If you ask most mothers I know what they would most like for Mothers Day it would be an extra hour of sleep.
In 1960, 70 percent of families with children had a parent (usually a mom) home full-time. Today, 70 percent of all families are headed by either two employed parents or a single parent who is in the workplace. In addition, economic pressures on families are growing. The cost of such necessities as health care, education and housing has skyrocketed while wages remain stagnant. So families work harder and harder. Parents in dual earner couples now work 91 hours a week – up 10 hours since 1977.
Parents need flexibility. Yet the community and the workplace have both failed to accommodate their needs. The result is that Mom – who still carries the greater share of caregiving responsibilities for children and elderly parents – pays a heavy price in economic security, mental health and shut-eye.
American families still lack the high-quality affordable child care that parents in other countries take for granted. The school day – and year – are still based on an agricultural schedule. Meanwhile, the workplace is structured as if there were someone home full-time to care for the little tykes. Fifty-seven percent of workers have no control over starting and end times. Fifty-four percent of workers with children say they have no time off to care for sick children without losing pay, having to use vacation days, or fabricating an excuse. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows full-time employees to take up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave, but this leave is unpaid and applies only to workers at firms with 50 or more employees. Workers can be fired for refusing overtime.
The situation is untenable for many parents – especially those who lack adequate childcare. For the medical technician at the local hospital, the shift starts on time, whether her child is sick or not. If she doesn’t show up for work, she could lose her job – and the family health insurance as well. If she goes to work, who watches her child?
Without flexibility, it’s mothers who take the biggest hit.
Moms find themselves cobbling together flexibility through part-time or contingent jobs – with lower hourly wages, less heath insurance and private pension coverage and less job security. Thirty-one percent of employed women work in a nonstandard arrangement, compared to only 22 percent of men. Others take time out of the workplace. This economic sidelining of mothers is responsible for a number of familiar sounding phenomena: the “glass ceiling,” the “wage gap,” and the “feminization of poverty.” The wage gap between men and women is to a large extent a mommy gap – researchers find the difference between men’s and women’s wages is a full 10 percent to 15 percent larger for mothers than women without children. Women are about 15 percent less likely than men to be offered health insurance directly through their employer and women receive less in private pension and Social Security benefits than men. No wonder that 12 percent of women 65 and older fall under the poverty line, compared to 8 percent of men.
Mothers pay an emotional price as well. A recent study found that parents with inflexible jobs and inadequate after-school options are so anxious that their productivity suffers.
Not surprisingly, employed mothers wind up sleeping almost an hour less a night.
Why do mothers put up with this? Is it because we’re too tired to complain? Or is it that we feel we are somehow at fault – that we were selfish and naïve to think we could “have it all?”
Title IX and the “girl power” phenomenon changed the way teenage girls looked at themselves and were treated by society. Yet, the empowered teens of yesterday are poised to become the stressed out, economically vulnerable, exhausted moms of tomorrow – as a result of our continuing lack of imagination and failure of political will.
What would it take to mainstream moms?
Employees would need more flexibility, paid family and medical leave and an ability to say no to overtime. Health insurance, pension coverage, unemployment insurance and disability insurance would be available to both full-time and part-time workers, no matter who their employer or what their job. And of course, quality, affordable childcare, pre-K and after-school would be available to all.
Call it the next stage of feminism, real family values or a way to enhance US competitiveness in a global economy. Whatever the name, these reforms would give American employees both the flexibility of part-time jobs and the security of full-time jobs. Mothers would be freer to move into the economic mainstream and dads to take on more family responsibilities – and both would be less worried about their families’ future.
And then maybe we can all get a good night’s sleep.
Karen Kornbluh is the director of the Work and Family Program at New America Foundation.