Motherhood is a life-changing, often shocking experience wherever it happens. It changes your relationship with your own sense of autonomy and selfhood as well as your identity as a worker. The novelist Ann Enright very perceptively compared it to becoming a member of a cult. Whether you return to paid employment or stay in the home – motherhood is work. As pointed out in the discussion of Wages4Housework in this series, motherhood can also radically alter your relationship with your partner and bring to the fore all manner of contradictions about what counts as “labour.” Yet motherhood is also inherently social: it is defined and experienced within a particular political and economic context. I did not expect to become a mother and I certainly didn’t imagine becoming a mother in the United States of America.
It is perhaps a statement of the obvious to say that women’s rights are more contested in the USA than in Western Europe. Based on my experience of motherhood here, the degree to which the work of motherhood is not only unrecognised in political and economic terms, but also to a large degree punished is worth highlighting. Especially since the hostility to motherhood in public policy terms is in stark contrast with the powerful symbolism and iconography of the mother in the US. The sentimental invocation of Mom is ever present not to mention economically lucrative - total spending on Mother’s Day in 2016 was around $21 billion. Motherhood and apple pie, as they say…
When my baby was six weeks old I received an invitation to join a private Facebook group called First Time Mommies. While not unproblematic in terms of some of the assumed gender roles, this group is quite extraordinary in the size and diversity of its membership. I have found it an extremely supportive and very welcoming space. But also a surprising one: it has exposed me to more voices and perspectives than anything else I’ve experienced while living as a professional white person in New York City: the teenage single mother in Texas, or the first generation Chinese mother in California working in a tech company. The thousands of members include many different races and class perspectives. Mothers post in this group seeking advice, validation, recommendations and often just to vent.
The stories I’ve become involved with as part of this group demonstrate that the care and nurture of children is an entirely privatized business. There is little public policy support for the health and welfare of mothers and infants. Unlike, say the military, or the police or even certain categories of infrastructure, raising the next generation, is not in any way conceived of in the US as a public good. And in the absence of any public support, the experience of motherhood further exacerbates racial and class inequalities. My participation in this group highlighted very clearly the gap between the symbolic fantasy of motherhood invoked in popular consumer culture and the hostility and challenge of the daily reality.
I would like to use this group to illustrate how the hostility is actually experienced: physically, emotionally, and economically.
The American Paediatric Association recommends babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. However, in the USA there is no statutory maternity leave, either paid or unpaid. The 1992 Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) - which applies to any medical condition and is not specific to women and pregnancy - mandates that an employer has to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Pregnancy is therefore defined as a disability or health condition rather than a fundamental aspect of human existence. In addition, the FMLA only applies to companies employing more than 50 people. Which means around 40% of the workforce, including the large number of women who are employed by smaller and more casualized companies, can lose their job as a consequence of having a baby.
In terms of breastfeeding - which in the first few months really is a full time job - if you’re back at work after two weeks this creates a huge logistical problem –and massive potential guilt. The solution is pumping. Nothing has ever made me feel more of a feminist than strapping two tubes to my nipples and linking them up to an electric pump. And having to do this four to five times a day including in my office (I am also the main breadwinner. Pumping brought a whole other meaning to the phrase “providing for the family”). Stories from the Facebook group brought home very clearly what this means.
A woman has been breastfeeding her son since he was born. She usually takes him to work – he is now three months. But one day she has meetings and cannot bring her son and she hasn’t pumped enough milk. She’s concerned that she has to use formula
I never wanted to have to give him formula. I feel like crying. I don’t know what to do I feel like crap.
In order to maintain supply there is a lot of pressure for working women to pump during the night
I just finished pumping at 4am and woke my husband up when I came back to bed he's like go to sleep. You think I have a choice? I just finished pumping. So jealous of everyone being able to sleep and we have to get up just to pump.
The Triple Shift
Which leads to one of the other main challenges women face - the highly gendered division of labour and the expectation about who does what. While one can argue about the desirability of being a stay at home Mom, the fact is that in the US, 70% of women with children are in paid employment (US Bureau of Labor statistics). The Facebook group has many examples of women “venting” about the double bind they face in terms of childcare, domestic labour and work outside the home.
One woman complains that she has made dinner, cleaned the kitchen, and fed the baby before sitting down to her own meal. Her husband is playing video games and she puts her baby on the bed with some toys.
Baby is getting bored or something and starts screaming and babbling, getting frustrated or something and husband screams "come on the baby is crying!" … And continues his video games while baby is fussing.... not to mention he called work off today, and didn't do anything productive! I've been up since 5am!
There is no public subsidy for childcare in the US at the federal or state level. On returning to work, the costs of childcare for an infant are extremely high. The average annual cost of full time day care is $10, 192. And this average masks the much higher costs in states such as New York and California. Yet childcare workers are low paid and frequently immigrants, often illegal (anecdotally, in my own neighbourhood, there are reports of Department of Immigration officers waiting outside of day care centres and playgrounds).
Maternity Leave and Work
According to one study one in four women return to work 10 days after having a baby. Six weeks is considered “longer leave” however this longer period is correlated with having a college degree. Again, the absence of a framework that recognises the specific needs of a woman post-partum, is a common source of advice and concern on the Facebook group. One woman reports that she went back to work at six weeks leaving her new born baby boy at a day care centre. Three weeks later she had a seizure at work.
They said it is likely from the combination of hormones and stress. I completely believe it had something to do with me going back to work before I was mentally ready to leave my boy.
Another woman sympathizes and responds with how lucky she is that her company changed its policy just before she gave birth from six weeks to nine weeks of 100% paid leave.
The weight it lifted off my shoulders was unbelievable.
Health Care and Paying to Give Birth
And then there is the lack of socialized medicine and the link in the US between employment and health insurance. Taking leave can result in a mother and her new-born losing insurance coverage. Some of the most heart-breaking stories involve mothers agonizing about financial choices they have to make regarding basic health care.
A new mother reports that she has just been diagnosed with bronchitis and is worried that she may have passed it on to her four month old baby.
He doesn't have health insurance yet so I'm trying to hold off on taking him to the ER. Has anyone else had to deal with this? Are there any home remedies I could try? I'm very conflicted right now.
Another stay at home mother who left her job to save on childcare costs seeks advice on healthcare:
We are paying $1,200 per month for the gold plan under Obamacare. This is just too much!!! I am thinking of going down to a lower plan but I'm wondering if I should get a part-time job just to pay for health insurance. My husband owns his own business so we don't get coverage there. Any advice?
Not to mention the extremely high cost of child birth in a for-profit health care system. The charge for an uncomplicated caesarean section was about $15,800 in 2008. My own delivery, in New York City in 2016, cost $88 thousand dollars (fully covered by my health insurance, which in turn costs $2000 a month). Medical bills for pregnancy frequently arrive in the weeks when mothers are already financially stretched because of unpaid maternity leave.
Reasons Preventing Activism
Each of these stories speaks to the physical, emotional and economic demands placed on mothers that are experienced, in these cases, as personal suffering and pain. However, the conditions that create the suffering – no paid maternity leave; no socialized healthcare; gendered expectations on emotional labour etc. - are a consequence of public policies and widely accepted cultural norms about women’s work. While the Facebook group provides solidarity on a personal level as well as support and advice there is very little in the way of activism and a surprising absence of anger, instead often gratitude for only six weeks paid leave because it could have just been 10 days.
Why is this? Why can’t the richest country provide even the most basic form of social insurance to bring up children? Notwithstanding the little known history of maternal struggle in the US that Dana Mills describes in her essay, there are three reasons I would identify as significant.
The organizing power of the religious right: for a large part of the American right women should not be in the work place. Therefore, public policy and resources cannot go to supporting an aim that is fundamentally at odds with their ideology. Never mind that the majority of women do actually work - whether from choice or economic necessity. The ideal is “barefoot and pregnant”. And if a woman can’t afford to raise a child, then she needs to find a better class of man as a provider. It is within this strand of political thought that the central paradox of sentimental reverence versus cruel economic reality is most apparent.
The US commitment to individualism and the associated suspicion of government: the idea that the business of raising children is essentially an individual responsibility is very prominent. Largely for religious reasons but also among libertarians, home schooling is on the rise. There is also an underlying anti-statist suspicion of the government intervening in family life - leave us alone to raise our children as we see fit. Given this greater cultural attachment to freedom at the individual level, collective struggles - particularly women’s struggles - get left behind.
This spirit of individualism has also had an impact on the dominant version of feminism in the US. Generally speaking liberal US feminism has been more concerned with individual women breaking the glass ceiling than any structural critique of labour relations more broadly. As pointed out by Dawn Foster in her critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”, this is a profoundly individual vision of female empowerment. The focus on the making it and how to be a successful working woman, elides questions of class, race and power.
Thirdly, the culture of consumerism: in a culture steeped in commercial messages, the first solution to any problem is usually to buy something. Even while still pregnant, there are products for every problem. Unlike the UK, it is standard for most mothers to be to have a “baby shower” which is like a wedding list for a baby. The cost of a “basic” list of items for this is in excess of $5,000. In this framework, being a good mother becomes about buying the right things.
These elements are both a cause and consequence of structural misogyny in the US that help explain the lack of effective activism on maternity rights.
I would also like to suggest an additional challenge - the wider assault on women’s reproductive rights. There has been a steady onslaught of restrictions at the state level on abortion and very recently a bill passed by Congress banning terminations after 20 weeks and then in October 2017, the White House rolling back the federal requirement for employers to include birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. Unsurprisingly, a large degree of feminist activism has been directed towards fighting against these restrictions and defending Roe V Wade. Since many pro-lifers have very little to say about child poverty or maternal health, it is an obvious criticism that they cease to care about the foetus as soon as it becomes an actual child. There’s a sad paradox therefore that so much feminist energy is spent on protecting woman’s right to choose not to have a child leaving perhaps less time to campaign for policies that make women and children healthier and more secure if she does have a child.
So how can we resist? What can women in the US do to challenge the lack of public policy support for motherhood and challenge the structural relations that make it possible?
One idea could be forms of economic boycott. The rampant consumerism around motherhood feeds off the sentimentality. Challenging the commercialism could be a way of challenging the abstract romanticism around being a mother. After all bouquets of flowers are a poor substitute for statutory maternity leave or an equitable division of domestic labour.
Losing the millions of dollars spent on baby showers could really damage the profits of some big manufacturers and distributors. Often many of the things that are bought can far more effectively and sustainably be re-used and shared. Mothers groups and networks are actually very good sources for picking up free or cheap stuff - which in itself could provide another model of consumption. Could targeted boycotts or opting out of these ritualized displays of consumption be used as a form of campaigning?
There also might be possibilities at least at the level of consciousness raising and information exchange in Facebook groups and other networks like First Time Mommies. These groups let women know that things are different elsewhere. Through this group women learn that in California you can get up to four months of state subsidised leave so why not in Kentucky? Providing solidarity and encouragement to a woman who has just left her abusive partner or networking among women in individual States on a particular work place issue or legislation that affects women.
There is a long, long way to go in the US to achieve even the levels of public support for mothers that exist in the UK. Yet there are two things that I hoped to highlight in this article: the US presents an almost dystopian vision of what the UK and Western Europe needs to avoid - any attack on the health service or on maternity and child benefits must be defended on principle because once the principle of universal provision has been undermined, then it’s a slippery slope to letting individual companies decide and 12 weeks unpaid leave. The second is some small hope that women, collectively, sharing advice, solidarity and resources can provide the beginnings of the kind of consciousness and pressure that may one day lead to positive change.
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