If Parental Leave Matters, So Do Parents

The bond between a mother and her child matters (tarcherbooks.net).

The bond between a mother and her child matters (tarcherbooks.net).

Parenting is a puzzle. It’s one that every parent pieces together differently, and there’s often no one right answer. However, there are certain premises elemental to any parenting discussion; if all sides can’t accept them, we can’t have an honest debate about parenting, or the public policies that affect it.

I thought of this while reading a recent Boston Globe op-ed by Smith College President Kathleen McCartney. Ostensibly, the point of McCartney’s Mother’s Day piece is that the United States needs to expand paid family leave, because only 12% of American workers currently have access to it.

However, McCartney’s central point is weakened by the op-ed’s own internal conflict and apparent lack of cultural awareness. She simultaneously holds that parents themselves aren’t crucial to their own children’s well-being and development. To wit, she asserts: “Motherhood is a cultural invention. It reflects a belief adopted by society that is passed down from one generation to the next.”

Of course, parents everywhere may beg to differ. Motherhood has survived for millennia because it’s more than some trendy social experiment. If we accept that families have been the bedrock of societies across time, as well as cultures and religions, we also know that motherhood is part of what keeps societies bound together.

Motherhood is a natural relationship with one’s child, based on an innate biological connection. Biology inspires us to nurture and protect the little people in our lives, who spend nine months growing inside of us, or whom we choose to adopt and enrich our lives.

Children reciprocate that sense of connection; throughout their lives, children hear their mothers’ voices in their heads. There is also a primal need for children to have a relationship with their mothers, which is why so few adult children lose touch with their parents, even if that relationship is a difficult one. That’s a hardwired emotional bond, not a cultural construct.

McCartney is further bothered that “In US culture, we hold to the idea that young children are better off when cared for exclusively by their mothers.” I’m not sure who exactly is insisting that children spend 100% of their time with their mothers. The actions of one sitcom character, including a character on the widely watched “Modern Family,” don’t constitute an overwhelming cultural force in my mind.

Even a stay-at-home mother like me recognizes that every family faces its own trade-offs, economic factors chief among them. However, it is also true that given a choice, many mothers would prefer to have more time with their children, rather than working full-time.

Curiously, McCartney talks about “employed” versus “nonemployed” mothers, where others typically talk about “working” mothers. It’s unclear why she changed the nomenclature, since her categories seem to exclude both business owners and freelance workers, without shedding further light on the discussion.

McCartney is especially disturbed that the American public has not fully accepted the body of research, to which she contributed, demonstrating that “infant care did not disrupt the mother-child bond and that children thrived in quality child care.” She writes: “Earlier in my career, I believed solid research findings, like my own, would lead to policy change. I was wrong. Culture trumps data every time.”

Culture and experience are undoubtedly important, especially where something as personal as parenting is concerned. But all of this leads to an important point: McCartney makes no sense. If children can do just as well in paid childcare settings as they can with their own parents, why do we need paid family leave at all?

Either time with parents matters and demonstrably improves children’s outcomes, or it doesn’t. McCartney seems to insist that it doesn’t, while also insisting that it does. Both assertions can’t be true. I understand McCartney’s desire to assuage working mothers’ guilt  — and I empathize with those mothers — but her logic is weak. Businesses will never grant the other 88% of American workers paid family leave if a paid stand-in can do an equally good job raising young children; they will tell their workers to delegate.

Most Americans still believe that parents have a unique and compelling interest in their own children. Regardless of how much time we must work, most parents prioritize time with their children after hours, because we love them, and we believe that such time matters.

Finally, if McCartney’s goal is to change public policy, she’d be more successful if she demonstrated a more fine-tuned understanding of her larger audience, the American public. For example, she notes that “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.”

Yes, the Swedes do things differently, but they also have a smaller economy, a different history, and different cultural assumptions. Expecting Americans to suddenly adopt Swedish attitudes is unreasonable. McCartney would be more effective finding a state-level policy reform she likes and encouraging other states, or the federal government, to replicate it. That would be a uniquely American, and much more realistic, solution to the problem of expanding family leave.

Of course, if McCartney is going to define the lack of universally available family leave as a problem, she should also begin by acknowledging that parenting matters. Parents are not simply interchangeable adult widgets. Because if motherhood is a social construct, and it’s equally good to leave your kids with (quality) hired help, we don’t need more family leave. We just need more nannies.

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