Melissa Harris-Perry on sexism, parenting and work: "We reproduce this fantasy of perfected motherhood"

"My enjoyment of [maternity] leave raises the ongoing question of why my circumstances are so rare"

Published March 10, 2014 5:38PM (EDT)

Melissa Harris-Perry             (MSNBC/Heidi Gutman)
Melissa Harris-Perry (MSNBC/Heidi Gutman)

Melissa Harris-Perry is currently on leave from her dual posts at MSNBC and Tulane University in order to spend time with her newborn daughter and family, but she's still doing her thing as America's foremost public intellectual. In an interview with Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress, Harris-Perry laid out a 10-step plan to begin the process of creating family-friendly workplaces, discussed her personal work-life balance -- how it's similar and how it's different from that of millions of other working parents -- and tackled the way that sexist and racist norms continue to guide how we talk about -- and legislate around -- working mothers.

Here are a few excerpts from the excellent (per Harris-Perry usual) interview:

On her paid maternity leave and the millions of others who don't have the option:

The meaningful difference is between my situation and that of so many other working mothers who don’t have adequate health care coverage, who do not have paid maternal leave, or who work in positions not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act and therefore have little job security. I am aware of how privileged and relatively rare my circumstances are in terms of combining family and career. [...]

My enjoyment of the leave raises the ongoing question of why my circumstances are so rare and why we have such an inadequate system of parental support in this country. Throughout the pregnancy, I spent a lot of time on the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” discussion boards. Even though I wasn’t carrying AJ, I wanted to stay closely connected to the stages of pregnancy. My favorite discussions emerged in the third trimester when the mommies-to-be began to discuss their plans for maternity leave. The Canadian and British women were aghast at the American realities. They were shocked to learn how swiftly their American counterparts would be seeking childcare and returning to full-time employment just to make ends meet. We can make public policies that ease the burden on women, children, and families. We just need the political will to do it.

Examples of policies we need to put in place to ensure all workplaces support working parents and help working families make ends meet:

There are a few policies that could make massive improvements in the lives of these women: (1) universal health care that is not attached to employment; (2) universal paid maternity leave for 12 weeks and universal paid paternity leave for six weeks; (3) universal Pre-K for four-year-olds; (4) raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour; (5) substantial infrastructure investment that connects poor communities with job-rich environments via safe, inexpensive public transportation; (6) legal requirements for wages and working conditions for domestic workers who provide childcare and home care service; (7) the restoration and extension of SNAP benefits; (8) access to affordable birth control, family planning counseling, comprehensive sexual education, and abortion; (9) marriage equality so that same-sex couples can enjoy existing parenting rights obtained in marriage; and (10) aggressive tax incentives for businesses that institute a variety of parent-friendly policies.

On the myth of "perfected motherhood" and how race, class and other identities shape who American culture views as a "good mother":

Our societal norms still push the notion that able-bodied, beautiful, white women in their 20s, who are married to wealthy white men, who choose not to work outside the home while their children are young, who bear their own biological children without assisted reproductive technology, and who lose all their pregnancy pounds within weeks of giving birth are the ideal imagination of motherhood. We reproduce this fantasy of perfected motherhood in many ways throughout our culture and this version of “mother” is powerfully etched in the mindset of too many policy makers. [...]

But the social, cultural, and policy preferences for the idealized middle-class, white, heterosexual mom generates real consequences. Many conservative policy makers lay claim to the truism that young children thrive when their mothers are full-time parents, then support policies that force poor, unmarried mothers to work outside the home rather than devote their full attention to child reading. It’s a contradiction that suggests poor women should be punished for becoming mothers rather than having the opportunities that more economically secure mothers enjoy

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

MORE FROM Katie McDonough

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gender Labor Labor Rights Melissa Harris-perry Women Work Working Mothers Working Parents Working Women