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Nanette Fondas's picture

With the November presidential election drawing near, we may see groups of Americans pitted against one another: young versus old, blue states versus red, liberals versus conservatives.

But there is one issue that cuts across these (supposedly) opposing groups: the importance of family. There is a growing consensus that the U.S. needs to build both public and private sectors that are friendly to families in order to remain the economic and democratic leader of the globe, as well as to fulfill our human calling to care for our tiniest, most innocent citizens.

But can we do it? What would an America that is truly friendly to families look like?

First, it would recognize that American mothers are occupied with two roles: mothering and working. When she has on her “working” hat, she’s a breadwinner, just like dad. Today nearly three quarters of American mothers are in the paid labor force. Six out of 10 moms with children under age six work full time. You know these mothers: they cut your hair, scan and bag your groceries, prepare your taxes, teach your children, run local businesses, and maybe even serve as your pastor, pediatrician, or mayor.

Today’s economic realities require two incomes from the vast majority of households, even those in which the mother might choose a reduced work schedule if it were available and devoid of penalties such as pay cuts, loss of upward mobility, and benefits like health insurance and retirement plans. The global labor supply unleashed by the Internet and other technologies has leveled the playing field for workers in many industries, ensuring that American parents—even that new mom down the street who is still breastfeeding her infant—will feel continued pressure to work more.

But employment is only half of what mom’s expected to do. As soon as she gets home, she puts on her “mothering” hat. She holds, feeds, and cuddles her infant; talks, plays, sings, and reads with her toddler (oops, potty-trains, too); stimulates, teaches, and disciplines her pre-schooler.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. mothers are in the paid labor force. Mothers earn 27% less than their male counterparts; single moms earn 34% to 44% less.

Sounds like fun, and it is. But these days, “mothering” means even more, whether mom works full time at home or in the paid labor force: supplementing her children’s education, sometimes advocating for them when special circumstances arise; guarding against an ever-changing landscape of commercial and technological advances that seek to gobble up childhood; staying abreast of dangerous ingredients in food and toxins in toys and other products; and coordinating children’s social, athletic, and academic commitments. In’s 2008 Mother’s Day survey, stay-at-home mothers reported working 94.4 hours per week. It’s no wonder the term “executive mom” is catching on.

So an America that is truly friendly to families would recognize that mothers wear two hats and thus move toward social policies and employment practices that bridge work and family.

To support “mothering” it would offer paid leave following birth or adoption, or to care for a sick child, parent, or self; educational excellence in the early years (child care and pre-school) as well as elementary and secondary school; after-school programs and other supplements to the traditional school day and calendar (including the need for remedial, accelerated, and summer programs); and access to affordable health care. This would lighten the burden of the two-hat mom, especially for the millions of mothers in America who are trying to solve these problems individually and piecemeal, year after year. You’ve seen them, Blackberry in one hand, science project in the other, scrambling to get a sick child to the doctor, frantically patching together a child-care plan for summer vacation that is stimulating (possibly) and affordable (rarely).

Support for moms’ (and all parents’) working role would include: flexible work arrangements, such as flex-time, telecommuting, compressed schedules, job sharing, part-time with parity, and on-ramps to ease back into work after time away to care for children.

And don’t forget fair wages. We’ve all heard about the wage gap between men and women. But mothers face a double whammy. Women who are not mothers earn 10 percent less than their male counterparts, while mothers earn 27 percent less and single moms earn 34 to 44 percent less.

Further, having a baby is a leading cause in the United States of “poverty spells”—temporary dips into poverty. That’s partially because 51 percent of new mothers lack paid maternity leave; those with the lowest-paying jobs are least likely to have it.

Those who deny mothers equitable wages would be wise to remember a basic finding of anthropological research: when more resources are placed in the hands of mothers, they use them to invest in their offspring, a nation’s future human capital.

We have a long way to go. The U.S. lags far behind other industrialized nations in support for working families. For example, the U.S. is one of only four countries, of 170 surveyed, without paid family leave for new mothers—the other three are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho. The U.S. is tied for 39th with Ecuador and Surinam for enrollment in early childhood education for three- to five-year-olds. And according to a report issued just weeks ago, the governments of 20 countries are ahead of the U.S. in workplace flexibility. Of 21 countries surveyed, 17 have laws allowing parents to move to part-time work or otherwise adjust their working hours; five allow working time adjustments for those with family care-giving responsibilities; and five give everyone the right to alternative work arrangements.

One of the great challenges at this moment in U.S. history is to find peaceful harmony at the nexus of work and family. Few Americans would be anything but grateful to see progress toward this goal. So this November and beyond, when politicians and corporate leaders lay claim to a family agenda, put on your “mothering” hat and ask, “Is this what mothers and families need?” Then put on your “working” hat and ask, “Does this help me thrive at work and at home?” If your answers are “yes, yes,” then it doesn’t matter if it comes from a Democrat or Republican, an old-timer or newcomer. What matters is that he or she recognizes how many hats moms wear.

This article first appeared in Yes! Magazine, Fall, 2008. It's also available online.

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