There are two countries in the world that have no laws mandating paid maternity leave. One is Papua New Guinea. The other is the United States of America.
This was one of the points made by the UN Working Group on discrimination against women, which visited the US recently and expressed shock at their findings. After politely acknowledging the US's commitment to liberty, the report went on to lambaste the government for failing women on many levels, including:
- the US ranks 72nd globally in terms of women's representation in the legislature.
- working mothers account for two-thirds of household earnings, yet women earn 79 cents for every dollar that men earn.
- women do the majority of the care-giving work, but many cannot access Family Medical Leave, and those who can, must take the leave without pay.
- the rate of women's poverty has increased from 12.1 percent to 14.5 percent, and poverty exposes women to more violence - through homelessness and pressure to stay with abusive partners
As shocking as these statistics are, the situation is much worse for women of color and poor women. Within the United States, race- and class-based inequalities create countries within the country. Perhaps this is where the UN report is most helpful: it exposes the ways that demographics profoundly shape outcomes for women. It is a reminder for why it is essential to bring both a gender lens to our analysis of inequality in the US and simultaneously a race and class lens.
Consider, for example, the largely invisible work done by women in bearing and raising children. Despite the fact that children are an obvious social good - a necessity even, assuming we want the human race to continue - US society doesn't do much to ensure that mothers get the proper supports to bring their offspring into the world. This special brand of American individualism (aka: "go ahead and have a baby if you want one; it's your choice"), intertwined with sexism, textured by racism, and bolstered by extreme inequality, offers a window into just how dependent the US is on dehumanizing people in order to rationalize how the system works.
It turns out that for women, the first job of giving birth is to survive it - which is harder to do in the US than in almost all other OECD nations, but it's even harder if you're African-American, in which case you are four times more likely to die in childbirth or if you live in a state with a high poverty rate, in which case you have a 77 percent higher maternal mortality rate.
Once you survive the birth, you have to figure out how to support yourself and the baby. In the US, only women have access to any form of paid family leave, but this statistic looks even worse when you see how it is "concentrated among the wealthy: More than 20 percent of the top quartile earners enjoy it, while only 5 percent in the bottom quartile do." Thus, those who most need the benefit have the least access to it.
How do moms manage? They borrow money, dip into savings, put off paying bills, and go on assistance. "Perhaps it's little wonder that a quarter of 'poverty spells' - an episode of poverty that lasts two months or more at a time - begin with the birth of a child." Another strategy is to get free help from grandparents. Currently, 4.5 million children are being parented by grandparents, who are far more likely to be people of color who are living poverty. Of course, this help is not truly free but has a health cost. It comes as no surprise that "Grandmothers caring for or raising grandchildren suffer more stress and depression than grandmothers who aren't caregivers."
The average maternity leave is 10 weeks, but 16 percent of new moms took only 1-4 weeks and 33 percent took "no formal time off at all, returning to job duty almost immediately." This is bad for baby and bad for mom. According to an article by Maya Dusenbery, shorter maternity leaves are linked to higher rates of maternal depression and lower immunization rates and as well as less breastfeeding. It's not surprising, she says, "that poor mothers in the US have double the rates of post-partum depression, are half as likely to breastfeed for the recommended six months, and are more than twice as likely to see their babies die within the first year."
Who takes care of the babies while mothers go back to work? The UN report reminds us: "The estimated 2.5 million domestic workers in the US are overwhelmingly women, frequently immigrant women many of whom are undocumented … these workers are vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse and to wage theft." And who is taking care of these women's children?
If you don't have a nanny or a domestic worker taking care of your baby, perhaps you drop him or her off at a daycare center, where, according to Vox.com, the median pay for child care workers (in 2012) was only $9.38 per hour, significantly less than nonfarm animal caretakers, who made $10.82 and a lot less than the median pay for all workers, which was $16.87.
Pregnancy and childbirth are of primary importance to the species. Yet here in the US, with one of the highest per capita income rates in the world, these tasks (and associated tasks, such as breastfeeding and bonding in the early weeks) are not honored in even the most minimal of ways. Of course, men can and should play a role, and to a certain extent they are, with men doing significantly more housework and childcare than they did in the past. However, it's too bad men tend to be home with the children because they are sick or disabled or because they are looking for work, rather than home on paid parental leave.
The rich may hire nannies, but the task is so undervalued that they pay more to have their dog shampooed. They depend on their nannies (overwhelmingly women and women of color) to accept low pay and scant recognition even as they expect them to open their hearts to the babies in their care. We all know that practically pathological patience is essential to the care of our young, and that is impossible without love, the uncompensated heart-work that the whole society turns to women for, but refuses to recognize or pay us for.
The UN report summarizes its findings: "In global context, US women do not take their rightful place as citizens." Indeed, one of the significant structural impediments to women taking our rightful place as citizens is that much of the work we do is invisible. Wealthy women have the option to buy the supports they need, but that is not "taking a rightful place as a citizen." Rather it is transferring the invisibility to someone else - not a just solution.
For the majority - women with fewer economic resources and women of color - reproductive work is punishable by increased poverty and even maternal mortality. It's hard enough to take your rightful place as a citizen when you're battling poverty. And it's impossible when you're dead.