More young middle class women are working today in jobs and careers than ever before. Sadly, this is only half the picture. The other half is bad news. Women have, yes, been liberated to a certain extent, but American mothers are still trapped in an idealized servitude within a culture that gives them virtually no support. This is the root of the Mommy Wars and there is no better time than Mother's Day to raise consciousness and plan a campaign to end them once and for all.
The original mommy wars pitted "career women" against stay-at-home-mothers. Within the latter category there is now a new phenomenon that pits "super mom" against "slacker mom." One is cool and laid back. The other is the ultimate mommy warrior: an advocate of attachment parenting, a super multitask practitioner and play-date arranger, a field producer for extra-curricular activities. Within this category are mothers of "trophy children": high achiever kids who are learning Chinese on Mondays, violin on Wednesdays and tennis on Fridays. Exhausting even to contemplate, it is no wonder mothers in America are battling one another. It's not good because it's divisive. Ridicule, bitchiness and disrespect serve the status quo and sabotages opportunities for political solutions.
From a European perspective, these American mommy battles are just another front in the culture war between "traditional" and "progressive." Traditional means to maintain and protect the status quo. "Progressive" means to move forward; to make things better. When the issues are babies, motherhood and child rearing, the majority of Americans are traditional and "progressive" is, unfortunately, conflated with "liberal" -- a dirty word.
Sadly, the numbers are on the traditionalists' side, otherwise we'd have brave and bold proposals to change the conditions under which most American mothers operate. Most Americans believe it is ethically wrong to hire childcare professionals. Many support the rights of an embryo but not programs and policies that would give a live child a healthy and reasonable start in life. These inherently conservative citizens prevent Americans from developing progressive policies and yet, ironically, this cultural bias runs counter to popular opinion.
Consider this: a 2011 poll revealed that nearly three quarters of American adults (73%) say the trend toward more women in the workforce has been a change for the better. And 62% of adults believe that a marriage in which the husband and wife both have jobs and both take care of the house and children provides a more satisfying life than one in which the husband provides for the family and the wife takes care of the home.
Scandinavian women used to be "traditional" -- and then came the '70s. The women's movement shifted into high gear as women organized, mobilized and demanded government policies that would give them qualified childcare. It didn't come easily. Scandinavian men were just as traditional as other men, but when enough politicians understood that releasing women into the work force benefited the entire society, women got what they wanted: paid maternity leave, guaranteed places in subsidized childcare centers with professional child minders, a children's stipend to assure good nutrition, the right to work a six hour day with full benefits until the child is in primary school, effective after-school programs and, eventually, paid father's leave so the daddy can also bond with his child. Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish women know that without such policies, working women who become mothers are either under virtual house arrest or they exhaust themselves by doing two jobs, using their paycheck to support au pair girls or pay professional or neighborhood nannies.
The United States does offer non-paid leave, but the parameters are very specific and apply to only 50% of women. New parents receive 12 weeks of non-paid leave, but only for parents who work in companies that employ 50 workers or more and who have worked there at least 12 months and accrued 1,250 hours or more in that time. The other half are guaranteed nothing. It is not surprising that many young women postpone their first child until their mid or even late 30s. And then for the career minded comes the Big Decision: when to return to work. The ones who stay home for the first few years will never make partner in the law firm, move into management, finish their PhD or earn as much money as their male colleagues. The ones without a career but a job are lucky to find new positions.
It's difficult explaining to Europeans how a nation that claims to honor "family values" does not have policies that honor the family. Mother's Day should be a call for action, renewed every year with pledges to campaign for progressive policies. Only by supporting all mothers will these silly -- very silly -- mommy wars come to an end.
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