Stop the War on Mothers

By Ellen Bravo

I love the image of conservatives hiding behind the flag of motherhood to protect themselves against charges of gender insensitivity. It’s like kids who move the couch to cover up a stain and hope no one will notice.

By all means, let’s talk about the importance of motherhood.

We can start with the right to stay home after giving birth. Rush Limbaugh recently ranted that women have much more flexibility at work than men.

Unlike Rush, I like to begin with the facts.

The United States is one of only four countries in the world that doesn’t ensure new mothers can afford to stay home even for the briefest of times after they have a baby. Not surprisingly, millions of American mothers who’ve given birth go back to work before the six weeks needed just for healing. The majority of new mothers return before 12 weeks.

Why? For many, because they’ll lose their job otherwise. We have two laws protecting new mothers. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act says an employer can’t fire someone for being pregnant but doesn’t have to hold her job for her while she recovers from birth.

Really.

The other, the Family and Medical Leave Act, does protect the jobs of mothers and fathers who take leave to care for a newborn– but it excludes half the workforce because they work for a company with fewer than 50 employees, haven’t been on the job long enough or work part time.

And did I mention the leave is unpaid?

In fact, nearly half of employed mothers receive no pay whatsoever for the time they’re out on maternity leave. Of those who do draw some pay, most are using time they’ve accrued, like vacation.

As anyone with a newborn knows, having a baby is a great joy, but it is definitely not a vacation.

And what about when a child falls ill? More than two-fifths of all workers, three-quarters of low-wage workers, don’t have a single paid sick day. Nearly half of those who do can’t use the time to care for a sick child.

In other words, when the school calls and says your child just threw up and you must come pick him up, women all over the country risk losing a day’s pay — or worse, their job — for being a good mom. Many of those women work for multi-billion dollar restaurant or nursing home chains, home health care agencies or child care centers.

Because when women do for a living the work that mothers do in the home – feeding people, taking care of the sick or the elderly or the very young – they’re usually paid very little and provided few if any benefits.

Ask those guardians of motherhood why the workers who care for our young children earn less than those who care for our cars or our pets; and why domestic workers and home health care workers are excluded from protection of most labor laws.

Conservatives oppose every policy to correct these injustices – family leave, paid sick days, expanding labor law protection, equal pay laws.

If you really want to know how conservatives feel about motherhood, take a look at what they say when women who happen to be poor want to stay home to take care of their kids. Right-wing pundits and politicians blast these mothers as lazy and irresponsible people who refuse to work and should be forced to do so, no matter what job, what pay, what shift.

“We should ask that all adults participate in work activities to their fullest ability,” Governor Romney has said.

And by “work,” he doesn’t mean feeding or cuddling or playing with their young ones.

I’m all for honoring mothers. Let’s start by making sure they’re not punished for doing that job well, and that the fathers of those children are allowed to share in the joy, and work, of caring for them.