05/07/2008 02:39 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Let's Really Value Motherhood

The one day a year when we honor our mothers is once again upon us. On Sunday, millions of moms will get flowers and candy, a gift or two, and sticky pancakes or burnt toast lovingly prepared by husbands and kids turned cooks-for-a-day.

As individuals, we're pretty fond of our mothers. But as a nation we don't value motherhood all that much. We lag far behind Europe in granting leave for the birth or adoption of a child, for example. Our system of unpaid leave applies only to those who work for the largest corporations, and most new mothers (or fathers) can't afford to take it anyway. CEOs and their lap-dog lawmakers say paid leave, the norm in most of the rest of the developed world, would cost too much. Guess it would. After all, we have to save money -- for tax breaks and corporate bailouts benefitting the same employers that don't provide any family benefits.

Child care is another area where we're neanderthal when it comes to social policy. No president has had the guts to propose a comprehensive, federally subsidized child care program since Richard Nixon vetoed such a plan, calling it the "sovietization of American children." Most moms are now in the paid work force out of economic necessity-- but still make only 77 cents to a man's dollar -- so they can't afford private child care that can run $5-$10 thousand per year per child. The result is that we're going on two generations of children characterized by a phrase unknown to our grandparents - latch key kids. The situation certainly makes you wonder what all that "no child left behind," rhetoric really means.

In terms of national policy, the U.S. government and families alike tend to view child care as a family problem, not a public responsibility. This is the opposite view from countries in other parts of the world that provide public child care. Public responsibility for kids too young for school is still controversial in the U.S. (at one time public schools were also controversial with the education of children viewed as a "family matter"). Conservatives believe women (not men) should stay home with their children, unless they are poor single mothers, who should definitely go to work, preferably at low wages with no benefits. Liberals give lip service to child care as being in the public interest, but do little to make it a reality.

However much our younger moms have to scramble, the older ones are worse off. The U.S. has the highest percentage of elderly women in poverty of all major industrialized nations. A big part of this is what I like to call the "motherhood tax ." Women have much less money in private pensions than men, due to those historically lower wages, working part-time, or having to drop out of the work force altogether during years when kids are young. And each year of stay-at-home caregiving for kids is counted as a big fat zero when it comes to calculating benefits in the Social Security system.

Twenty five percent of elderly women living alone rely on Social Security for 100% of their income, and forty percent count Social Security as 90% or more. But as a nation we're still talking about giving our mothers the "gift" of a privatized system, removing the only guaranteed income they have and replacing it with risky and expensive stock-market schemes that will primarily benefit investment houses. Ask yourself this: "If my mother (or grandmother) lost her Social Security today, could I afford to write her a check every month.?" This is no idle question. When those great private investments go the way of Countrywide and Bear Sterns, it's the kids who will pick up the slack.

In this election year, we should all be thinking about fixing a system that doesn't work for moms, and holding politicians accountable for what is not happening. According to the New York Times using 2007 figures, the U.S. could have a year's worth of universal pre-school (half day for all three-year-olds, full day for all four-year-olds) for the cost of two months of the war.

The majority of mothers, like fathers, now work outside the home -- they need the money to support their families. We need national policies and workplace practices that reflect that reality. June Cleaver doesn't live here anymore.