Mother's Day reality check for working moms

More than 60 percent of moms with young kids work. Is the workplace ever going to catch up?

Sarah Elizabeth Richards
May 16, 2006 3:29AM (UTC)

Want to know what to get a working mom for Mother's Day next year? How about some help passing some cold, hard legislation that will make her job easier? That's the message from several of the weekend papers, which aimed to deliver a sobering punch about the reality of mothers in the workplace once the brunch mimosas had worn off.

First, on Saturday the Wall Street Journal's Kimberley Strassel surveys (subscription required) all the laws and institutions that were created around a traditional single-breadwinner family and haven't changed since women entered the workforce some 60 years ago. She ticks off the list: marginal tax rates, labor laws, Social Security, benefits rules, Medicare. Yet some 60 percent of women with young children are in the workforce. (Read Salon's interview with Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of "Mommy Wars.") Those laws are built around the old model of a full-time worker staying at a single company for a lot of years. Hence, those laws don't work for working mothers, who leave or change jobs according to family demands, or who may work part time.


Let's review: A working mom gets a raw deal when the tax code requires her to join her husband's tax bracket as a "second earner." "That means that while she may be doing the exact same work as the single woman working alongside her, she's keeping less of her paycheck," writes Strassel. That's approximately one-third once she's done paying for the childcare, cooking and cleaning she no longer provides. Then the 40-hour workweek, which mandates that she get overtime pay, prevents flexible scheduling. But she'd better put in her 40 hours; anything less robs her of health insurance and pensions. If there's a gap in her career, she'll lose the uninterrupted years of service that help her 401K plan. Strassel sounds the familiar call for a fairer tax system, flexible laws and Social Security reform.

Then on Sunday, the New York Times featured an Op-Ed called "The Other Mothers" reminding us that all this talk about the value of staying home isn't really part of the conversation for those who have to work for economic reasons. (See Joan Walsh's critique of author Caitlin Flanagan's hypocritical endorsement of traditional motherhood.) One survey by the Community Service Society, a nonprofit that focuses on poverty, found that more than half of low-income mothers who support a family of three on less than $32,000 did not have one day of paid sick leave, almost two-thirds had no paid vacation, and 80 percent did not get health insurance. (This is a refrain of an earlier Broadsheet post on a report called "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired.) The impact is acute: One-third had their electricity or phone service disconnected because they didn't have enough income to pay bills. More than 40 percent visited food pantries or couldn't pay their rent, write Betsy Gotbaum, public advocate for New York City, and Nancy Rankin, director of research at the Community Service Society. They endorse more subsidized childcare, better employee benefits for all workers -- or creative ideas like pairing mothers who want the summers off with students who need seasonal work.

On the hopeful side, the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday profiled four working mothers who make career and family work for them. Not surprisingly, those who had more income and flexibility managed the best. For example, one mother was fortunate to have a spouse who could alter his schedule to take care of his daughters in the afternoon. Another woman works from home in the morning. One takes advantage of a parents' network. Another relies on her extended family to fill in the gaps.


Moms in the workplace still need a lot of help. Despite the depressing message, though, it's wonderful to see so much nitty-gritty coverage on the need for reforms. Let's hope we have cause to toast with a few more mimosas next year.

Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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