I am the product of a “traditional” family situation. My mother, a teacher, put her career on hold to stay home with my siblings and me when we were young. For 17 years, until my younger sister entered middle school, she volunteered and worked part-time but always ensured she was home when we got off the school bus. For her, this situation made sense. We lived far from family in a rural suburb of a mid-sized city. As a child in the late 1980’s and 1990's, some of my friends’ mothers worked, but not all ; from my perspective, neither choice, working inside or outside the home, seemed more reputable than the other.
Now, I am on the precipice of choosing a family situation for my own children. At 31 years old, I have a fulfilling job in a career I have been nurturing for years, as do most of my female friends. Our careers span industries, but we have been supporting ourselves, and sometimes our families, as we were always taught we could. Whether or not I would become educated and support myself was never a question but now that I’m pregnant with my first child, I have a decision to make.
After finding out I was pregnant, my initial reaction was “of course I’ll work, why wouldn’t I?” It seemed like the natural progression for me. After beginning to research quality daycare close to my home and my employer’s family leave policies, however, the options and their implications quickly became overwhelming . Did I really feel comfortable leaving a 3-month-old baby with virtual strangers while continuing to work in my full-time job? Would I miss milestones? Would I be emotionally ready for the separation? Should I change jobs instead to something more part-time? How would that affect my long-term job prospects when the child is older? Do I really want to put all of the financial burdens on my husband? And will we be able to afford the life we want for our future family with only his income? I know I am not the only one wrestling with these conflicting emotions, of feeling the pull between going back to a career 3 months after becoming a mother or sitting it all out . Unfortunately, however, it is the nature of our current situation here in the United States.
Though I don’t receive official “maternity leave” from my employer, I am covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA covers employees at organizations with 50 or more employees after 12 months of eligible employment, and it guarantees that the job (or an equal job) will be available to an employee for up to 12 weeks during an extended absence due to family needs. The FMLA does not guarantee salary during this time, only that your job will be available to you after 12 weeks. This situation, unless you are not eligible for coverage under the FMLA, is the default in the United States. Some states, such as California, New Jersey, Washington, and Rhode Island, offer partial wage replacement for employees taking time off to care for a newborn while some private organizations, such as Adobe, Facebook, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, offer robust maternity leave benefits. The latter offers up to 52 weeks paid leave. According to the Department of Labor, however, “ The [National Compensation Survey] NCS data indicate that, for all workers, only 12 percent have the option to take employer-paid family leave as of 2013, while unpaid family leave is available to 87 percent of workers (some workers may have access to both paid and unpaid family leave).”
The United States lags behind every other developed nation in this regard. Of the world’s 196 countries, the United States is one of four that does not offer federally mandated parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child. This fact is striking, and though the lack of new parental leave options isn’t the sole source of my anxieties, it impacts the others enough to make it impossible to ignore.
The topic surfaced briefly during the most recent Presidential election. Both candidates endorsed paid family leave, marking the first time both major-party Presidential candidates had put forth paid family leave policies. Toward the end of his campaign, then-Candidate Donald Trump released a video discussing his plan for paid maternity leave. In it, Ivanka begins the video by stating that, “The most important job any woman can have is being a mother.” This statement is controversial in that you almost never hear, “the most important job any man can have is being a father.” No word yet on the implementation of this policy.
Beyond this lack of parental support immediately after birth or adoption is motherhood’s effect on a woman’s career. Though we sometimes idealize motherhood, studies show it affects employment advancement, pay, and opportunities for women. A New York Times article entitled The Motherhood Penalty vs. The Fatherhood Bonus states that “on average, men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children (if they lived with them), while women’s decreased 4 percent for each child they had.” Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst whose research is featured in the article, explains that these gaps arise primarily from cultural expectations of women’s role as primary caregivers and men’s role as primary providers for their families. In reality, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that 71 percent of mothers with children at home work. Furthermore, women are the sole or primary breadwinner in 40 percent of households with children, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
It isn’t really a surprise, then, that practically none of my female friends are considering staying home with their future children . It almost seems like a step backward, and part of me wholeheartedly agrees. We all have careers and are independent women. Our husbands are also gainfully employed, but no one seems to consider staying home as an option for them. At times I wonder, as a self-proclaimed and proud feminist, is the fact that I haven’t completely ruled it out for myself a betrayal to the very values I want to instill in my future children? Does it make me less of a progressive woman to see the value in staying home?
I know I want to be the type of mother who encourages my son/daughter to be confident to follow his/her dreams, regardless of gender. I also want to be the type of mother who is ready to explain complex issues, even those that aren’t positive and pretty. I hope that by the time my future child truly understands such issues, they will be found only in history books. I am not yet sure how I will handle these complexities myself, but I am open. In the meantime, I will continue to research daycares, excel in my current job, and prepare myself to be the best mother I can be, however that looks.
Johanna DeCotis Smith is a freelance writer, environmental engineer, city dweller, gardener, bicycle advocate, city planning nerd, soccer fan, and adventurer. She enjoys spending time outside with family and friends, learning (most recently about pregnancy!), and exploring new places by bike. She lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband.
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