America’s Family Policies Failed to Keep Me at Work
I made the decision to stay at home in 2019 when our son was born. It was a very difficult decision for me as I was just coming off my first year of teaching with Teach for America (TFA)—a year that had been as rewarding as it was mind-numbingly exhausting. TFA is a two-year commitment, and I was leaving after completing only one: a move that was very unlike me.
The decision was gut-wrenching. I remember crying in the hospital late at night while our day-old baby was cocooned in his Tupperware-style bassinet, thinking how unfair it was that the nurses caring for me had children and also got to work. I felt both an overwhelming gratitude for my time at TFA and also a yawning chasm at the center of my identity as I contemplated leaving. Who would I be without work? How would I fill my time? And would I ever be able to get back?
However, I couldn’t help but consider the logistical hell my life would become if I decided to remain a full-time teacher. The conditions I would’ve faced had I continued to teach were inhospitable to say the least: dropping my son off at daycare at 6:30 am every day, giving my heart and soul to high schoolers for nine hours, then picking him up at 4:30 at the earliest and having a scant few hours to spend with him before he went to bed for the night.
And nursing? It seemed unlikely that I would have the time or flexibility to pump enough milk to sustain my baby’s life while being employed at my high-stress charter school. I asked for flexible options from my principal, envisioning a schedule where I taught 3 classes a day instead of 5. The response? A snide email and a contract in my inbox for a full-time class load. It looked like my choice was going to be all or nothing.
My Reasons to Stay Home
Though I worried about what my identity would be without work, I couldn’t lie: there was much about the ‘at-home’ lifestyle that I wanted. I wanted home-cooked meals, family gatherings, and to be the parent my son could talk to during car rides to and from activities. I wanted a robust family culture, grounded in the religious principles I cared about. Though I imagined it was possible to create this sort of family culture with two parents working full-time, I didn’t feel like I could do it, especially given how emotionally draining my first year of teaching had been. If I took on a second year of teaching, I had a hard time believing that I would have the energy to support my husband in his last two years of law school and nurture my growing son the way I wanted.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was also surrounded by a thick tradition of women taking time out of the workplace to raise their families. I come from a long line of stay-at-home mothers—Utah named my grandma “Mother of the Year” for her management of her twelve children, and seven of my dad’s eight sisters have chosen primarily to stay home with kids. My own mother was also at home with us, though she often had a side hustle going: teaching dance, renting out breast pumps, or doing real estate. But even she was always there to greet us when we got home from work or school.
Seeing the examples of women in my family and at church made staying home a real option for me—an option that appealed to me and my husband as we were deciding how to raise our son. In the end, the pros outweighed the cons; I decided I could take a step back from a stimulating but overwhelming career to be there for my husband and son. Though it would be a challenge, I hoped I could weather the consequences gracefully.
Where America’s Family Policies Failed
Though I often felt guilty and conflicted over my decision to stay home, further investigation into America’s family policies made me realize that the decision to stay home or work put me between a rock and a hard place. America does very little to make life easy for mothers. We have a barebones maternity leave policy that ranks us last in a list of 41 developed countries. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave—paltry compared to UNICEF’s recommendation that mothers receive 6 months of paid maternity leave. Extending maternity leave promotes a host of benefits, including increases in duration of breastfeeding and likelihood for baby to get all needed immunizations, and decreases in maternal depression, infant mortality, and intimate partner violence.
I was lucky enough that my school provided paid maternity leave (a privilege shared by only 17% of parents in the US)–but the issue wasn’t the money. The issue was the duration. At 12 weeks, a baby isn’t even sitting up yet. No matter how I cut it, I didn’t feel good about leaving my baby at such a vulnerable stage, especially without family around to help. This choice works for some, but it didn’t work for me.
Even though staying home wasn’t my first choice, it felt better to me than trying to engage in a work environment where my family commitments weren’t valued or accommodated.
I also would’ve been more likely to stay at work if I had had options to continue part-time. In Germany, working 20-30 hours per week is the norm for mothers, and society supports part-time employees with good pay and benefits (read more about this in Caitlyn Colins’ recent book Making Motherhood Work). Unfortunately in the US, we do not have a vibrant marketplace for part-time work, even though a plurality of mothers say this would be their ideal arrangement. The part time options that we do have in the US are typically temporary, without benefits, and worked out one-on-one between an employee and her employer. Given that a part-time schedule that has so many benefits for mothers seeking work-life balance, the lack of availability of part-time work for highly-qualified employees is astonishing.
For so long I felt guilt and sadness about my decision to stay home. However, at the end of the day I just didn’t have the societal support to find the work-home balance that I sought. Even though staying home wasn’t my first choice, it felt better than trying to engage in a work environment where my family commitments weren’t valued or accommodated.
Adjusting to Stay-At-Home Mom Life
My first year of staying home ended up being intensely therapeutic. I had the flexibility to be present with my son as we navigated a nasty milk-protein allergy (hello projectile vomit) and I got to be there to see him meet every milestone. I also got to have the breastfeeding relationship that I wanted with him, even though it meant giving up dairy for nine months. Meanwhile, I got more involved with the community, helping out with meals and childcare and volunteering to help underprivileged youth get into good colleges. I felt like I was able to have the community relationships I craved and the family life I’d hoped for. I was actually surprised by the peace and satisfaction I drew from being at home–I didn’t find myself missing full-time employment at all.
Then COVID hit. What started as a giddy sleepover-type arrangement with my parents stretched into us living with them for five months. When we returned to our apartment in Connecticut, I found that virtually all my community engagements had been discontinued or severely curtailed. Even libraries and local playgrounds had shuttered their doors. Suddenly I was alone, quarantining with a newly mobile toddler for 24 hours a day while my husband attended class from our bedroom. My satisfaction in my role as a mother shrank as cabin fever and boredom grew to comic proportions. I started hankering for the meaning that came with working a consistent job, thinking that if I was able to focus on the professional side of my life for a few hours a day, I might be a better balanced (and happier) mom.
The Frustration Grows
The purposelessness I was feeling at home led to me research the state of motherhood in the United States. I started by reading The Price of Motherhood by Ann Crittenden. Reading the book incensed me as I realized that neither the left nor the right has done well by mothers: the left has left mothers out of feminist imagining, and the right gives moms plenty of lip service, but refuses to supply the societal supports that might actually make mothers’ lives easier. I read about how COVID was breaking mothers left and right, forcing women to leave careers when they didn’t want to and throwing family life into catastrophe.
The left leaves mothers out of feminist imagining, while the right gives mothers plenty of lip service, but refuses to supply the societal supports that might actually make mothers’ lives easier.
On top of this was the feeling of invisibility that was hard to shake as a stay-at-home mom. I felt ‘off the grid’ in many ways—I barely showed up on our taxes, and my social security contribution had dropped to zero because of the time I was taking out to care for our son. Further, whenever we got together with my husband’s law school friends, I noticed that they struggled knowing what to talk to me about. I found myself referencing what I did ‘before kids’ to gain credibility with them, which felt deeply invalidating.
The Birth of Economic Equity for Moms (EEM)
I recognize that my story of frustration is just one narrative—every mother has a different story, and your experience may not match mine. As I’ve talked to other moms about this, I’ve learned that these frustrations persist regardless of the choices you make as a mother: if you work full time, you deal with burn-out and mom guilt. If you step out of the workforce, you feel sidelined and isolated. Some moms have found side hustles that allow a creative outlet while minimizing time away from children–but those side hustles exist outside the benefits of having an employer. What moms need are comprehensive solutions that prevent them from falling through the cracks, solutions which supply moms the respect they deserve and give them the time and space they need to take care of their children the way they see fit.
Moms need solutions that don’t require the staggering sacrifices current social norms demand. Moms need real support, including paid maternity leave, a full social security allotment regardless of work status, and flexible and benefitted work options.
While COVID sparked my discovery of the issues facing mothers in America, I know these issues will not be resolved when the pandemic is over. Economic Equity for Moms (EEM) came out of my desire to bring attention to the issues that mothers face–whether they work in or outside the home. Personally EEM has been an important way for me to resolve some of the angst of feeling forgotten as a stay-at-home mom. But on a larger scale, I hope that the issues I raise here will become a rallying cry for moms. Moms need solutions that don’t require the staggering sacrifices current societal norms demand. Moms need real support, including paid maternity leave, a full social security allotment regardless of work status, and flexible and benefitted work options. At EEM, I hope we will come together as mothers first, demanding the respect and flexibility we deserve.
3 thoughts on “America’s Family Policies Failed to Keep Me at Work”
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Great work, Bronwen! Have you submitted some of these great essays for consideration as editorials? NYT? Washington Post?
Thanks Jenny! I haven’t yet, but I should look into it! That would be a great way to bring more visibility to these issues.