Got Choice?

If you are a woman, nothing I’m about to talk about will be news to you.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that society loves to argue about women.   With all the media ease of modern life we dicker and dither about women’s lives as if they weren’t really standing right beside us.  Even their most private and personal decisions are held up to the social microscope.   This rarely happens with men, by the way, unless a football player takes a knee during the national anthem, or a former Olympic swimmer decides to, um, change teams.

But while we’re busy judging our women for their decisions concerning appearance, attitudes and actions, we tend to forget that many women face some of life’s most difficult decisions with very few options.  Take, for example, the decision women face about when, or whether, to re-enter the workplace once they become mothers.

For decades there was a social tug-of-war between the women who stayed home with their young children, and those who returned to the workplace after a short interval.  Professional women sometimes looked down on stay-at-home mothers, while full-time homemakers sometimes questioned the dedication of working moms to their children.  The debate was sometimes intense, and in families across America choices were made.

But today, not all women enjoy the luxury of having a choice in the matter.

The US Labor Department reports that in 1960 11% of women were the primary breadwinners of their households.  Today that number is 40%.  The majority of those women do not work in professional jobs, but in the traditionally low-paying service sector.  For them, there are few options.  The luxury of paid maternity leave in the first months of new motherhood is an American pipe dream.  The Department of Labor reports that only 12 percent of private sector employees have access to paid family leave through their employer.

Instead, a new portrait of the American working woman is emerging—a woman frequently without choices, who must work jobs with low pay and poor benefits, or risk falling off our modern economic Tilt-A-Whirl into the welfare abyss.

It’s an issue that can affect families for generations, and one that provokes the kind of arguments about the role of women we can’t seem to get enough of. “Well, if she couldn’t afford those kids she shouldn’t have had them in the first place,” or “if she doesn’t like her job she should just do what it takes to get a better one.”  As arguments go those are catchy, and they have the added benefit of allowing the arguer to quickly wash his hands of the matter.  But given the number of women we’re talking about, you probably know a few new mothers who have had to make crushingly difficult life decisions or who are victims of circumstances beyond their control.  If so, you know that simplistic and abstract judgments have little relevance to the messy and complicated realities of modern life.

Yes, education improves lives, but only if the student has not just the initiative, but the financial ability and the time to take advantage of it.

Moms and dads the world over know that parenthood has a way of focusing your attention on what’s important.  Many of us did a few dumb things in our youth, but we recovered and moved forward.  What a tragedy for a new mother to finally find the initiative to improve, only to discover that the hard realities of life will deny her the time and means to make it happen.

More than 40 industrialized nations (including Canada, Japan, and Germany) understand this, and see the cost of paid maternity leave, coupled with job training, to be both an economic and social investment, not a drain.

Instead, we fold our arms and criticize in abstract, satisfied these days to be only our brother’s judger.  But very little can be built with folded arms, even in America.  In our judgmental wake we are smugly leaving behind an ocean of struggling women and children.  There are millions of them, who could all be so much more.

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