We’ve all heard lip service about mothers from our political leaders.
And yet, America’s government treats mothers like dirt.
The cruelest trick is how women have responded to a system built to fail them. Instead of righteous anger, we’ve internalized guilt.
We’re the only high-income country in the world that doesn’t require companies to offer paid maternity leave. More than 50 nations provide six months of paid leave or more. Imagine that: Six months of paid maternity leave. In the U.S., only 14 percent of workers had access to paid family leave in 2016. Even those with access to paid leave worry about how long they should take off.
One in four U.S. mothers returns to work 10 days after giving birth.
One of them is Dr. Hina Sarwar, a psychiatrist in St. Louis, who remembers her panic before her medical residency began. She was nine months pregnant, and afraid to tell the program directors for fear of losing a residency spot she had worked so hard to earn. She asked if she could delay orientation due to family issues. She was told it was mandatory.
So, she found an obstetrician willing to deliver her baby early -- at 37 weeks. She delivered via C-section. After she was released from the hospital, she and her husband packed a car and drove 17 hours from St. Louis to Lubbock, Texas with their newborn and 5-year-old child so she could start her training.
She stopped taking her pain medication in order to stay alert. Eight days after surgically giving birth, she was sitting in her orientation. Then, she was working more than 40 hours a week and racing home during her lunch breaks to nurse.
“I didn’t want to lose my spot,” she said. “It was really very painful.”
When I heard Sarwar’s experience, I was horrified. Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University, was unsurprised. She interviewed 135 mothers in various countries who work outside the home for her book, “Making Motherhood Work.”
Sarwar is a highly educated white-collar professional, who still feared repercussions from taking a leave available to her. The situation for women in lower-income jobs is even worse, Collins said. But Sarwar’s experience reveals a cultural attitude that must also change.
Collins found a relationship between family leave policies in other countries and societal attitudes about parenting and work. In countries with robust paid family leave protections, time with one’s child is seen as a right rather than an obligation or privilege. There’s a cultural understanding -- backed by the protection of law -- that it’s good for mothers to be home after they give birth to a child.
Countries like Sweden have developed policies that have incentivized men into taking time off to care for their children. The cultural understanding is that men and women participate equally in child-rearing and breadwinning.
In America, where more than 70 percent of mothers of young children work for pay, society expects women to work without any legal protection for paid time off after giving birth, or for an illness or sick child, and with few affordable child care options.
“The system is stacked against them,” Collins said. The most pernicious -- and uniquely American -- response to this unjust system is the working mother’s tendency to blame herself. Collins heard mothers universally express feelings of guilt at the impossibility of being able to do it all, in regard to work and child-rearing. But it’s only in America that women internalize blame instead of looking at the role their partners, companies and government play in creating and perpetuating a system unfair to them.
“When I look them in the eye and tell them it’s not their fault, they usually start crying in the interview,” Collins said.
Why have American mothers accepted that we are worth less than the mothers in every other developed nation in the world? We should expect more.
When we hear stories like Sarwar’s, our response should not be to valorize the extreme sacrifices women have had to make in order to pursue their careers or feed their children. Our response ought to be: This is an unjust system.
Our own voices of self-doubt only serve to benefit the existing broken system.