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Joanna Weiss

Family values?

Maternity leave ruling shows how little childrearing matters to society

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / August 15, 2010

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ASK ANY working mother about her maternity leave and you’re likely to get a tale — of the logistics of cobbling together vacation days and comp time, the drama of negotiations with a rigid boss. This week, a group of single Latina mothers, gathered through a support network called SoLatina.com, shared their stories with me: of a Texas gas station that refused to hold open a job; a Boston hospital that declined to tell a woman of her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act; a Texas consulting firm that was helpful and understanding.

As critical as maternity leave is to babies’ and mothers’ health, it’s something that’s left up to luck: the size of your company, the generosity of your boss, the salary (or existence) of your spouse. And if it’s a financial burden? Serves you right for having a kid.

That has been the overarching, infuriating theme of this week’s debate over maternity leave, sparked by the Supreme Judicial Court decision that codified Massachusetts’ guarantee of eight weeks, unpaid. Amid the talk about how much time new mothers need and how much businesses should be burdened, one particularly coarse argument has bubbled up repeatedly: If you can’t afford to stay home with your baby, you shouldn’t bother to procreate.

That view largely summarizes the American attitude, the rugged individualism that can turn so quickly into social Darwinism. It’s common knowledge that every other developed country, and most undeveloped ones, offer some form of paid maternity leave. Here, we get only unpaid leaves that many families aren’t eligible for or can’t afford to fully use.

It’s a sign of how little our society values childrearing, says Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California Hastings and author of “Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.’’

“The attitude,’’ she said, “is that having a baby is a private frolic of one’s own, and why should you impose your tastes on other people?’’

In fact, as Williams points out, the next generation is a public good, and not just because of that whole perpetuation-of-the-species thing. These are the people who will someday support us in our old age — as doctors, nurses, workers whose taxes will fund our social security. We spend vast sums to subsidize the elderly; no one suggests that if you can’t afford to get old, you might as well die. But children are seen as awful inconveniences, standing in the way of American enterprise.

There’s no question, Williams says, that a maternity leave can put a strain on a small business. But those burdens can be overstated. And we need to start accepting that nearly everyone will need a leave from work at some point, whether for health matters, the care of sick relatives, or those critical months with a new baby.

What we need are some national standards for affordable leave. What we’re more likely to get are state-by-state efforts. The Obama administration recommended $50 million in this year’s budget — the Senate since reduced it to $10 million — as seed money for state-run paid leave programs. One possible model is Canada, which offers paid leave as a form of unemployment insurance. California and New Jersey offer paid leave though their temporary disability insurance programs, funded through payroll taxes.

These state programs are hardly European-style social welfare. They are measured in weeks and partial pay, just enough to ensure that parents can take some time off without losing their homes. They are an acknowledgment of the realities of family life today, says Portia Wu, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families: Four in ten mothers are primary breadwinners, and two-thirds of mothers bring in more than a quarter of the family income.

Those statistics ought to be enough to quash those boring Mommy Wars, which view working motherhood as a luxurious option for the upper-middle class. In truth, working moms are a fact of life. Children are a biological reality. And the more we acknowledge that with policies that are humane, the more likely that “family values’’ will be a term with actual meaning.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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