Kathleen McCartney is president of Smith College. Seriously, she is. She published this op/ed in the Beantown Globule:
Nearing the end of her three-month maternity leave, my daughter is celebrating her first Mother’s Day with her daughter, Tessa. In 1985, when I was pregnant with her younger sister, I was an assistant professor at Harvard University. I remember asking the chair of my department, a child development scholar like myself, for a maternity leave. He declined my request, arguing that a leave would not be fair to my male colleagues because I might spend some of the time working on research. I suspect all mothers know that a maternity leave is not a sabbatical.
My daughter is among the lucky ones who has paid parental leave as a work benefit. Alas, a mere 12 percent of employed workers in the United States have access to paid family leave, a figure that also encompasses those caring for sick children or adult relatives. Not enough has changed in the decades separating my daughter’s first Mother’s Day from my own.
Motherhood is a cultural invention. It reflects a belief adopted by society that is passed down from one generation to the next. In US culture, we hold to the idea that young children are better off when cared for exclusively by their mothers. Mothers are bombarded by this message in the media, especially in programming directed to them. Only after five seasons does Claire Dunphy, the iconic mother of “Modern Family,” return to the workplace.
Anthropologists have attempted to disavow us of this view. Specifically they have demonstrated that child-rearing patterns are driven by economic considerations. In foraging societies, mothers stay in close proximity with their babies, while in agricultural societies mothers share child-rearing responsibilities with those less able to be productive in the fields, like grandmothers and young girls. Shared child-rearing has been and continues to be the norm across cultures.
Our cultural construction of motherhood is rooted in a particularly strong American bias toward personal responsibility, reflected across our social policies. This is why, in the United States, my daughter’s three-month paid leave is considered generous. In Sweden, where new mothers are guaranteed 16 months paid leave, it would be laughable. The United States ranks last among 38 developed nations in paid parental leave benefits: we guarantee none.
Motherhood is a cultural invention. Unlike all the other mammals, humans apparently have no natural maternal instincts. Therefore, we should guarantee paid maternity leave.
WTF? Is that the strangest argument you ever heard or what?
We already have something called the “Family and Medical Leave Act” which guarantees some employees up to 12 months of unpaid leave for a family emergency, or new baby. It doesn’t cover all employees or all employers, but it does provide benefits to millions of people.
Paid maternity leave is a whole ‘nuther animal. Not only do employers have to pay an employee to miss work but they also have to pay for their temporary replacement. But if they like the temporary replacement better than the original employee they can’t keep them because they have to rehire to original employee.
What could possibly go wrong?