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Valerie Young's picture

This post originally appeared on the Mothers Central blog. You can see it here in its original form.  Thanks to Kate for letting me post it here in full.

It was a desperate cry for help, and one that I could not ignore. 

It came via email, at the end of the summer, from a total stranger. (At least, she was a stranger to me, but my work was known to her because she’d been reading it on social media.) Already the mother of a 2 year old, and pregnant again with a due date of this December the email began:

I’m in anguish over the pregnancy discrimination I am facing as a federal civil servant, angry over the roots of our suffocating minimal protections on family leave that are strangling our progress, and disappointed I’m realizing at age 34 that my hard earned degrees should have come with asterisks ** Congratulations! Enjoy the dream of gender equality your country sold you while it lasts, because a rude awakening is coming when you cash in on motherhood. **

So I decided to meet up with her in town, a few blocks from the White House, less than a mile from the Capitol.

She vented, her words and feelings tumbling out, rushing at the opportunity to finally put her experience to a sympathetic ear. After all, to insist that your motherhood is of value, to yourself and others, is practically heresy in a world which sets your worth at the money you can make or the hours you spend in an office.

She’d asked for more time off, beyond the number of sick days she’d accrued, and was met with an attitude of resentment and annoyance at the great inconvenience her pregnancy posed for the office. Sometimes she found her excitement about the birth clouded by feelings of anger and frustration towards her colleagues and supervisors.

She’d been knocked off balance.

She knew she did important work, and made a meaningful contribution. Her commitment was unquestioned. Her performance was well-regarded and she was used to being treated respectfully as an employee.

What was the problem? (She wondered aloud.)

She’d done nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to compromise her work, and nothing that she’d not done before, or that millions of women had not done before? Babies are hardly a phenomenon, and women have been a mainstay of the federal workforce for years. Surely this particular social problem has been solved?

But sadly it had not (or at least, not here) and this (I proceeded to tell her) is because…

There is no paid maternity or paternity available to all working people in the US, except that offered by some private employers to certain employees, at their discretion.

These are the facts she is faced with:

  • The only national statute we do have applies to about half the private sector work force.
  • Additionally, if you’ve’ worked a certain number of hours in a certain period of time for one employer, you can take unpaid leave, and come back to your job. Yet the truth is, most eligible employees don’t take this time (even when they need it) because they can’t afford to miss a paycheck.

And Federal workers don’t fare much better.

  • While they do get a certain amount of sick time (if they can manage to never take it so it can accrue) it rarely comes anywhere close to what a new mom needs after birth or adoption to bond, recover, or start a solid breastfeeding routine.
  • A handful of members of Congress have tried from time to time to make sure that federal employees who become new parents have at least 4 weeks of paid leave available, most recently in 2009. Their argument was that it would improve morale, increase productivity, decrease turnover, save money, improve family economic security, and promote the health and well-being of parents and their new kids. Sadly, the bill was unsuccessful.

So, here we are, well into the 21st century, with women comprising half the workforce and most all parents working outside the home to provide for their families.

What are we doing about these outdated policies?

Women’s advocates and those who value family care are getting ready to push the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act. If passed it would:

So, there could be some remedies ahead in federal policy for my new friend. However the one thing that would really change the barriers pregnant women face is…

A shift in our attitudes.

The care people take of each other must be seen as a critically important activity, making families, communities, and our country and economy stronger. The hours in our day must be valued for what we do with them, not how much money they generate.

Rather than living in the past, when so many of our public systems and structures were set up, we need to make the intersection where our personal and public lives meet one that reflects the fact that workers and family caregivers are the same people.

Looking across the table at the face of the frustrated women who’d reached out to me, sadly… I don’t think I solved any of her problems.

However, I could certainly assure her that she was hardly alone in her frustration and anger. There are solutions—solutions that have been effective in other countries, and in some states in the US. Like so many things, it comes down to a question of political will.

If we want to make it an issue and raise it to the forefront of public discussion, we can.  But it will take all of us, and it will take time, for we are starting from so far behind.

‘Til next time, Your (Wo)Man in Washington


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