Hilary Rosen, a Democrat pundit, accusing Anne Romney of ‘never working a day in her life’ has been a gift to Mitt Romney. Anne could reassure and rally America’s social conservatives for her husband with an appeal to mothers. ‘I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work’, was her debut tweet. And who doesn’t support mothers?
The answer, ironically, is conservatives. America is one of few western nations where the full-time ‘stay-at-home mom’ still survives (even if for most squeezed families only as an ideal). America is also exceptional as a nation in offering next to nothing in support for mothers or families. More than any other aspect of social policy, the US’s lack of any paid maternity leave puts it out on a limb even amongst liberal English-speaking welfare states.
That America has both long-term, full-time stay-at-home moms, and no paid maternity or family leave, is not mere coincidence. When mothers forced to choose starkly between their work, and caring for their babies, more (if they can) exit the labor market altogether. Each of these extremes – women not working, and mothers struggling for decent childcare for babies – has big costs for families. It’s clear that if mothers didn’t work, the recession’s impact on family incomes would have been far worse.
But the issue is no longer only about the choice for women to work. It is also about the choice for women to care at home. Behind the Romney-Rosen digs, America’s divide reflects social class far more than political color. While few mothers do not want to work at all, they do want a better balance between work and family life. The lack of proper maternity leave restricts the choice to care for their babies for all but wealthy women.
Leaving women with all-or-nothing decisions between work and family has costs for countries as well as families. Research suggests some educated women who want children will have fewer and may opt not to have none at all because the cost for them doing so is so high. Fewer babies being born (especially when life expectancy increases) puts long-term pressure on government budgets. Working women have made a big contribution to the economy over recent decades. And men and women who who raise children also make an essential contribution to developing a healthy, educated next generation.
Have paid maternity leaves in Europe left women stuck in the home and held back in their careers? Hardly: those countries with lowest gender gaps in pay, and in managerial and leadership roles, tend to be those with more supports for new families. America shows that even with zero federal maternity leave paid in the US, and when even the absolute minimum of time out of work is taken after a baby is born, moms still suffer a wage penalty, with the lowest-skilled moms probably facing the biggest penalty.
Nor is it the case that support focused on mothers in the first few months will stop fathers playing a bigger role in family life. Where societies don’t support families – and care is largely left to poorly paid, often minority or migrant, women – it is even less attractive to men.
If the Romney’s – and the Obamas as they were quick to make clear – think raising a family is a tough and important job, why don’t they do something to support it? As a start, Congress could look at extending protected family leave from three to six months after a baby is born, with one of those month allocated specifically to fathers; and find ways, with employers, to ensure that at least the first three months are paid.
Motherhood, it turns out, is not all ‘motherhood and apple pie’. Those with the strongest pro-family rhetoric tend to support families least. But it is something people, from Hilary Rosen to Anne Romney, should all agree on. Valuing mothers and family time and promoting gender equality are not always competing agendas. Often they are two sides of the same coin. If America is so big on family values, it shouldn’t be so meagre on family policy.