Working Moms: What Would Help?

Lots of moms work, for lots of different reasons. When we talk about how to improve the work and personal lives of working moms, two responses are all too common.

From the secular world that tends to lean anti-family, anti-child, and frankly anti-woman, we hear, "Ugh, parents. Why should they get special treatment just because they freely made the choice to squeeze out a couple of brats?"

It's hard to know what to say to this argument. I suppose there must be some moms and dads who behave as if their lives are important and no one else's is, but probably those people would act that way anyway, whether they had kids or not. What it comes down to is this: children are where people come from. Children are good for society, fiscally and in every other way. Children who are well-cared for, who aren't forced to go to school sick or spend lots of time alone, and parents who aren't utterly exhausted and wracked with guilt at all times, make families who give stability and peace to society as a whole. So even if we're only looking out for our own self-interest, it's best for everyone when parents are given as much freedom and flexibility as possible to devote to their children. Children are not a hobby or a side interest: they are life itself. It only makes sense for employers to take that into account.

And what's the other ugly but common response we hear, this time from Catholics? "But a woman's vocation is to be a mother, period. If she is prudent and frugal, she can always simply choose to give up her fancy clothes and fancy gadgets and stay home to raise her kids, as God intended." (Of course these same people are often adamant that NFP is only to be used in life-or-death emergencies; but once you do have a huge family, you better not get WIC or food stamps, because that is stealing from hardworking taxpayers.)

Well, well, everybody. Sometimes, women need to work. They really need to -- not want to, not choose to, but need to, so that they will live and not die. And sometimes women work because they're doing something important, and have discovered that, with the help of family and friends and even employers, they can find some way of giving their kids what they need while also doing other things at least some of the time. They're not trying to "have it all." They're just trying to live their lives, and they shouldn't be judged more harshly than men who are just trying to do the same. We have enough working mothers among the saints to make us realize, I hope, that it's not a mortal sin for a mother to earn a paycheck. 

That being said, the system we have now is clearly not working; and the solution isn't, as Facebook and Apple seem to think, to simply offer women the opportunity to scrape some eggs out while they're still spring chickens, to be gestated later, when a pregnancy won't be so annoying for everybody. (Even The Onion grasped what this ghastly "perk" implies, and repsonded brilliantly with the next logical step.)

So, treating motherhood like a regrettable inconvenience isn't the right answer. But what would help? I'm not looking for solutions to all the problems inherent with having many mothers in the workforce. Yes, it would be nice if mothers had a true choice of whether to work or not. Yes, it would be wonderful if food and shelter and healthcare hadn't gotten so expensive. Yes, it would be nice if all men earned enough that they could support their families with a single income. 

But as things are now, and assuming that mothers are going to be working and should at least be suffering less while they do it, what would help? Here are a few things that employers could reasonably offer, not to Solve Everything, but just to make life more reasonable for everyone:

The option to work at home at least some of the time.  I remember when a friend was the first in her company to be laid off simply because she worked at home. Other employees with less experience, who turned in lower quality work, were considered more valuable simply because they were there. Why? For many jobs, it often simply does not matter where a worker is physically.Working from home is no paradise for kids or moms, but it can be vastly superior to working out of an office, especially if a kid is sick. 

Paid maternity leave that gives a mother some shot at physically and emotionally recovering from childbirth -- and the same for adoptive and foster parents who welcome a new child. Childbirth is hard, and it's barbaric to expect women to drag themselves back in while they're still recovering. Paid paternity leave, or even unpaid paternity leave, would be nice; but let's try catching up with the rest of the rest of Western civilization, first.

Some paid time off for hourly employees.  A huge segment of the work force doesn't get a salary, paid vacation, paid sick days, or anything. If you don't work, you don't get paid, period. Often, mothers who have stepped out of the work force to have previous children find themselves in these jobs, but the needs of their kids don't disappear just because they are in school for part of the day. 

Onsite or nearby childcare, or even being able to bring babies to work. The latter isn't appropriate for all situations, but it's not always inappropriate, either. Mothers don't forget about their kids while they are at work, and may even be more productive if they can stay closer to their kids throughout the day.

Job sharing. If two people can put in a full-timer's worth of work between them, why not let them share? Obviously this wouldn't work for every job; but imagine if you could make private arrangements with another worker (maybe a spouse?) to get the work done between you, and divvy up the profits accordingly, while both benefiting from the flexibility and the stability. 

Flex hours. Why should employees make a distinction between sick days, personal days, and vacation days? Decide how many paid or unpaid days an employee can have, and let them decide how and when to use them. 

A private, comfortable room to pump milk.  A good many mothers want their babies to have the benefits of breastmilk, and they also don't want their supply to diminish while they're away from the baby. The health benefits are real for mother and baby, and mothers should be able to pump as comfortably as possible without being harassed or sent into an unsanitary area.

General respect. Too many women report that they are treated with suspicion, condescension, or outright contempt, just because they are moms. Employers can do a lot to make sure that this kind of behavior -- from men and from other women -- is not tolerated. 

These policy changes aren't about encouraging women to leave their babies and pursue some foolish fantasy of having it all. They're just about making life more tolerable for women who shouldn't be punished for doing what they must. What do you think? Are you a working mom? What has made your job easier, and what would you like to see change?