Rebecca Traister has a really excellent piece over at the New Republic on how America’s lack of paid family leave hurts working women. She weaves her own experiences as a mother and a journalist into a sweeping analysis of existing policy that dives into the layered, complex ways that the decision to have a child can impact a woman’s career.
Whereas most politicians can sound generic to the point of meaninglessness when discussing the economic challenges women face as they support their families (GOP platitudes about “real-world solutions” for working mothers while blocking basic pro-family policies come to mind), Traister goes deep into the specifics of the struggle. And that struggle includes, but is not limited to: barfing at work and brain-melting fatigue during pregnancy, disclosing (or not disclosing) a pregnancy during a job interview, taking (or not taking) a new job because of the benefits, figuring out how to survive on unpaid leave, wondering how to pay for childcare.
It’s not a neatly summarizable story, so I’d suggest you just go read it in full. But one of the things that struck me while reading it was how our current system, with our inexcusable lack of paid family leave, no paid sick days, no guarantee of affordable childcare and a minimum wage that keeps millions in poverty, manages to punish working women for having children at the same time that our reproductive health policies make it more and more difficult to avoid becoming pregnant or space out pregnancies. Paid leave and universal preschool are essential policies to support women balancing the demands of family and work, but so is a reproductive health agenda that allows women to plan for the families they want.
It is 2015 and we are currently fighting to keep abortion legal and accessible more than 40 years after Roe v. Wade made it a constitutional right. Employers can now deny women insurance coverage for birth control if they claim to object to it on religious grounds, and Republicans are pushing to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest reproductive healthcare provider that also offers low- and no-cost birth control. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to ban abortion pre-viability, while House Republicans voted last week to prevent private insurers from covering the procedure. At the state level, conservative lawmakers are passing laws that shutter clinics and force women to wait longer and travel farther to access care.
Taken as a whole, the government is making it really, really hard to avoid becoming pregnant. And if you get pregnant and don’t want to be, the government is making it really, really hard to get an abortion. As Jessica Valenti wrote recently at the Guardian, the last few years of Republican-backed restrictions on abortion and birth control are effectively “trapping women into forced pregnancies.” The barriers women face in controlling their own fertility, particularly low-income women, can’t be separated out from our current debate about paid leave and other policies that support working families. Because for many women, avoiding pregnancy isn't about avoiding parenthood. It's delaying having kids or spacing out pregnancies while you finish school, search for a job with benefits, wait for your partner's promotion to come through or any number of the good reasons women have for wanting and needing reliable access to birth control and abortion.
Financial concerns -- the very basics about whether you can afford a child -- can factor heavily into the decision to have an abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than 70 percent of women who had an abortion listed money as a reason they decided to terminate. And many women who have abortions are already parents. So the decision isn’t whether to have a child, but whether to have another child.
And this is precisely where issues like wages, pay equity, paid leave and affordable childcare meet the conversation about reproductive freedom. Women account for two-thirds of the low-wage workforce, and yet we don’t have the policies in place to support them. Raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour (something that the Republicans in Congress have rejected) would help lift millions of women out of poverty -- but even then, just barely. In a city like New York, even a progressive policy like Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed $13 minimum wage still doesn’t constitute a living wage for single parents. In order for a single mother to support herself and one child, she would need to be earning nearly $25 an hour; for a mother of two, that number jumps to over $30 an hour.
Right now, we are living in a country where women who don’t want to be pregnant are being denied the ability to access contraception and abortion while women who do want to be pregnant are fretting about whether carrying to term is financially possible. Traister’s piece outlines the very real challenges faced by working women who decide to have children (or more children), and she covers a number of policies that could begin to address those problems. But it's also clear how limited even President Obama and other Democrats’ progressive agenda for working families is when lined up against women’s actual needs, the struggle and expense of raising a family in America. In order to take on these issues, Democrats are going to have to get much more ambitious about the policies they are fighting for, going beyond just paid leave to a more expansive agenda about universal preschool, sick days and other measures that support working families. And by connecting this agenda to robust support for reproductive healthcare, Democrats can help fight to support the families that women already have and ensure that they have full control over if, when and how those families grow over time.