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Mother Load

Forget robins, daffodils, and tax returns--it wouldn't be spring without a new skirmish in the perennial "mommy wars." By now, we all know the combatants: On one side, the self-righteous stay-at-home mom who has "opted out" of the workplace to spend her days mashing bananas; on the other, the harried career drone who barely blows her babe a kiss as she sprints out of the day care center. Most recently, these figures have duked it out in a special series on "Good Morning America" and in a new book edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner called--what else?—Mommy Wars.

This setup always felt like a contrivance, a media-manufactured conflict based on hype and hyperbole. Indeed, "The Motherhood Study," a report issued last year by the Institute for American Values, found no evidence of any ideological divide between mothers who work and those who stay at home. For all but the most privileged, the mommy wars are not only a myth, but a dangerous diversion from the true scandal of parenthood in contemporary America.

Since the baby-boomers came of age, American family life has undergone a quiet revolution. The majority of children now grow up with both parents working outside the home--often out of financial necessity. But, taking its cues from reactionaries and solipsistic liberal elites, our public policy still treats working mothers as a casualty of the culture wars rather than an on-the-ground reality. The primary governmental protection for workers with new babies (read: women) is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed by President Clinton in 1993, which guarantees just twelve weeks of unpaid leave to those who work for employers with 50 or more workers. Some companies offer paid maternity leave at their discretion, but not the federal government. It requires employees to use their sick leave instead.

On April 7, Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Tom Davis, and Steny Hoyer--recognizing that "the current policy isn't very family-friendly"--reintroduced the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would guarantee federal workers six weeks of paid leave to care for newborns or adopted babies. This would be a symbolically meaningful step. Let's hope it doesn't suffer the same fate as the Balancing Act, another working-mother-friendly bill that, among other things, offers increased paid FMLA leave, an additional $500 million in child care subsidies, and incentives to encourage telecommuting. Representative Lynn Woolsey first introduced the bill in February 2004 and reintroduced it last April to silence from the Republican leadership.

It comes as no surprise that aid to working parents isn't Congress's first priority: Business has been understandably unenthusiastic about the calls for increased benefits, flex-time, and other working-mom "perks." In a corporate culture that values face time and late nights at the office, suggestions of flexibility are reflexively dismissed as a drain on productivity. But, slowly, this culture has been changing--often as companies realize the brain drain of moms-in-flight. Ernst & Young, noticing a high turnover rate among its female employees, piloted a project in the mid-'90s that allowed all workers to telecommute; the firm's percentage of women partners has since tripled. Other corporations, including Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, have created new reduced-hour jobs designed for working mothers. With women now constituting 46 percent of the U.S. workforce and receiving more college degrees than men, there are clear economic incentives for businesses to develop similar third-way options.

But the real roadblock isn't economic; it's cultural. Republicans have long denounced federal funding for child care as a threat to the American family, as Richard Nixon argued in his veto of a 1971 bill to establish a national child-care system. Never mind that, during World War II, in response to the influx of women into the workforce, the government funded centers that offered working moms not only child care but also laundry service and packaged hot dinners. Thirty-five years after Nixon, the view persists that for the government to legislate on behalf of working women is to take sides in the culture wars. And this is the most grievous damage the mommy wars have wrought. The upper-class dilemma of whether women should choose to work or to stay at home--and the moral weight of that choice--has dominated the discussion. But how about the moral weight of working-class parents who must work and can be "one sick child away from being fired," in the words of a recent report issued by the Center for WorkLife Law? It's time to get real. The cultural revolution has already occurred. The real threat to the American family is the policies that lag behind it.

This article originally ran in the May 1, 2006, issue of the magazine.