As the Senate continues to battle over the fate of its Obamacare replacement legislation, Strong Opinions Loosely Held is here to remind us that the United States is still the only industrialized country without a national paid family leave policy. Perhaps more worrisome, working mothers typically make 4% less than their childless peers, while low-income moms face even steeper financial disadvantages. Unlike Norway, Canada, and Germany — countries that offer financial assistance to help offset the costs of child-rearing — American moms often undertake this economic and emotional burden alone. Elisa Kreisinger sat down with experts including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and author Jessica Valenti to ask why American moms put up with this lack of support — and what we can do now to make the labor of parenting more equitable.
What inspired you to write Why Have Kids? I'm especially interested in how you make a really strong case for why we shouldn't have kids and expose the institutionalized power of the motherhood penalty. Can you talk a little bit about those factors, and why you ultimately decided to have kids in spite of them?
"I signed up to write the book when I was six months pregnant, and its idea began as something completely different. I wanted to look at ideas of feminist parenting and the gender divide at home, but then I got really sick during my pregnancy. My daughter was born three months early, she was in the hospital for a long time. I really beat myself up about everything that happened to her medically, and my reaction afterwards. So the book ended up becoming about the unrealistic expectations that women put on themselves as mothers and the damage that does not only to us but to our kids.
"I think that the deck ultimately is really stacked against women who want to have children. There isn't a huge social safety net for them. We don't have paid parental leave in any sense — not just for moms but for dads as well. You have to worry about your job security, your pay. But I think there's also the emotional aspect as well, and the way that having kids changes your life on a daily basis.
"For me, it was a little bit easier because I always knew that I wanted to have kids. But most women grow up in this world that says that having children is the most important thing that they can do, that being a mother is going to be their primary and most important identity, like the most important job in the world. And I think that's a really dangerous message to send women because it makes having children the default expectation rather than a proactive choice that you're making. I think given how difficult parenting can be, and how much motherhood does change your life, you know it has to be a proactive decision — it has to be something that you really thought about and want to actively do. Rather than just saying, 'Oh well, you get older, you go to college, you get married, and you have kids.'"
How can we cultivate a society that values, economically, the labor of parenting? And one that also encourages men to share more equally in the work of raising a kid?
"What's really difficult is that even when countries have [paid paternity leave], it's not just about the policies. It's about creating the culture that allows men to take advantage of those policies. There have been studies in the U.S. that when men have paternity leave, a lot of them either don't take it because they fear it will be seen as unmanly or not okay in their workplace. Or there was a study of male academics who actually used it to just publish papers and to write. So they were using it to get ahead in their careers!
"It's about making parenting more culturally valuable to men as well. And I think that's one of the biggest hurdles. We can change the policies, but how can we make men feel like the day-to-day work of of being a father is important?"
How should women navigate the onslaught of judge-y, and often contradictory, advice about how to get pregnant, breastfeed, raise your kids, and manage your career and relationship?
"It's really difficult to navigate. There's so much of it, and it's just impossible to ignore. I think what's helpful is trying to remember why it exists, right? It exists because there are people who make a lot of money from giving parenting advice and selling books about parenting and how what you're doing is wrong and how you can do it better. It plays into women's insecurities about being bad mothers. It also benefits those larger sexist systems that keep women really distracted with all that they should be doing as mothers instead of thinking about all that they could be doing in the public sphere.
"I think regarding it that way and remembering that those pieces of advice aren't really there for your benefit can be helpful."
Do you think men are given the same type of advice and have the same pressure about parenting?
"No, of course not. If a man shows up at a soccer game, he's dad of the year. Any sort of minimal parenting work that men do is applauded as being extraordinary and amazing and incredible because there isn't that default expectation that men want to parent. Which is not just harmful to women, but I think is really a shame for men as well. Fatherhood is wonderful. I think that men are missing out, in this huge way, and it's also insulting to them when people give them a special pat on the head for just showing up."