Dear Relative (Whose Name I’ll Withhold),
You asked me tonight how the president’s promotion of public preschool could in any way lead to more moms staying home with their kids. I want to answer that question.
But first, let’s back up.
This video has been circulating in the past day, as you know:
In the video, Obama is quoted as saying:
“Sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”
The willful misreading of this quote should be embarrassing to us, because it’s such concrete evidence of our national reading comprehension crisis, but let me explain. Obama is not saying that he doesn’t want American moms to make the choice to stay home with their kids. That would be a ridiculous thing to say, and an even more ridiculous thing to believe our president would say.
He’s talking about the fact that American women shouldn’t be forced to choose between home and career as two ends of a spectrum. Women should be able to stay home for a few years and re-enter the workforce later. Women shouldn’t have to choose between Option #1: being a working mom from the moment their kids are born, and Option #2: staying home and then never being able to get a comparable income to their male counterparts.
You said that it’s fair that if you leave the workforce for a few years, you should enter at exactly the same place where you left–not be carried along in pay and benefits for a job you weren’t even doing. But here’s the thing: that’s not what happens. Women don’t get to go back into the workforce after pausing their careers for a few years. That’s what Obama wants to be able to happen: for women to be able to return to the workforce when they’re ready and to be able to pick up where they left off.
That’s not the reality we live in.
Let me give you an example. My example.
I have two kids. Ruthie is 4, and Neville is 9 months old. When Ruthie was born, I was in graduate school. Fortunately, that’s one of the few pause-able times of life, and I was able to take a semester plus a summer off in order to be with her. I didn’t go back to work full time until she was eighteen months old, which is when I got my job as an English professor.
Now, along came Neville this year. I managed to scrape together eight weeks of paid time off, and then I took a pay cut so that I could do five weeks of half-time work. Then I had the summer off. When he turned six months old, I went back to work full time again.
In those first weeks, I was pretty heartbroken. Although I didn’t cry when I left him at home with our babysitter, I did feel like I was doing him a disservice; six months old is so little, and he deserves to have the people who love him the most in the world around him at all times when he’s that age. We have great babysitters, but let’s face it: they’re not us.
So why didn’t I stay home? Why not just take a few years off and then return to my job later?
Because that’s not an option in academia. Jobs are highly coveted in this field. It’s practically a miracle that I even got a full time job as a college English teacher in the first place; it’s a job that is dominated by low paying adjunct positions. If I were to take a few years off, I would have to re-enter that job market, but I’d be even less desirable as an employee in a few years than I was as a brand new graduate of an MFA program. If I did manage to get hired somewhere, there’s a good chance it would be as an adjunct, making far less money with little opportunity for upward movement, at a community college, or in a field that isn’t exactly what I studied for. Maybe I wouldn’t even be able to make enough to cover childcare, which would force me to stay home even when I really wanted to return back to work.
And here’s the thing: just like I feel called to be a mom, I also feel called to teach. I feel called to academia and to writing. This isn’t just “I want to make as much money as possible.” If that were the case, I wouldn’t be a teacher at a little Christian college in central Indiana! It is my vocation to teach young students to think, write, read, and communicate. This isn’t just something I want to do; it’s what God has called me to do. I am using the gifts God gave me to help people. It’s terrible that in order for me to hold onto this opportunity, I can’t take a few years off to stay with my kids if I want to.
Women are punished for taking time off work to raise their families. It’s not fair, but that’s the world we live in right now. We punish women for staying home by saying, “You don’t get to come back.” When we tell women that staying home for a few years with their kids means they will never be able to have a career, we do two things:
1) We make it less likely that women who want to stay home for a period of time end up doing so.
2) We force women out of careers and leave entire fields to be dominated by men, who make policies that continue to perpetuate this problem!
So when Obama says that he doesn’t want Americans to make that choice, he means he wants women to be able to choose to stay home if the want to, without fearing that they can never return to their careers in any significant way.
Most developed nations require employers to provide new parents with some form of parental leave–almost always paid. You know what happens in those countries? People stay home with their kids for longer! Families are stronger because of it!
So, how does public preschool fit into this? Preschool costs money. It costs enough money that some parents are forced to return to work earlier than they want to, just to send their kids to preschool. Providing kids with free preschool is a great way to say to moms, “We want to make it easier for you to stay home with your kids.”
If you want to increase the number of moms that stay home with their kids, then here’s what you need to do:
- support mandatory paid parental leave.
- support free preschool.
- support mothers who also have careers.
- support workplace flexibility.
- demand that capitalism come second to the family; every other developed nation requires employers to protect the family, so why isn’t the United States?
- recognize that dads also have a part to play, whether they are the family’s source of income or the parent who wants to be at home with the kids.
And finally, recognize that not all women have the economic freedom and privilege to take time off to be with their kids. This whole discussion is outside the realm of possibility for them. So many women don’t even have the option of staying home for any amount of time, and we need policies like the ones Obama is suggesting in order to protect them. I have friends who have returned to work one and two weeks after giving birth! If they “made sacrifices” in order to stay home, their families would starve, and you’d probably criticize them for “taking advantage of the system.” These women deserve to be able to stay at home, too.
Finally, here’s some further reading on this topic.
“There’s Family Value in Paid Parental Leave” by the LA Times
“Paid Family Leave Makes a Difference to Low-Income Families” by Jenya Cassidy
“Why Families Now Must Have Time Off” by Deb Fischer and Angus King
A list of countries with paid parental leave (hint: it’s everybody but us, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and Liberia)
“Why We Need Paternity Leave” by Amy Julia Becker at Christianity Today
I hope this helps explains my perspective a bit better!
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