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There are some mysteries so dark, so staggeringly enigmatic, that the brain simply shuts down when forced to ponder them. Take, for example, the fact that we in the allegedly pro-family United States have almost no paid parental leave and very little open flexible work. As is so often pointed out, that’s not true elsewhere in the developed world—as this recent New York Times article about flexible work in the Netherlands reminded me:

For reasons that blend tradition and modernity, three in four working Dutch women work part time… But in just a few years, part-time work has ceased being the prerogative of woman with little career ambition, and become a powerful tool to attract and retain talent — male and female — in a competitive Dutch labor market.

A former Dutch government finance minister put it this way: “More men want time with the family, but without giving up their careers. And more women want careers, but without giving up too much time with the family.”

Reading about this rationally dreamy utopia (which has its troubling aspects—read the whole article), I immediately thought of two things: responses to my recent op-ed on paid parental leave in California and the battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.

As you're about to see, both speak to the vast political and cultural chasm between America and European countries like the Netherlands, especially when it comes to family and labor policy. And they reveal something else as well: the lack of empathy and solidarity that practically defines twenty-first-century American life.

Here, for example, are three responses to my San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, in which I innocently describe taking advantage of California’s paid family leave program:

Good lord, what kind of job does anyone have where they can take SIX WEEKS off? You must be really indespensible [sic] to your company! Or, your work, whatever that may be, was foisted off onto other people - nice!

No free rides. It’s a lifestyle choice. You chose to have a child, you should be responsible for paying for it. I don’t see anyone offering me perks for owning a cat.

This guy is a complete wuss. Give mothers more time after giving birth [sic] is a better way to spend money we don't have. [Note: the column was about fathers taking paid leave. Also note: California’s paid leave program is financed by a very small payroll tax and has had no impact on California’s budget.]

If you’re the average MomsRising supporter, you’ll find these comments infuriating, and quite a few of you might think of the commentators as “conservative” or “right wing.” But check out this comment on a Q&A with me from a self-described liberal on the progressive website

Having children is a voluntary choice, and being that our country is not suffering from a declining birthrate, one sees no reason why it should be encouraged or subsidized. Childless by choice people are already excluded from much of mainstream society.

You get the idea. This is what we’re up against, on both the right and the left, and attitudes like these are why we are so very different from the Dutch. It’s not my purpose here to rant and rave against these commentators. Instead I want to ask a specific question: How can we convey to people like them what it feels like to be a parent in America—and why the conditions we face make these policies such an urgent necessity?

I worked for years at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, which studies how to foster pro-social emotions and behaviors like empathy and compassion. There is a great deal of evidence that Americans are losing their ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes—for example, one study of 14,000 college students found their sympathy for the misfortunes of others declined by a stunning 48 percent from 1979 to 2009.

I can’t help but feel that responses to our efforts to win more family-friendly policies are rooted in that empathic decline, as we can see in the example of the commentator who compares having a child to owning a cat.

Unfortunately, the research suggests that there is no easy solution to this problem. In his contribution to my anthology Are We Born Racist?, my co-editor and UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton suggests that overcoming interpersonal racism takes "contact, time, and patience" — and to that, I'd add opportunities for reflection. Rodolfo is talking about race, but he could just as well be talking about bridging any social chasm—in this case, the one that divides parents from everyone else.

Thus, I believe that the movement for family-friendly policies needs in some way to try to build contact, time, patience, and reflection into its long-term work.

One of the implications of this suggestion is that it’s not enough to simply win policies like paid parental leave—we actually need to carve out time in offices and factories for employees to communicate to each other how these policies help them to be good parents and good workers. This suggestion is not so far-fetched: workplace diversity trainings are often designed to facilitate communication across racial lines, so that people of different races can begin to understand each other’s experiences. I don’t believe it’s a good idea to frame discussion of family-friendly policies as one between moms and dads or even between parents and non-parents—instead, it’s got to be about the family obligations we all face and how public and workplace policies can help us to meet those obligations. We can foster those discussions outside of work as well, at family get-togethers and through media like blogs.

A caveat: Building empathy is important, but it’s not enough—we also need to build power. Is it even possible to build empathy and power at the same time? I believe so, yes—think of the Civil Right Movement, which was extremely successful in conveying the experience of African Americans while still winning legislative victories. The two strategies went hand in hand, though movement activists often disagreed about whether to place the emphasis on empathy (think early SNCC) or power (late-stage SNCC).

This brings me to what’s happening in Wisconsin, whose governor is trying to strip public sector unions of their ability collectively bargain. As Paul Krugman argues in today’s New York Times, the battle has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility. “What’s happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab — an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy,” writes Krugman.

That's it in a nutshell. Unions were the original champions of work-life balance—they were the power that brought us all the weekend. Unions were the main force behind paid parental leave in California. It was trade union movements that won the family-friendly policies that many Americans so envy in European countries like the Netherlands. But especially in today's fragmented America, unions can't do it alone—America contains within it tremendous untapped resources of social change, including moms and dads. And in the end, it's no mystery what will change America for the better: it's you.

Jeremy Adam Smith is founder of the blog Daddy Dialectic and the author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family.

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