‘Society’s’ Job, and Paid Leave

Babies are pictured in a maternity ward at the Munich hospital ‘Rechts der Isar’ January 18, 2011. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

Upon reading Alexandra’s recent article detailing Republican efforts to craft a federal paid-parental-leave policy, I was reminded of a few people in the Harvard orbit with relevant stories on that score.

One is Alison Beard, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, who wrote this last January:

“[Feminist thinkers] assure me that the tension and guilt I feel as a working mother isn’t something I can relieve on my own or even with support from my family-focused husband, fabulous nanny, dear circle of sister-moms, and deeply empathetic boss and colleagues. It will take an entire society (perhaps one a little more like Sweden’s) to truly ease the burden.”

It would seem to me that it is not the province of “an entire society” to allay the feelings of “tension and guilt” felt by Alison Beard or any other “working mother.” Time is a finite commodity, with or without a federal paid-parental-leave policy. You cannot have it all, whether you’re a mother in Sweden, St. Louis, or South Sudan.

Former Harvard professor and current fledgling presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren wrote The Two-Income Trap in 2004 — a book that, were it written today, would end the author’s career in progressive politics — comes to mind as a rejoinder to both Beard and Republican pols. Warren’s book advanced the argument that the post-1970s explosion in American households with two wage-earners resulted in soaring fixed costs for families, cost increases that wiped out much of their apparent gains in income. In a household with both parents in the workforce, child-care services otherwise provided by a stay-at-home parent were performed by hired help or day-care services, and the travel and associated expenses that inhere to full-time work created additional costs for families otherwise absent in the single-breadwinner model of domestic life.

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Warren argued that having both parents in the workforce slashed the vital role of stay-at-home parents as automatic stabilizers — when a spouse fell ill, the domestic partner came to their aid; during hard economic times, the stay-at-home parent could enter the workforce to help bolster family income.

“A stay-at-home mother,” Warren wrote, “served as the family’s ultimate insurance against unemployment or disability — insurance that had a very real economic value even when it wasn’t drawn on.”

Instead of focusing on policy solutions that will make it easier for families to raise a family on one income, Republicans appear to have ceded that ground altogether. Would that they rediscover the virtues of that goal.

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