The Motherhood Manifesto
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Motherhood in America
Life, Liberty, Parenthood, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In the deep quiet of a still dark morning Renee reaches her arm out from under her thick flowered comforter and across the bed to hit the snooze button on her alarm clock. For a few blessed (and pre-planned) minutes she avoids the wakeful classic rock blaring into her bedroom from her alarm. Renee hits the snooze button exactly three times before finally casting off her covers. She does this each morning, and each morning she sleepily thinks the same thing, “It’s too early. I was just at work two seconds ago, and I don’t want to go back already.”
Everything about Renee’s morning is structured for speed and efficiency. At 5:45 A.M., with her young son, Wade, and husband, Alan, still sleeping, Renee drags herself out of bed and sleepwalks to the shower. She brushes her teeth while the shower is warming, making sweeping circles on the mirror with her hand so she can see her reflection. Renee’s movements, though she’s thoroughly tired, are crisp, hurried, and automatic—she’s repeated the routine daily for several years.
Renee knows exactly how long each of her morning tasks will take to the minute. That, for instance, between 6:00 A.M. and 6:12 A.M. she needs to put on her makeup, get herself dressed, get her son’s clothes out and ready for the day, and get downstairs to the kitchen to start breakfast.
All this is done with an eye on the clock and a subtle, yet constant, worry about time, “I’m always worried that I’m going to be late to work.” Her mind loops over the potential delays that could be ahead, “Is there going to be traffic? Am I going to get stuck behind a school bus? Is my son going to act normal when I drop him off or is he going to be stuck to my leg? Am I going to get a parking space in the office garage or am I going to have to run five blocks through the city to get to work on time?” And if there isn’t any garage parking, which happens often, then in order to be on time to work Renee has to run up six flights of stairs in heels because she doesn’t have extra time to waste waiting for an elevator. She’s done this climb more than once.
Why the stress? At her work, if Renee is late more than six times, then she’s in danger of losing her job. Like many American mothers, Renee needs her income to help provide for her family.
When Renee became Wade’s mother one hot summer night five years ago, she joined the 82 percent of all American women who become mothers by the time they are forty-four years old.
Women, the majority of whom are moms, are also working more: In the past three decades the percentage of working women has skyrocketed (from 63 percent of twenty-five to thirty-four-year-old women in 1975, to a striking 81 percent in 1999).
In our modern economy, where more often than not two wage earners are needed to support a family, American women now make up 46 percent of the entire paid labor force. In fact, a study released in June of 2005 found that in order to maintain income levels, parents have to work more hours—two parent families are spending 16 percent more time at work or 500 more hours a year than in 1979 just to keep up.Women, and mothers, are in the workplace to stay. Yet public policy and workplace structures have yet to catch up.
For example, the option of flextime would make a world of difference for Renee and her family, “Flextime would make a huge difference in my life because with my job function there are busy days and late days. As long as I’m there 40 hours a week and get my job done, then I don’t know why anyone would care. I don’t understand why there’s such an 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. ‘law’ in my workplace.”
Renee lives for her family. Even with her harried mornings, she always saves time for a fifteen-minute morning cuddle on the couch with her young son, Wade, before they rush out the door. They chat while snuggling and greet the day together.
Each morning as her husband, Alan, who owns a tiling company, gets going to work, it falls to Renee to drive Wade to daycare on her way to work as a payroll specialist at a large bank. It’s Renee’s job that provides the health insurance and other benefits for her family since her husband owns his own business.
by Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood
The most important job, even economists agree, is raising the next generation. This is still predominantly women’s work, and they are still unpaid, badly paid, and often disrespected for doing it. Caring for others, especially for children, is so taken for granted, especially in the U.S., that having a baby is the single worst financial decision an American woman can make.
Take jobs. They are designed ideally for people who have no family life—or can delegate the family work to someone else. As a result, after they have children many women either work part-time or leave paid employment altogether. Often this is not their preferred choice; it’s a path they are forced to take because of workplace rigidities. And it costs women dearly: a college-educated woman with one child can easily pay a “Mommy tax” (lost lifetime earnings) of $1 million.
Married mothers also soon discover that marriage is not an equal financial partnership. The typical American mother is economically dependent on her spouse, andhas no claim on his income in the event of divorce. She and the children face a serious risk of poverty if the marriage ends—a risk that most fathers don’t face.
Social policy does little to insure these risks or reward mothers for their economic contribution. Nannies earn Social Security credits; mothers do not. They earn a zero for every year they spend caring for family members. This means that motherhood is the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age.
This treatment of mothers is an anachronism. We need to stop sentimentalizing mothers and other caregivers and start according their work the respect and material recognition that it deserves—and earns. I believe that this is the big unfinished business of the women’s movement.
© Ann Crittenden, 2005
At 7 A.M. sharp Renee and Wade get into the green family Windstar and start driving. Freeway traffic is often stop-and-go during the morning commute, and Renee regularly finds herself sitting in traffic with white knuckles worrying about being late to work. “I have to wake up, wake my kid up, deal with a morning tantrum, drop him off at daycare, fight traffic, agonize about whether I am a horrible mother for leaving him at daycare, worry if I’m going to be late to work—and that’s just the morning before my work day starts at 8 A.M.,” says Renee.
Seemingly mundane challenges like these, Renee tells us, become overwhelming when coupled with the financial anxieties that face so many families in America. Renee and Alan would like to have a second child, but they worry that they simply can’t afford one right now. For them, the high cost of childcare for Wade, lack of flextime at work, and daily expenses, all add up to just a one-child family.
“It’s horrible when you are considering whether or not you can ever have another child based on if you will be able to get ahead,” comments Renee, “and by no means do we live, or want to live extravagantly: we just want two cars, two kids, and a vacation here and there.”
Renee and millions of other parents across the country are seriously struggling to meet the demands of work and parenthood. Vast numbers of women are chronically tired and drained. But the American credo teaches us to be fierce individualists, with the result that most parents toil in isolation and can’t envision, or don’t expect, help. But when this many families are struggling, it’s time to recognize we have common problems that can be most constructively addressed through working together to bring about broad and meaningful change in our families, communities, workplaces, and nation.