American women often hear how good European women have it, with guaranteed, lengthy, state-provided maternity leave. Having lived in EU countries for six years, I’ve seen up close many moms enjoying an idyllic, post-baby time-off. But I’ve also heard from women with very different perspectives, ones that rarely make it across the pond.
American women don’t hear about the married European woman with no desire for children who feels overlooked by bosses who assume that she’ll go missing for months, if not years, when she inevitably has a baby. Or the woman who would just as soon have gone back to work earlier, but felt pressured by family and friends who thought it wrong to leave the baby when she could still stay home.
You won’t hear about my friend with fertility problems who had to work overtime while her coworker disappeared for yet another year-long maternity leave. That coworker had detailed her plans to travel to the beach and binge watch her favorite TV series after the baby was born. My friend didn’t begrudge that woman a maternity leave, but was understandably frustrated that she got what sounds an awful lot like an extra-long paid vacation, while she was left to shoulder more work and pay the taxes that make that leave possible.
And, of course, my friend didn’t get the baby either.
That’s a fact that often seems overlooked in these discussions. We absolutely want policies that allow parents to work and advance in their careers. We particularly want policies that help those struggling with lower-incomes, who face the biggest challenges in managing family responsibilities. We want employers to judge employees on their merits and not based on stereotypes about the limits of working moms.
Yet we also need a system that treats others fairly, including those without children. We shouldn’t expect or want companies to ignore differences in the levels of commitment and contributions that flow from workers depending on the other demands on their time. And babies and kids take time. Parents invest time and money in caring for children, but they get to have someone to love and who loves them back. That’s a tradeoff one should be willing to make if you are going to have kids.
This doesn’t mean that a parent can’t be a top-notch worker. Undoubtedly there are moms out there working just as hard for their employers as anyone else. They are “leaning in” to their jobs, checking their kids’ homework by email, and singing lullabies over Skype. Hats off to them. But they are still making tradeoffs. A mom who is a CEO of a major company can be a great mom, but she probably can’t be the class mom and manage the school’s homecoming. Another mom gets to do that. And the class mom who is either working less or not at all isn’t going to earn as much money and probably won’t get into the corner office any time soon. And, really, that’s only fair too.
Much of the handwringing about the so-called “mommy wars” boils down to a frustration that we can’t all be both super mom and super employee. The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister, for example, carefully writes that she knows how fortunate she is as a married woman, with a flexible, well-paying job. But she still wants readers of her article, “Labor Pains,” to take away that something unfair is happening to her. She is a thirty-something woman who is building a family and that’s getting in the way of her career aspirations and impacting her finances. She’s had to take some unpaid leave and think about how job changes might impact her benefits.
It sounds just terrible, doesn’t it?
If that sounds sarcastic, it is, but only in part. I truly do sympathize with her situation. In fact, I’m right there in her boat as a fortunate women with a husband, flexible job, supportive employer, and new baby. Yet I often feel pulled in different directions, envious of those achieving more professionally and also envious of those getting more enjoyment from the raising of their children.
Traister seems hopeful that different public policies, such as a European-style government leave program, could move us in that direction. Certainly this would help some parents, though it would also have costs in terms of take-home pay and lost economic opportunities for women that paid leave advocates ignore. I’ve written about those costs, how they could discourage employers from hiring women into leadership positions (as is the case in Europe), discourage the development of some flexible work arrangements, and price lower-skilled women out of the labor market. Rather than provide sweeping one-size-fits-all policies that would impact everyone (even women like Ms. Traister and I who don’t really need public support), policymakers ought to target assistance to women with lower incomes who are less likely to be able to save on their own for times when they face leave and have real financial challenges.
Yet no leave policy is going to change the real, fundamental problem Ms. Traister hints at: We wish we had two lives or more hours in a day so we could accomplish more. Sadly, that’s just not how life works. Our time is finite and we have to try our best to fit everything in, which means much must be sacrificed along the way.
Ms. Traister closes her article lamenting that she just can’t untangle the many different feelings and consideration in this complex web of issues, “I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And, in the end, I’m not sure I can afford to care. I’m a woman who’s just had a baby. My choices are limited.”
Yet this privileged American woman has many, many choices. And that’s the real problem: She doesn’t want to have to face the tradeoffs that inevitably come with having so many appealing options. I get it—I even sympathize—but that’s not a problem that any set of government policies is going to solve.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum. She lives with her husband and five children in Berlin, Germany.