This blog was originally posted in The Huffington Post on June 2, 2014.
Newsflash to future moms: “We” are not pregnant. Unless your husband or partner is expecting to receive a complimentary uterus at your next ultrasound appointment, you, Oh Pregnant One, are the one with child. You’ll have the stretch marks and the splayed pelvis to prove it. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Repeat after me: “I am pregnant. We are having a baby.”
And another thing. After you have the baby, feel free to go all post-partum, freaky-deaky on anyone who tells you that “Being a mother is the hardest job in the world.” Those words are code for, “Thank God I don’t have to do it.” More often than not, they are stated by former future dads, a.k.a. fathers. Women have also been known to use this phrase, and when they do, it really means, “You’ll never lose the baby weight.”
These people are not stupid. They have seen first-hand that there is no dignity in having rice cereal flung into your hair. They have experienced child-induced sleeplessness. They are smart enough to get far away from the tough stuff as quickly as possible, while feigning appreciation for your situation. Clever.
Yes, Dear Mothers, get used to it. America has a love-hate relationship with all 85 million of you. You are lionized through conservative family values rhetoric. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of actually having to deal with you, well, you’re a burden, to say the least. And nothing epitomizes this contradiction more than the fact that the United States is the only high-income nation in the world that does not have a federally mandated program for paid maternity leave.
Some employers provide paid maternity leave, but the terms and conditions of this benefit vary considerably. In the end, too many women leave the workforce after they give birth because there is no consistent maternity leave program. For women who worked during pregnancy with their first child, almost 27% quit or were let go of their jobs. Another 42% had to use unpaid leave before or after the pregnancy to continue working. Yet as time passes after the birth of a child, women become more and more likely to reenter the workforce. Three months after a birth, 44% of mothers with a first child are in the workforce. At six months, the number jumps to 57%. At 12 months, almost two-thirds (64%) of new mothers are working.
Offering maternity leave provides a woman with the time she needs to adjust to motherhood so she can return to work well-positioned to perform professionally. It enhances employee retention, so organizations wind up spending fewer resources on recruitment. And importantly, it provides a baby with the structure and consistency it needs to start a healthy life.
If you don’t feel like reading any of this research, you can simply ask why a nation that doesn’t allow women to drive still offers them maternity leave. That’s right. The U.S. is getting schooled on women’s rights by Saudi Arabia. Women in Saudi Arabia get ten weeks of paid maternity leave and are guaranteed breaks for breastfeeding.
There can be no doubt that providing support for new working mothers can help address gender inequality issues in America. Yet lately, the solutions put forth purportedly to fix inequality between the genders aim instead to improve a woman’s behavior. Women lack confidence. We don’t feel worthy. If women could just speak up more, things would be a lot better. Very uplifting. If you’re a new mother who does not suffer from post-partum depression, you can join the party by reading some of these inspirational publications.
The real issue with gender inequality is that women are using the behavior of men as the barometer for their own success. This approach is fatally flawed because men can’t have babies. Rather than carve out a new, necessary model for mothers in the workplace that directly addresses the issue of maternity leave, women blame themselves for not being more like men. In extreme cases, some women seemingly ignore the demands of new motherhood. Case in point: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. She opted to skip maternity leave altogether.
The responsibility for advocating for maternity leave does not fall solely on mothers and their families. It is an issue that all women must support. Regardless of whether a woman is a mother or not, she has the potential to be one. Therefore, any discriminatory behavior directed at mothers is, by extension, directed at all women. Unless American society eliminates discrimination against mothers, there will be no gender equality.
New mothers: Encourage your girls to raise their hand in play groups. Introduce them to science and math. Enroll them in team sports. And while you’re at it, get working on that patent for a temporary uterine extension for men. Unless women rally around the call for federally mandated maternity leave, your invention may be the key to addressing gender inequality in America.