Prioritizing Parenthood

We have entered an age in which U.S. birth rates are reaching an all-time low. From where I sit as a young female, that makes sense to me. It’s partly due to a drop in teen pregnancies and an increase in women in the workforce. There’s also a social attitude of women recognizing just how intense and demanding pregnancy and motherhood can be; fears of futility due to the environmental state and its worsening conditions; and the impacts of the economy. I know personally that motherhood--regardless of how deeply I may feel inclined, or the hauntings of dreams in which I have a daughter of my own--is not something I see myself integrating into my life purely because the pros I can imagine do not outweigh the cons I fully anticipate. That being said, there are plenty of individuals who look forward to or seek parenthood as a “next step” or next stage in their lives. It is something they desire, and it is a perfectly natural progression in one’s life. But does the culture of the United States support such ambitions?

Now is a time that I like to describe as the “modern Renaissance”; if you know the idea behind the “Renaissance Man” then you’ll understand what I mean. The Renaissance Man was the ideal a man who was religiously involved, excelled intellectually, and maintained a healthy and vibrant romantic and social life. In short, he did it all. Fast forward to contemporary times; we are in an era where opportunity is abundantly around us. In consideration of a working-parenting world, mothers who also have jobs are commonplace; men who want to be stay-at-home dads are increasingly able to assume that role; single parents are continually being presented the resources to help them succeed so that their children, in turn, may have the best chance at a full and happy life. But this is not perfect, and my title for the times lies heavily on the side of optimism.

 

The U.S.’s federal laws on the matter are encompassed under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It states: “The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Eligible employees are entitled to:

 

Twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:

  • the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;

  • the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;”

 

To be considered an “eligible employee”, one must:

  • work for a covered employer;

  • have worked 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of leave; (special hours of service rules apply to airline flight crew members)

  • work at a location where the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles; and

  • have worked for the employer for 12 months. The 12 months of employment are not required to be consecutive in order for the employee to qualify for FMLA leave. In general, only employment within seven years is counted unless the break in service is (1) due to an employee’s fulfillment of military obligations, or (2) governed by a collective bargaining agreement or other written agreement.”

Now, happily, FMLA applies to both men and women; either parent can take parental leave to care for the child. But as I look at this policy and its specifications, I can’t help but feel slightly disheartened and slightly more appalled.

The first two things that stand out to me are that it is only 12 weeks off, and it is unpaid. Having a child is an extremely complex, complicated and demanding time. I will be looking specifically at cases of birthing a child; I will not be delving into adoption or foster care in this article (although they are also worthy circumstances to look into). If I think specifically of the mother, there is a whole slew of issues and factors that include: hormonal changes that accompany no longer being pregnant, bodily recovering from pregnancy and labor, potential for postpartum depression. And those are just for the mother as she is a single individual being. It does not yet consider the intensity of burden and anxiety around bonding with the baby, discovering effective and efficient routines for feeding, clothing, caring for, and putting to sleep the baby, possible complications with latching for breastfeeding, et cetera. A mere three months hardly seems like enough time to encounter those--and any number of other issues, fully recover, and re-enter the workforce fully prepared to engage in said work. Furthermore, to be three months unpaid presents even greater challenges, even though it ensures that an individual may return to their job after the leave ends. It’s worth considering that not every couple or individual who chooses to have a child is in a flourishing financial situation; in fact, many individuals need the income of three months’ worth of paychecks. While unpaid leave is potentially available for them, not everyone can afford to take the entire three months off, and that presents its own risks in the development of a bond and relationship with the baby.

Receiving three months of unpaid leave to care for oneself, one’s spouse/partner, and the baby is then, as it is vitally important to emphasize, only federally required to be available for eligible employees. That means that, no, not everyone is eligible to be granted such time off and given the opportunity to then return to work. There are numerous specifications listed above in which an employer must have a certain number of employees, said employee must have worked x number of hours within a year-long time frame, et cetera. While it's true that private business may have better or admirabe maternity/paternity leave policies, it isn't a requirement, and the impact of the populace is most effective at a federal level.

Things become more complicated if we look at and consider poverty rates within the United States. In 2016, 40.6 million individuals were living in or below the poverty line. It’s no secret that wealth inequality within this country contributes immensely to many of its social problems, and that were the government to truly take seriously issue of wealth inequality, factors like income and financial insecurity would not need to integrate themselves into the prospect of entering parenthood. With lessening birth rates, there is present a risk that we could economically suffer; the only solution is to incentivize individuals to parenthood, and the best way to do that is to eradicate as many of the factors that contribute to the decision against it (such as improving economic prospects, allowing the majority of the population better access to financial stability by closing the wealth gap, improving laws and policies around maternity/paternity leave, and so on and so forth).

I do not believe that parents should need to make the decision between doing work that they love and being a parent. I also do not believe that men should receive less attention in these situations, as it would do our society well to view the importance of fatherhood at an equated level to motherhood. I am not ignorant to the distinction that between mothers and fathers, mothers endure pregnancy while men do not; that kind of distinction is a monthly reminder for me. Instead, my views emphasize a separate set of policies and allowances that permit a woman to recover after pregnancy just as we might grant anyone else who has sustained an injury or bodily trauma to heal and recover; that is to say, we treat recovery from pregnancy and taking care of the baby as two separate things that should be granted their own sets of policies and considerations.

Fatherhood and motherhood deserve equal and emphasized priority for a number of reasons. The most immediate one that comes to mind is that there are a growing number of same-sex couples having and raising children; it would be unfair to belittle the experience of two fathers simply because they aren’t mothers. Secondly, the emphasis is not because the baby needs what a mother specifically or a father specifically can give them; rather, my view is that each parent is deserving of that time with their baby, as those bonds and relationships run both ways. Furthermore, to grant equal considerations and prioritizations to mothers and fathers helps to set a precedent--or rather remove the initial conditions that might negatively impact--the idea of equal parenting, that the burdens and responsibilities of parenthood should be shared equally or fairly between parents, delegated subjectively within a couple. To prioritize maternity leave but not paternity leave almost forces parents into having the woman assume all responsibilities relative to the child, the man then left to be the “breadwinner”. These are constructs much of the newer and younger generations are inclined to stop enforcing (notice that I am speaking of removing the requirement, not the structure itself, as it may be a dynamic that certain couples desire or feel comfortable assuming).

 

It’s true that on the path we are on right now, parenthood is looking to be less and less appealing to more and more individuals. As a society, it is our responsibility to look into why that’s the case, decide what kind of values we want to prioritize, and act accordingly. Push for paid and longer maternity and paternity leave. Encourage support for assistance programs and child assistance programs. Even if you don’t intend to have children of your own, help those in your community by reducing the need to choose between working and parenting. Even if we fail to help current generations, it is at the very least our duty to better the prospects for coming generations.