It’s 2016. Why Is America Still Failing Its Working Mothers?
If you paid attention only to television commercials, you would think Americans respect, adore and even worship their mothers.
Procter and Gamble, in the run up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, released a commercial showing athletes who relied on their moms for comfort and strength as they faced various challenges and hurdles on their journey to greatness. The tagline proclaims, “It takes someone strong to make someone strong. This summer, as we celebrate the world’s athletes at the 2016 Olympic Games, let’s not forget the person whose strength inspired them along the way: Mom.” After watching it, you realize moms are just as much a part of these amazing athletes success as the Olympians themselves.
Then there is this commercial by Pampers, during which a mom says, “As you grew, I also grew. To be as good as possible, for you, forever.” It’s undoubtedly true, motherhood changes a woman’s priorities and she sacrifices of herself daily.
If you still aren’t convinced, Hallmark released a moving commercial showing a mother drying tears, helping with homework and playing with her daughter. Then that now-grown-up daughter comes to visit with her own kids, presenting a beautiful Mother’s Day card to mom. The tagline tells us, “Because there are no ordinary moms, these are no ordinary cards.”
So moms are strong. Moms are as good as it gets. Moms are extraordinary. If an alien dropped down to Earth and wondered how we treated our mothers, these commercials would lead him to believe Americans prioritize mothers as critically important members of society. However, the alien would be wrong.
These commercials and other dear-old-mom declarations are window dressing. In our laws and policies, we give little support and protection to pregnant women, no paid maternity leave and miniscule support for new moms returning to work.
Why is America still failing its working mothers, and are there any signs of hope?
You’re Expecting! But You Might Not Expect This
Many moms cannot wait to share their exciting news with friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, spilling the beans can lead to discrimination in the workplace.
While there have been laws on the books prohibiting workplace discrimination against pregnant women for decades, there are countless examples of violations. Even Motherhood Maternity, a company who makes their money selling clothing and accessories to pregnant women, was charged by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with refusing to hire well qualified applicants just because they were pregnant. If Motherhood Maternity can’t get it right, can anyone?
Even the possibility that you might get pregnant comes up with employers or potential employers. Many women have been asked, or know someone who has been asked, in a job interview something along the lines of “We’d like to fill this position long-term. What are your plans for starting a family?” Of course, hiring or firing based on pregnancy is illegal, but it still happens.
There are a few instances where a woman may not be able to continue her job when pregnant. For example, if she works around toxic fumes or lifts very heavy loads, a woman’s doctor may advise her of potential complications, including preterm labor and preterm premature rupture of membranes. Both of these can lead to premature birth, which carries risks for both mom and baby.
Women in physical jobs may be required to obtain a note from their doctor about the restrictions to carrying large loads, and in most cases, accommodations can be made. In fact, the Supreme Court backed this up in their recent case, Young vs. United Parcel Service, Inc.
In that case, the plaintiff was put on unpaid leave because she wouldn’t be able to lift some of the heavy packages she encountered on her route as a UPS driver. However, UPS refused to put her on lighter-duty work, an option that was given to some other employees with health or other issues. Pregnant women, the Supreme Court found, should be given the same flexible accommodations that others receive.
While pregnancy is a time of eager anticipation and emotional excitement, unfortunately American women are also faced with workplace discrimination and disrespect. Now let’s look at how women are treated after giving birth.
Maternity Leave: Does It Even Really Exist?
Can you find the country named Oman on a map? What about Papua New Guinea? You may be surprised to find out that the United States and those two countries are on the same notorious short list: the only three countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave to their moms. That’s right. Even bastions of human rights like China and North Korea offer better maternity leave than the United States.
But you were sure the U.S. offered something for new moms, right? You might be thinking of the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which limits parental leave to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This only applies to those who work full time, have been with the business for more than 12 months and are employed along with 50 or more people. So really, only a portion of new moms are eligible for the unpaid leave offered under FMLA. It does, however, cover those who are both salaried and paid hourly.
FMLA and the lack of support from many companies forces new families to make heart wrenching, impossibly difficult decisions. Imagine a mom whose baby is born prematurely, but who could only afford to go a few weeks without a paycheck. That means that she may use up her time off before her baby is even out of the hospital. That leaves no time for adjusting to life at home with a new baby.
Many people have an idyllic view of maternity leave as a time when mom lays around in silky pajamas while she cuddles and nurses her new baby. In reality, women who have just given birth are physically hurting. Their hormones are in flux in a way that can make simple tasks difficult. Their emotions are raw and new — and they are now completely responsible for someone else, too.
That idyllic version of maternity leave is completely a dream. In fact, a study from the University of Michigan found that 15% of women experience pelvic injuries that will not heal. One professor noted, “If an athlete sustained a similar injury in the field, she’d be in an MRI machine in an instant…We have this thing where we tell women, ‘Well, you’re six weeks postpartum and now we don’t need to see you—you’ll be fine.’ But not all women feel fine after six weeks nor are ready to go back to work, and they aren’t crazy.”
During author Jessica Shortall’s TED Talk, which has been viewed 1.2 million times, she shared heartbreaking stories of the women we are relying on to give birth to and raise the next generation of Americans. “A woman told me, ‘I went back at eight weeks after my C-section because my husband was out of work. Without me, my daughter had failure to thrive. She wouldn’t take a bottle. She started losing weight. Thankfully, my manager was very understanding. He let my mom bring my baby, who was on oxygen and a monitor, four times a shift so I could nurse her.’”
It is no wonder that the birthrate in America has fallen to just over 1.8, the lowest it has been in 30 years. What are we doing, as a society, when we treat half of the workforce with such disregard and contempt? Never mind that is the half of the population that we are asking to give birth to and raise future generations of Americans.
Recent Developments May Signal Broader Changes
It has become en vogue in corporate America to announce family leave policy changes. Etsy, Facebook, Spotify and Campbell’s Soup Company have all recently announced more generous family leave options, available to both new moms and dads, as well as to both birth parents and adoptive parents. President Obama recently proposed six weeks of paid leave for all Americans, and took a step toward making that a reality by signing an Executive Order to ensure federal workers have that option.
This is great news for those organizations and workers, and if it becomes a lasting trend, all the better — but very few moms work at those companies, and those who do are well-educated and financially stable. These harsh maternity leave policies disproportionally impact low-income women, single moms and those who are paid hourly instead of by salary.
Opponents of paid leave claim that businesses couldn’t survive the economic impact. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island all have paid leave state programs, and there are actually benefits to the employers. Moms are more likely to return to work — and return to work healthier. That means professional and forward-thinking employers who want to retain women in the prime of their working years should look to generous maternity leave as a benefit for both themselves and their employees.
Adjusting to life with a new baby isn’t all lullabies and stuffed animals. Simply put, it is hard to be a new mom. American moms don’t need more emotional television commercials. They need a comprehensive paid maternity leave policy for all moms.