Helping working mothers benefits the rest of society

My own kids are mostly grown up, so I sought out two younger women this week to hear their perspectives on being a working mother today. Both women recognized that they were fortunate — with two incomes and supportive employers. Even so, struggles with child care, commutes and rising prices took a toll. “We need help,” they concluded.

“Being a mom is the most wonderful thing ever,” Cherie told me. She is 37, married, lives in Kirkland, works at a nonprofit in Seattle, and is happily pregnant again. She focused on her career prior to motherhood, but in this phase of life has decided to pass up some advancement opportunities. Although her son is only 11 months old, they have already gone through multiple daycare arrangements. The first center closed suddenly when the operators got divorced. Fortunately, Cherie’s mother was able to fly out for a week and her husband’s employer offered emergency daycare, so they were able to manage until they found a new provider.

The second mom, Shari (clearly a popular name), lives in Everett and has a staff position at the University of Washington. She has a 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter who attend daycare three days a week. Daycare costs more than her mortgage, but she likes the quality of the programs. Next year her son will be in full-day kindergarten. Even though she and her husband will have to pay for half of the kindergarten day plus after-school care, daycare costs will drop. Shari’s family budgets carefully, won’t be taking a big vacation this year, and decided to stay in Everett despite the lengthy commute because they love their community.

For both women, being a working mom was part of today’s economic reality. “I don’t know how single moms make ends meet,” Cherie noted.

The biggest change both women wanted to see was stronger paid family leave programs. They viewed the program starting next year in Washington that will provide five weeks of partly paid parental leave as a step in the right direction.

Shari took nine weeks off when her son was born, with most of it paid through saved up vacation and sick leave. When her daughter was born two years later, she had less leave accumulated and only took six weeks off. Cherie is in a similar situation. She had enough vacation and sick leave to cover most of her first three-month maternity leave, but for this next pregnancy she has little saved. She uses most of her sick leave now when her son is sick.

Both women know some women with more generous maternity leave benefits, and some with little or nothing. Both have linked into the national network, MomsRising.org, and support the group’s platform of real supports for families, including paid family leave, quality childcare, fair wages, health coverage and paid sick days.

Statistics bear out the problems. Nationally, 71 percent of women and 94 percent of men with children under 18 are in the workforce. Of mothers with children under one year, 52 percent are in the workforce. Women now make up 49 percent of Washington workers. Yet according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 8 percent of workers in private industry receive paid family leave, 57 percent have sick leave, and 77 percent get vacation. The average vacation allowance after one year on the job is just nine days.

Unfortunately, the wage gap remains, and women lose even more financial ground during the years when they are raising children. A 25-year-old woman in Snohomish County can expect to have 71 percent the average monthly earnings of a man her same age, while a 50-year-old woman only earns 61 percent.

Both Shari and Cherie love being moms. They accept some of the compromises in family finances and careers that come with their choices. But they also recognize that the health, education and well-being of young children are community concerns. That some families and some kids face much tougher challenges. That the quality of childcare and the ability to spend time with a new child shouldn’t depend entirely on family resources. Both these moms said that better public investments in childcare and paid family leave for all mothers and kids would benefit the whole society.

Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Instititue (www.eoionline.org), writes every other Wednesday. Her e-mail address is marilyn@eoionline.org.

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