Today, President Obama is holding a summit to encourage employers to adopt family-friendly policies. This discussion is long overdue. As Obama pointed out in his weekly address: “Only three countries in the world report that they don’t offer paid maternity leave – three – and the United States is one of them. It’s time to change that.”
I fully agree with the President that it’s time to change our paid family leave allowances, but that’s just the beginning. The United States is also behind much of the developed world in its failure to provide high-quality, affordable childcare to its youngest citizens, as well as legal protections, including proportional pay and benefits, for part-time workers, who often happen to be parents (and more often moms).
Much has changed in the last fifty years for American families. In 1975, 34 percent of women with children under the age of three worked outside the home. By 2010, that number had nearly doubled. And, yet, virtually no legislation has passed to reflect this massive social transformation. Discussions around working moms in this country tend to focus on the individual and how she simply must strive to work harder–set the alarm for 4 a.m., do lunges while folding laundry, embrace the Crock Pot–rather than our systemic failure to support modern families.
Image: Real Simple.
My current project, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate, is a memoir set in India. Though at first glance, it might appear an unlikely candidate for addressing the issues and politics surrounding the modern American family, in essence it is just that. My husband and I moved to India with our son, shortly after his birth, in part because we couldn’t figure out how to afford raising a child in the U.S. on our limited income. India might seem a questionable choice of location for a new baby. But I can tell you what we discovered there: a beautiful home at the top of some cloud-scraped mountains; a Tamil nanny, who was a veritable Mary Poppins; and the head-space to see how crazy American parenting has become. With this fresh perspective, I embarked on two years of research, trying to figure out why American parents manically run like hamsters in exercise wheels, rarely looking up to ask, “Hey, now, why isn’t my government looking to give me a hand?”
The result is a story, peopled with a collicky, screaming baby; alcohol-abusing boatmen babysitters; a raving, holy-man sadhu prone to dishing out child-rearing advice; and some expat, Swedish parents who thought it perfectly normal to receive 13 months of paid leave for every child they brought into the world. My hope is that the memoir will entertain, but also that it will lead parents to look up and start demanding that America catch up with the rest of the world in supporting its families.
Ideally in a decade our president will commit a week, not a single day, to working families. If we’re smart, she’ll also be demanding that the change come in the form of federal legislation, rather than voluntary employer concessions.