I was proud to witness a senator bringing her infant with her to work for the first time in American history. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), now a mother of two, recently became the first woman to give birth while serving in the senate—and served as inspiration for working mothers everywhere when she arrived with new daughter, Maile Pearl, in tow to the Senate floor to cast her votes.
Watching Senator Duckworth, I felt glad to live in a country where a woman no longer has to choose between being a U.S. Senator and a mother. Yet the fact that a woman bringing her baby to work is worthy of headline-making news says something about our attitudes—and current policies—towards working mothers.
Not every woman has been as fortunate as Senator Duckworth. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a councilwoman who attempted to breastfeed at work spurred a contentious ban on children at the dais during city council meetings. Another woman in Texas, who was simply shopping, was forbidden to breastfeed her crying son in an empty changing room; instead, store associates suggested she exit the store. A lot of women, especially those in the low-wage sector, don’t receive paid maternity leave at all —and they usually have little say in the matter. Furthermore, over the past year, dozens of states have attempted or successfully passed abortion bans to further take away the right of a woman to choose whether to parent or not in the first place.
The U.S. comes almost dead last in maternity leave, with women being guaranteed only 12 weeks of unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was signed into law over 25 years ago. Current laws also do not guarantee affordable childcare for every parent who wants to or needs to go back to work—and this sends the message that our society doesn’t value women who choose to become mothers.
Women deserve the option and ability to spend paid time off with their newborns at home and at work, regardless of how much time they specifically end up needing for themselves. Even though most corporate jobs offer some type of maternity benefit for workers, the truth is that the majority of workers can’t afford to opt out of work after they give birth. In fact, a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the average length of maternity leave is 10.3 weeks, and 33.1 percent of women take no maternity leave at all. And while it’s a common belief that the typical minimum wage worker is a suburban teenager trying to earn extra cash for spending money, research has shown that the average minimum wage worker is 36 years old. This means that most of these workers are supporting a family on a salary of $10/hour or less—and going back to work immediately after childbirth to make ends meet.
In 2014, six weeks after I had given birth to my daughter, a friend gave me a gift certificate to a nail salon. While at the salon, I learned that the nail technician who was doing my nails had given birth just two weeks prior—and the day I went in was her first day back at work. I was stunned; six weeks after giving birth, I could count on one hand the number of times I had ventured out of my house. My body needed to heal, and the demands of tending to a newborn left me so exhausted that it became a Herculean task just to muster the energy to go outside, let alone go back to work. But the reality for so many women who work low wage jobs, many of whom are women of color and immigrant women with limited access to resources, is that our workplace policies don’t give them the same opportunities I had.
Being left out of this conversation about motherhood and paid parental leave hurts women of color and immigrant women greatly. For instance, black mothers are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white mothers, and may require more significant care in the aftermath of a pregnancy. Approximately 56 percent of low-income Latinas of reproductive age are uninsured. And, while the general stereotype is that almost all AAPI women are well educated and work in high paying jobs, disaggregated data between ethnic groups shows certain subgroups of AAPIs are vastly overrepresented in low wage jobs. This means that many non-white mothers working in the low wage sector have been rendered completely invisible in the discussion about worker rights and our economy.
The bottom line is this: Working moms need more support from our country to be able to make better choices for their families and themselves. With the 2018 midterm elections fast approaching, elected officials and leaders continue to pledge to create a more equitable and fair society. But let’s pay attention to what they actually plan to do for mothers and families.
We have to wake up to the deeply misogynistic and unfair nature of a society in which women who become mothers are penalized for their choice—and demand gender parity through improved parental leave policies in order to create a country where truly every women can thrive.