The Media Is Finally Having a Sane Conversation About Working Moms

The phrase “having it all” is blessedly absent from New Republic editor Rebecca Traister’s latest, a survey of America’s chronically inadequate family leave and the economic inequality it creates. But though the much-maligned phrase, which Jennifer Szalai pointed out last month has been “a puffed-up corporate come-on” from its very beginning, is never explicitly invoked in Traister’s piece, it nonetheless looms in the background. That’s because Traister, along with a few other writers, is finally correcting for the massive flaw in both the idea of “having it all” and the entire, maddening discourse it evokes: talking, Szalai writes, “as if we know everything we need to know about working mothers while saying nothing substantive about the particular challenges they face.”

We’re over a decade into our current iteration of the American “mommy wars,” the endless arguments over whether and which women should work, for how long, and why — or, as the case often is, why not. In a particularly toxic marriage of this country’s by-your-bootstraps individualism and ghettoizing sexism, this conversation is almost always started by women and plays out between them, with the institutions that made the conversation necessary nowhere to be seen.

This is most obviously true of books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which puts the onus on (white-collar, and often just plain white) women to break the glass ceiling rather than on employers for putting it there, but it inevitably bleeds over into the backlash, too: an Atlantic or New York Times Magazine cover story starts the conversation; other women, often feminists further to the left of the original writer, point out its blind spots; and while complaints are made that the conversation still isn’t about structural issues, those complaints are made in response to, and thus towards, Sandberg or Anne-Marie Slaughter. The “right” conversation, the one that’s about paid family leave and childcare and includes working class women from the start, is left for another day.

That might be changing, in part because, for once, structural change is actually on the table. President Obama’s State of the Union address included a description of affordable childcare as a “must-have,” a proposed tax cut (up to $3,000 per child per year) for working parents, and a strong endorsement of paid maternity leave, backed soon after by an executive order mandating six weeks of compensated family leave for federal employees — though any more comprehensive supplement to the six weeks’ unpaid leave offered by 1993’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) will have to go through Congress. Obama is also offering two billion dollars’ worth of incentives for states that design policies in the vein of California’s and New Jersey’s, which offer six weeks of partially paid leave funded by a payroll tax on employees.

All of this is good, but it’s not enough — which has prompted a response that is both more measured and more productive than the one leveled against Sandberg and others in her vein. Take Ann Friedman’s “Can We Solve Our Child-Care Problem?,” which asks how affordable childcare intersects with childcare as undervalued labor, whether it’s compensated or not:

As the cost of child care has skyrocketed, the value of child-care work has not risen along with it. That goes for both child-care workers (who enjoy virtually no worker protections in most states) and for parents, most of whom aren’t guaranteed any paid leave to care for their families as needs arise. This presents a dilemma for those of us who want European-style flexible work-family policies and child-care options: We need to prioritize caregiving work on a level with other types of work that are, right now, better compensated. But if we pay caregivers what they truly deserve, it’s even further out of reach for most families. What if we want to pay caregivers more for their work and also want to make child care accessible to everyone? How can we afford to have it both ways?

Or Claire Suddath’s Bloomberg Business cover story, “Can the US Ever Fix Its Messed-Up Maternity Leave System?,” which breaks down potential alternatives to America’s current system in detail, including Canada’s national policy and a bill from Senator Kirsten Gillbrand:

Canada passed its first national maternity leave law in 1971 and has been adjusting it ever since. In 2000 it lengthened its available leave from six months to a year. About four months of that is reserved for mothers; the rest is available to all parents. They receive 55 percent of their salary (up to an income limit), paid through the country’s unemployment insurance program, and are guaranteed their jobs when they go back to work.

Interestingly, Suddath’s story wasn’t pegged to Obama’s proposals at all, coming out soon after the State of the Union but overlapping with the speech only by coincidence. Similarly, Traister’s “Labor Pains” mentions Obama but by no means centers him; the most striking passages focus instead on women’s dependence on the goodwill of their employers in the absence of comprehensive federal protection, as partially illustrated by Traister’s own experience:

Policies that account for the fact that women now give birth and earn wages on which their families dependand, for that matter, that men now earn wages and provide childcare on which their families dependshould not be crafted by individual bosses or corporations on a piecemeal basis that inevitably favors already privileged populations. They should be available to every American. But until we see a large-scale, national refashioning of family leave, the economic fates of childbearers will be left in the hands of the private entities that employ them.

All three pieces, and others like Margaret Talbot’s State of the Union response at The New Yorker, name names and propose policies that would impact working-class women as much as boardroom types — arguably more so, since as Traister notes, white-collar jobs are more likely to come with generous family leave policies. And the timing of Suddath’s and Traister’s pieces suggests that while Obama’s sorely needed proposals certainly have something to do with this rhetorical shift, they’re also not entirely responsible for it.

For the first time I can remember, the conversation about working motherhood is actually sane: self-aware, inclusive, and centered on specific solutions instead of amorphous concepts like culture or personal willpower. Whether concrete change will come out of the conversation remains to be seen. But for once, it’s possible to imagine that it could.