Despite our gushy Hallmark cards, floral arrangements, macaroni necklaces, and brunch celebrating mothers, U.S. social policies regarding mothers continue to be dismal. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores some of the ways in which mothers in particular are penalized for “choosing” motherhood & the role social structure plays in the “choice” of parenthood.
In the United States, motherhood (and parenthood) is viewed as a choice. Parenthood as a choice is a good thing in that it has decreased the stigma placed on the childless and childfree. The downside of choice-based parenthood is that it leaves society off the hook for supporting people who choose parenthood. While we have expanded support for families through the addition of workplace protections for breastfeeding mothers, our social policies remain lacking.
Let’s look at some of the social policies directed at families. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) turns 20-years-old this year. This means that for many of today’s traditional-aged college student, their parents were the first to have job protected leave to care for a newborn.
Many? Why not all? FMLA only covers employees who have been employed with their company for at least a year and work in companies with 50 or more employees. This means if your parent(s) worked in a company with 49 employees or worked there less than a year, then they would not have qualified.
Even if your parent(s) qualified, FMLA provides only 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for the care of newborns (FMLA also covers adopted children and ill family members). What this means is that you will have a job after your leave, but not necessarily the exact same job you left. It is also unpaid, though some companies offer paid or partial paid leave. For example, some companies may allow a person to use their sick leave as part of their parental leave. This means they get paid their sick days, but once they run out of sick time, they are no longer paid. In other words, many employees simply can not afford to take any leave. If you are one of the four in 10 Americans living paycheck to paycheck, you can not afford to take any leave time.
FMLA is something, but how does the United States compare to the rest of the world regarding parental leave? Put simply, not good. We offer zero weeks of paid leave for parents. In contrast, Pakistan and Mexico offer 12 weeks of paid leave and Canada offers 50 weeks of paid leave. Leave time around the world may be split between parents depending on the nation. This map shows how leave time is paid. What this means is that dad could take leave time, too.
Not only do our parental leave policies leave much to be desired, moms experience a “mommy penalty” in terms of wages. We all know that women earn less than men for comparable work, but moms earn less than men with or without children and women without children. Motherhood in the United States is framed as a choice, and as a choice, results in more (pay) discrimination in the workplace.
But is motherhood (and parenthood) a choice? In sociology, we talk about structure and agency. Agency implies choice, while structure refers to how our choices are limited by social institutions & public policy. A woman who finds herself pregnant could keep her child, place her child up for adoption, or abort the fetus. These are all choices, right? A woman could delay having a child until she is established in her career. Yet, health risks for the fetus increase as the age of the mother and the father increase. Moreover, though the stigma placed on those without children has decreased, a stigma is attached to people who are childless or childfree. In other words, there is societal pressure to become a parent and to do so at the “right” age. We have agency to not choose parenthood, yet our social structure encourages us to choose parenthood.
Of course if we were purely rational creatures, the lack of societal support for parents should have us opting out of parenthood. And it has to some extent. There are increasing numbers of only-child households (my household adds to this trend). And there are women who are leaving the workforce altogether because they are not paid enough to cover childcare expenses, they are not given enough flexibility in the workplace to be both a parent and an employee, or both. The choices people make about parenthood are influenced by our social structure and are not simply individual choices.
- What do sociologists mean by structure and agency? For instance, what aspects of social structure affected your decision to go to college or affected your education in any way?
- How is parenthood framed as a choice in the United States? How does the social structure shape this choice?
- Investigate the family leave policies at the company you work for or the college you attend (yes, some colleges have policies in place for students). What is the policy? Do you think this policy is sufficient? Why or why not? What are the potential limitations of the policy?
- Why does family leave remain unpaid? Should it be paid? If so, how should it be paid (investigate how it is paid for in other countries)? If it should remain unpaid, why?