Most of us have a short (or long) list of innocent comments that make us see red. The one that infuriates me most: when people criticize working moms for wanting to “have it all.” As if we are gluttonous, whiny, selfish amoebas intent upon devouring the universe.
The reality is so different. Working moms want only a few basic items. Economic self-sufficiency. Quality childcare. Time with our kids.
Does this sound greedy to you?
To me, it sounds like the American dream. These are the most wholesome of values. Hard work. Earning a decent living. Treating children rightfully as our society’s future. Yet when women strive for these goals, our government and society look the other way, whistling in the dark.
And of course, it’s moms, far more than dads, who are harshly criticized if we fail to achieve them. If we are not financially independent, we are welfare moms. If we stick our kids with unqualified caregivers or leave them alone for three hours after school, we are irresponsible. If we fail to carve out sufficient time to feed our kids nutritious dinners, discipline them thoroughly, and oversee their homework, we are neglectful.
The New York Times recently recapped the consequences of recent state by state budget cuts on working moms. Across most states, tough economic times have meant reduction or elimination of childcare subsidies for the poorest families — which largely means families headed by single mothers. Thirty-seven states decreased childcare reimbursement levels, increased daycare wait lists, and raised family co-payments, according to the National Women’s Law Center. California cut $335 million from its childcare subsidy this year alone. Two states – Arizona and Utah – no longer provide any state funds for childcare. Families are not only worse off in 2011 than they were in 2010, but are also worse off than a decade ago.
All working moms struggle to find reliable, quality childcare; we all face a frightening balancing act between working and caring for kids. However, low-income moms suffer most. For them, childcare often costs more than monthly rent. The most vocal complainers — college-educated women with access to blogs, op-ed columns and reporters — are the tip of the iceberg. We get frustrated and quit (or bitterly keep) our jobs. We hire more household help. We cry into our pillows at 5 am.
Low-income mothers don’t have the privilege of choice. They often get fired when childcare fails, or are forced to leave children home alone, or with inadequate caregivers such as one mom I knew who had to leave her newborn strapped in his car seat all day watching television until a spot at our company’s daycare opened up.
Like Sheontay Smith. She works fulltime in Baltimore, Maryland. She earns $22,000 a year. Her three-year-old son’s father recently stopped paying child support. Daycare costs $520 per month. Her child has been on a waitlist for subsidized childcare since last summer.
“Is the system set up for me to fail?” she asks. “Because that’s what it feels like.”
The lack of affordable childcare, the widespread, unpunished maternity bias in the workforce, the inequality in pay for women vs. our male counterparts, the legal and societal assumptions that women will be there for the country’s children even when men are not, all make it clear: the system is set up for working moms to fail.
The big question is why.
There are roughly 74 million children under age 18 in the United States. These are the citizens who will pay for our retirements. Our future doctors, lawyers, teachers and politicians – or criminals, fugitives, and drug dealers. Do we really care so little about our country’s future?
If men were responsible for raising children, I’m suspect the federal childcare budget would dwarf the NFL’s. Sesame Street would get more funding than college sports programs. There would be free drop-off centers on every street corner. Instead of a Sports section in newspapers, we’d have daily Childcare glossies trumpeting national providers, MVP awards for the most accomplished pediatricians, an annual televised babysitter draft, and Stay-at-Home Dad of the Year profiles.
Instead, our childcare needs are ignored. Men go to work and leave moms behind, but no mom can go to work without her children being cared for. Which means, especially at the tail end of this long recession, that millions of moms are forced to stay home from work. If they and their children still have homes to stay in. The long-term ramifications damage us all – our children most of all.