motherhood and the myth of the american bootstrap

lifestyle, parenting, Uncategorized December 25, 2013


How our country treats pregnancy and motherhood is social issue, it is a public health issue, it is a moral issue. Yet our public policy on these matters lags behind many if not most other countries. The statistics are horrifying. At a time when insurance is a national discussion, maternity leave should be a bigger part of that. (I did see a headliner at Fox News asking whether it was unfair that men had to pay for insurance that covered prenatal/maternity costs. Are you kidding me? Who here came into this world but through birth. It is infuriating). At a time when minimum wage and social aid are at issue, let’s remember what those things pay for: our families. At a time when abortion is a hot topic, the rights of the mother and child unit should equally be at issue. If you try to separate mother and child, as we are doing legally, things get crazy. There is no meaningful physical separation until weaning, and there is no emotional separation for long after. This is insanity, and it is the core of everyone’s life and should be the core of our society. I have so much regard, respect, and gratitude for this country. This makes me angry though, this monumental aspect of every life, not even just human life, is relegated to the sidelines. It is not just women who suffer, but children and families and ultimately society.

I was completely taken by surprise by how hard it is to be a mother. I’m not even talking about the late nights, the diapers, and the child that needs you endlessly. I am talking about the ridiculous choice you are faced with if you are a professional or working woman in this country. The choice I initially faced was: 1) continue on as if you are not having a baby, work until your due date take 6-12 weeks off un-paid, then put your very young baby in (expensive) daycare and see them on evenings and weekends; or 2) quit your job and be poor, potentially uninsured, and isolated (partly because of the long hours my husband needs to work, and partly because I can’t make enough at a part time job to justify child care). I chose the latter.

I pretty much had to work up until my due date. I was exhausted and in pain, but I had to hoard my sick days and administrative leave days in order to eek out as much as I could during my ‘maternity leave’. In some countries, Germany I believe, women get time off BEFORE they give birth. It makes so much sense to not be exhausted before you go through this incredible physical feat, followed immediately by what will most likely be the most exhausting year of your life. I believe it also leads to more successful vaginal births and higher birth weights. (How much money do we spend in this country on c-sections whose rates are constantly on the rise?) Ok, fine, so I had to work until my due date. I might have done that anyway because of my personality. What about after the child is born?

My boss came into my office and counted off six weeks on the calendar to work out my return date. (My boss, who was a female and. a mother.). When is the last time you held a six week old infant? That we expect children to go into day care as a matter of course at that age, or a little older is insane. Our education system is in decline, the party of family values is fighting aid to poor families, and the choice many mothers face is financial doom or placing their tiny child in the hand of strangers. Do we really think this is the best thing for the next generation? Children need their mothers. In most instances, their mothers and fathers are the best, most capable caregivers. Babies that age require an incredible amount of patience, nature allows for that with the intensely strong parental bond. Hired caregivers just cannot provide the same and patience. Much like the studies that seemingly endlessly show that eating fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you, it is obvious and yet we are still discovering reasons why it is important. I realized that above all, me being the one to care for my child was the most important thing I could be doing. I agonized over quitting my job. I liked my job. We needed insurance, we needed money. I was terrified about letting that bottom drop out from under us, but every time I thought about returning to work and leaving my son, I sobbed.

I am angry because I followed all the rules and have worked hard, and here I am writing a blog on how to live off very little so that I can be a parent to my child. I started working as soon as I could drive. I got good grades in highschool, went to a decent college and got good grades there. I worked throughout most of college, and did my obligatory time as a waitress through grad school, tolerating all the condescension that comes with it. Got married, went to law school, graduated and took a low paying job as a public servant because that is why I went to law school, to serve. Imagine my surprise when it was time for me to start a family and all my diligence in laying this solid groundwork for a career and way of contributing to the community was rewarded with nothing. My super expensive state insurance wasn’t even covering enough of my pre-natal costs, my husband and I were both working full time jobs and we had to ask family for help. Thank god we had that option. (Which is by the way, the ONLY reason we are able to get by on just my husband’s pay as it is).

There has to be a better way to raise the next generation. I don’t know what it is. All I know is that I spend a great amount of time trying to think myself out of a box I put myself in by doing what I thought was right, and working hard. It is scary that at this point in our country, you can work very hard, make the right moves, get the education and bootstrap yourself all the way to poverty by having a child. Maybe if my husband and I had different degrees (though I have three to choose from), maybe if we stayed in the city, it would be different. I hate feeling powerless. I have always said that if you don’t like where you are, change it. I honestly feel that I have done what society asked of me, and now it is asking more. I will not give up my child. We as a country need to think this through as a policy matter, as a political issue, and as a moral one. The premise and promise of America is that if you work hard, you will succeed and get your piece of the pie. A corollary to that is that if you have not succeeded, you must not have worked hard. This may have been true once, but it is no longer the case. The notion that the poor are lazy and intent on voting in representatives who will give them a free ride is crazy and out of touch, and yet it is very popular. I will offer that it is popular, because in order to justify having so much more than others, it is better for those at the top to believe that they deserve it and are morally entitled to it because of all the hard work they have put in, where the have nots have just not tried.

There is a very old debate in philosophy as to whether altruism really exists. One arm of that debate is that it doesn’t because, often, what is good for others is really good for you as well. So this Christmas, in the interests of self service, I implore you to consider what is really good for our families and our children and our society. We need economic and social policies that at the very least, feed hungry bellies and at the best enable families to exist and thrive. This hits all arenas from national budget decisions, to tax codes, to the federal minimum wage, and health insurance. Let us make decisions about these issues based on the good of our people, and not on the notion that the growing lower class is poor because of laziness and moral deficiencies. Merry Christmas to all!

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