and the middle class in an economy that is hurting (although in better shape than ours) really made me think.

Here are some of the things Germans have that much of the U.S. doesn’t:

  • Six weeks of vacation and twenty-seven paid holidays.
  • Job security and retirement pensions.
  • Free, or nearly free education, including college.
  • Healthcare including nursing. (The German system requires everyone to buy insurance, but provides subsidies for low earners. Sound familiar?)
  • A government that provides partial compensation for lost wages and encourages companies to shorten hours rather than lay people off.
  • Paid maternity and maternity leave. [For international comparisons of parental leave policies, go here.]

This isn’t to say that social democratic systems like Germany’s are perfect, but they must be doing something right: Germany’s unemployment rate is around 7-7.5 and the United States’ is over 9 and worsening. [Source.]

But just mention social democracy and conservatives go crazy. They assume that social democracy is socialism, pure and simple. It’s not. One definition of social democracy (the one that applies to Germany) is: “a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices.” It’s the “socialist” part that freaks conservatives out. But what social democracy means in practice is that the government is more hands-on in relation to issues that affect the common good. It’s not good for a country to have a high number of poor and unemployed. It costs everyone else a lot of money. It’s much better to spend that money making sure that workers are employed and spending their money. That’s what makes for a healthy economy.

It used to be that democracy meant “the rule of the majority.” But when you look at America today, you have to ask yourself if that’s still true. It seems to me that it is the wealthy and influential who rule America. And in their short-sighted desire to keep as much of their wealth and power as they can to themselves, they’ve robbed the majority of their right to make decisions that affect their very lives.

The term “majority” doesn’t mean the largest racial, religious or socioeconomic group. It means the most people overall. That means that minorities like blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, the handicapped, Muslims, welfare recipients and the poor all have a right to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. And let’s not forget the largest group in this society: women. If we make up a majority of the population and of the workforce, why aren’t our needs being addressed?

I’ve written before about how vulnerable women are in our society. We have no maternity leave, fewer benefits, less pay and little or no support for the needs of our families. Women are often forced to work part-time because they can’t afford to pay for full-time child care (and women are still thought of as the primary child-care providers. Elder care also falls unfairly on the shoulders of women).

But this isn’t just a women’s issue. All of us are at risk. If our families aren’t protected and provided for, then what good is our government anyway?

We don’t have to identify as a social democracy in order to start caring for all our people. Returning to the original meaning of democracy would be enough.

Paid Parental Leave: How Do We Stack Up?

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Thanks to Fertile Feminism for posting these. For more information (detailed tables) go to the Wikipedia article on “Parental Leave.”

Women in the Military

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AP Photo of Alexis Hutchinson and son Kamani

Back in November, the Associated Press reported on the case of Alexis Hutchinson, an Army cook and single mother who refused to deploy with her unit to Afghanistan because she had no one to care for her then 10-month-old son, Kamani. Spc. Hutchinson was arrested and charged with offenses that could have led to a court martial. Last Thursday, however, the New York Times reported that Hutchinson received a less-than-honorable, or administrative, discharge instead. (Which means no health care or other benefits.)

Needless to say, Hutchinson’s case caused a lot of controversy. People’s reactions ranged from empathy to outrage. Some felt that she should be court-martialed, because her duty to her country takes precedence over her duty to her child. Others felt that any woman in the military could find herself in the same situation through no fault of her own and that she should be cut some slack. There were those who criticized her for getting pregnant in the first place and others who criticized her mother for pulling out of her agreement to watch Hutchinson’s son.

This case is a prime example of the kind of situation anti-feminists point to when they say that feminism has created more problems than it has solved. But those who think feminism is unnecessary or even wrong don’t know their history. During World War II, women were sought by the military to man desks and do other non-combatant work to free the men up for fighting. Assistant Chief of Staff John Hildring explained that “we have found difficulty getting enlisted men to perform tedious duties anywhere nearly as well as women will do it.” *

Continue reading Women in the Military

“Bad” Mothers Are Working Mothers

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Germans have a special word for bad mothers: “Rabenmutter” (literally, “raven mother”). For a developed country, especially a Western one, Germany is surprisingly backwards when it comes to how it views and treats working mothers. The long-held ideal is the mother in the home. Germany is so dedicated to this ideal that the majority of school days end at lunch time, because it is expected that mothers are home to take care of their children for the rest of the day. This makes it hard for German women to have children and work outside of the home.

Something has to give. Sometimes that something is child-bearing: Germany has one of the lowest fertility rates in the Western world: 1.38 children per woman (as compared to America’s 2.06). It also affects women’s participation in the workplace:  “Today, 66 percent of German women work. But for those with children under 3, that figure plunges to 32 percent. Only 14 percent of women with one child resume full-time work and only 6 percent of those with two.” In contrast, look at these figures for the U.S.:

“In 2003, 63 percent of mothers with preschool-aged children (younger than 6 years) were in the labor force (either employed or looking for work), and 58 percent were actually employed. Of those mothers, 70 percent worked full-time and 30 percent worked part-time. Of women with children ages 6-17, 78 percent were in the labor force in 2003 and nearly all of those were actually employed. Among these employed mothers, 77 percent worked full-time and 23 percent worked part-time.” [Source]

One thing that Germany does have that the U.S. doesn’t is paid parental leave. This, too, is a reflection of the stay-at-home-mother model. But it gives German women a break that American mothers don’t have. The U.S. just doesn’t accommodate working mothers, period, even though so many of them are in the work force. Americans don’t call working mothers Rabenmuetter, but they might as well. Conservatives are well-known for blaming all of society’s ills on the fact that mothers are out of the home working instead of staying home and taking care of their children. (And they blame feminism for this “trend.”)

Continue reading “Bad” Mothers Are Working Mothers

Watch Out For “Babies”

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Here’s a trailer for a documentary coming in 2010. It’s about one year in the life of four babies from four different corners of the world: Japan, Mongolia, Namibia and the U.S.

Thanks to blue milk for this tip.