America's failure on part-time working - through the eyes of a British 'Mum' gone Stateside
My daughter has officially reached the ‘pre-toddler’ phase. Where there were gurgles there are now genuine giggles; where arms reached out there are now heartfelt cuddles; where there were indiscriminate smiles, well remembered friendships are now formed. From the fragile helpless little baby, a multi-faceted human being is emerging and I feel myself falling deeper in love by the hour.
Yet in spite of this, the idea of continuing as a stay-at-home mom is losing its appeal. In my naivety I’d imagined that bumptiousness, bossiness and bloodcurdling tantrums were reserved for the ‘terrible twos’. Nobody told me that mealtimes with a just-turned one year old could evolve into forty minute food-fights. In peacetime the job is only marginally less demanding - the library visits and toy-shop sing-alongs that used to pleasantly break up the days now involve complex negotiations, chasing up and down isles and frantic efforts to put things back on shelves. To top it off, the weekly babysitter has quit citing artistic differences...
So, where do we go from here? Like most of our friends back home in the UK, my husband and I have concluded that the best scenario would be for one or both of us to go part-time and combine this with part-time daycare. This would allow me my sanity, not to mention the chance to reclaim career and salary. And importantly it would give our daughter more of the social stimulation she craves, whilst maintaining the one-to-one time she still seems to rely on. Its a no brainer right?...
Wrong! Most American moms - and dads - face a stark all or nothing choice when it comes to combining work and family life. Whilst in the UK workers have a legal right to request flexible work and the most common pattern in two-parent families with children under-14 is that one parent works part-time, the options are vastly more limited for US parents.
Other than for a few high income occupations, such as pediatric medicine, the majority of part-time opportunities in the US offer significantly worse pay and conditions. There is no requirement for parity of pay for part-time work and it has been proven that even those women who take-up offers to take more flexible or shorter hours find themselves discriminated against and overlooked for promotions. Under these conditions, it is little surprise that most American moms feel they have little option than to bite the bullet, going back to work full-time and accepting the long hours (often 50+pw), limited holiday and family sacrifice that entails.
Meanwhile, the minority of educated professional moms who choose to stay at home have long been fetishized in the American media as self-sacrificial ‘opt outs’ . In the town where I live, the cultural divide between stay-at-home moms and worker moms is plain to see. I have a vague memory of this dynamic from when my own mum used to complain about the ‘worker mums’ who’d patronize her at North London dinner parties in the early ‘80s. But I’ve not encountered anything like it back home since reaching the motherhood age, and can only think that its disappearance must be down to the rise of part-time working as a life-style choice in the UK. Here, by contrast, it can be hard to escape the group politics. Each camp has their own set of support groups, their children don’t mix and if you raise the subject of the ‘other’ with either it won’t be long before disparaging or perplexed comments are muttered.
The stay-at-home/worker-mom chasm is not the only division that is made wider by poor prospects for part-time workers. New analysis from UMass shows that low-income women face the greatest ‘motherhood penalty’ in earnings - and largely this is down to dropping their hours. The authors speculate that many low paid women who overcome the initial childcare conundrum and stick it out at work often quit altogether later on to accommodate family crises, lacking sufficient paid time off. Interestingly, the same study finds a fatherhood income premium which is also linked to hours worked - in other words, as moms drop out of the labour market, or accept poorly paid part-time work, dads are having to work longer. It's the traditional breadwinner model plus.
I don’t pretend that alone improving part-time work opportunities would fix all the worlds ills - the gender pay-gap in the UK is still a big problem. Yet if US employers and government could get to grips with the issue they'd be swiping a significant blow at gender, class and cultural divisions all in one shot.
This post is based on an article posted originally at http://teadrinkingmom.blogspot.com/