MOM Art Annex: Exhibition & Education Center

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How Much Do You Know About Paid Family Leave in the U.S.?

M.O.M. social media intern Jenny Nigro

M.O.M. social media intern Jenny Nigro

By, Jenny Nigro

I’m ashamed to admit that I took up the paid family leave torch pretty late in life for no other reason than being completely ignorant to the issue until just a few years ago. I had heard of people going on “maternity leave,” (mostly teachers who were pregnant growing up) and assumed that this was a built-in paid benefit in most workplaces, a la sick/bereavement/vacation. As it is with their lack of other paid benefits, I figured that the only exclusions to this rule were women who worked in the service industry or under the table.

Imagine my surprise, then, a friend at my old job (yes, it was this recent) told me about her experience going on maternity leave for her second baby. Her husband had been wrongfully terminated from his job during her pregnancy. Shortly after, she was put on bed rest and was facing a serious financial hardship at the prospect of being out of work while her husband was unemployed. I asked why she couldn’t have used a combination of sick and vacation time to last until her maternity leave time kicked in, which is when she told me that she had only ever received disability during her leave with her first baby, which hadn’t even kicked in until after she had gone back to work. They had relied solely on her husband’s pay throughout her first month and a half with her son, now with an additional member of the family to feed and clothe. They no longer had this to fall back on.

We had even worked at a non-profit, which are known to make up for their low pay scales by offering decent benefit packages to employees. I had just assumed that maternity leave was a paid benefit at our job (not that I was considering starting a family…hence why I didn’t have to think about these things). But still, the only reason she saw any money at all for her time at home with her baby was because she had qualified for disability. “Maternity leave” turned out to be just a facet of FMLA, which is what people use if they need to take care of a sick family member. Welcoming a baby to a family doesn’t mean that there is an illness that needs to be tended to. It means that there is a settling in period at home, away from work duties that needs to happen for the emotional/physical health and safety of Baby and parents.

As if we didn’t have our work cut out for us with the issue of paid maternal leave here in the US, now we are watching our international contemporaries grant legislation related to paid paternal leave. The UK recently drafted a policy that would extend family leave following the birth or adoption of a baby to 50 weeks, with 39 of those subsidized. Additionally, after the first two weeks, mothers in two-earner families can transfer some of their remaining weeks to the father.

Stephanie Coontz recently posted an article to her website, which she had published in The Guardian, in which she talks about this legislation and paid family leave. See article here. To sum up what she says on the matter, here is the Cliff Notes version:

-men would be reticent to take advantage of this benefit for fear of violating traditional gender roles and the consequent harassment that may occur at the hands of their peers

-once some dads take this family leave options, others are likely to follow suit

-the best way to encourage more dads to opt in would be to set up a use-it-or lose-it quota system rel

-taking family leave time is likely to change men’s behavior around the home for years after their leave

-households run better when dads have more of a hand in family responsibilities

– acts that destabilize traditional gender roles, including paternal leave, have been shown to not undermine the institution of marriage, as some family discourse would have you think, but instead, strengthen familial bonds

There is certainly a lot of food for thought in Coontz’ arguments/research, but it still begs the question: should we be advocating for men’s paid leave or focusing our energies on paid maternal leave to start?

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Mad Men and The Way We Never Were

By, Jenny Nigro – M.O.M. Social Media Blogger

I took a trip over Mother’s Day weekend that wound up being extended by a day and a half due to severe weather over Texas. Traveling with my mom, we took a risk and decided to road trip to an airport in a city 8 hours away and hopped a red eye from there. In all the extra traveling, I missed watching the penultimate episode of Mad Men with the rest of America. My sister, with whom I spend about 80% of our frequent phone conversations dissecting the show, sent me a single text message after she watched.

Jen…MAD MEN.

Devoid of the emoji content that is typical of our text conversations, I knew that this was even worse than if she had sent me something like “Jen…MAD MEN” (sad face emoji, crying face emoji, Munch’s “Scream” emoji). When I finally was able to catch up, I sent her what I feel was an equally as expressive text.

BETTY.

(This is as good a time as ever to mention **spoiler alert**).

With all the winding down of characters’ arcs and simultaneous chaos erupting in Don’s life, it may be surprising to other fans of the show that I pinpointed Betty’s story as the one I felt saddest about. Or not? Betty has always been one of my favorite characters. In season one, she was practically a teenager, in both body and mind. For a mother to two young kids, housewife to a detached husband, and daughter to a newly deceased mother, the plea for retrospective bad behavior, “I didn’t have a roadmap” would be an understatement. We saw “the problem that has no name” rear its ugly head, which found her on her back at a psychiatrist’s office, only to have her confidences devastatingly betrayed there. In later seasons, it seemed like her naivety was transformed into shrewd coldness…directed mostly at her children. I remember reading an interview with January Jones, the actress who played Betty, in which she said that in the first season, viewers judged Betty for her unwillingness to do anything in response to her husband’s affair; in subsequent seasons, viewers turned on her for doing too much. Ice queen that she was, I still adored her. Naturally, my heart was broken when I watched the second-to-last episode of the series.

A show that normally draws a lot of hype, there was even more buzz in the air as the second half of the last season drew to a close. The Atlantic  blog posts an analysis of the show after each week’s episode. Countless bloggers threw in their own two cents about “the end of an era.” Perhaps the most poignant response to the gut-wrenching fate of Betty, however, was this Buzzfeed article entitled “In Praise of Betty Draper, Difficult Woman.”

January Jones as Betty in Mad Men

January Jones as Betty in Mad Men

I have to say, I was crying for Betty (and maybe myself) even before the reveal of the contents of the letter she wrote to her daughter, Sally, to be read the minute she passed. But the tears that came with Sally’s reading of the letter weren’t from disappointment in what some would see as Betty’s sloppy farewell to her teenage daughter, but rather, a deep reverence for the genuineness of her character. In processing a fatal illness in my own family, my sister offered my mom some insight to assist in her understanding of it: we assume (from TV and books, mostly) that people will experience tremendous transformations on their deathbeds and suddenly become the people we had always hoped they would. But in reality, when faced with their own mortality, people just become a deeper version of whoever they had been in life. In death, there’s regret, there’s pain, there’s urgency, but most of all, fear, so human nature causes us to retreat further into ourselves. This is what we see Betty do when she wastes crucial departing words bestowed upon her daughter by detailing the precise instructions for her internment. As the article points out, “She’s not terrified of dying, but of being presented, in death, in a way that betrays the image of precise propriety she’d spent years cultivating. That image, after all, is her life’s greatest work.” The fact that we see the Mad Men writers recognize this makes the experience of watching it that much richer.

Like the article suggests, Betty was a difficult woman. But it’s no wonder that she didn’t have a road map or more sentimental words to offer her daughter upon her death…because the root of that image of motherhood is a mirage when we look at it closer. In her book, The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz discusses the myth of the 1950s family, derived from rigid gender roles imposed on Victorian America in the advent of capitalism. In pre-capitalist societies, people functioned interdependently with one another in communities. Love was not expressed or understood as occurring between two individuals. Notions of mothers as the sole purveyors of care and nurturance in the family were the effect of the rise of individualism that came with laissez faire economics. Men took on roles of self-reliance and independence in business, and women were expected to carry the torches of dependence and obligation in the home. As men contended with competition on the battlefield and in the office, women had to do their part by being June Cleaver in the home. Images of this type of social relation were created and treated as the natural order (by people like Don Draper, no less).

I’m fairly positive that my mother would watch that episode of Mad Men and see bits of herself and her mother in Betty. Henry Francis may have called it luck, but Betty’s knowledge of when to give up is a rare gift. She acknowledges that it has served her well before; just think of her marriage to Don. Sally’s fictional later-in-life therapist may say otherwise, but to me, Betty was no monster; she was the victim of an unseen social construct that has caused so many other women to feel similarly angry and powerless.  

After the series finale, January Jones posted a photo of Betty to her Instagram with the caption: “Please remember her like this. Strong. Proud. And afraid. She is everything I wish I could be.” I didn’t think it was possible to love the actress more, but my heart swelled in seeing the post. It was, after all, my all-time favorite still from my all-time favorite episode. It’s the episode where Don is courted by the bigwigs at a larger firm, who flatter Betty with the prospect of modeling in a Coca-Cola ad to lure her husband in. Betty goes through the trouble of getting her hopes up about re-igniting her modeling career, only to be told that the casting director decided to take the shoot in a different direction. Though Don knows the truth, he feigns surprise at Betty’s declared decision to remain a housewife. There is a rare moment of tenderness in the conversation in which Don compliments Betty’s parenting, likening her to an angel and lamenting the fact that he did not have a mother like her. Boosted by this overture, Betty goes out to the front yard in her nightgown the following morning, cigarette in mouth, and takes to the neighbor’s carrier pigeons with a BB gun – a stunt intended to send a message to the sour old man: don’t mess with my family.

So I hope that I have done right by January Jones. I hope that I have remembered this poor, beautiful, scared, strong, and proud creature in a way that the person who brought her to life would approve. As my sister comforted me when I broke down and told her that I’m not ready to let go of Betty, it’s okay to grieve fictitious characters. After all, it is the way we relate to their stories that makes it feel so real to us.

And of course, I’ll always have Netflix…and January Jones’ Instagram.

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Reading Research on the Family, Part II

BirthControlReview1923In my previous post, “Reading Research on the Family,” I indicated that I am a fan of dismantling conventional wisdom held around motherhood and the family. Stephanie Coontz had me drinking that Kool-Aid after I read her books, The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are. So when I stumbled upon an article discussing trends around delaying motherhood that questioned the notion that modern advances like technology and the pill have helped women put off childbirth until later in life, I was hooked.

The article, “Long Before the Pill, American Women Put Off Motherhood Until Their Thirties”, which appeared in Quartz, looks back through history at the changing tides around planned motherhood. The author, Jenna Healey, proposes that cultural/economic factors are often overlooked in favor of biology/technology within childrearing discourse. The media is saturated with headlines about “career women” tricking Mother Nature by using new-fangled procedures to put off having children so as not to jeopardize advancement in their field. It’s no wonder we gravitate towards the belief that women are having children at later ages thanks to technology and the old biological ticker. But in comparing birth statistics, Healey found parallel times in history when women had children later in life: 1920, 1940, and 1980. Each of these time periods was marked by economic downturn. Families waited to have kids for financial reasons: both due to concern around affording them, and because women were expected to work outside the home to support their middle class lifestyles. It was during the post-war baby boom that women began having babies at younger ages. In fact, another so-called threat to the institution of the American family that Healey dismantles is the current teen pregnancy crisis. The birth rate for girls age 15-19 during the baby boom years was 96.3 per every 1000 births; the current statistic is 26.6 per 1000. Sure, the legacy of the new social movements in the 70s and the increasing availability of contraception contributed to the creeping rise in age of first-time mothers. But once again, Healey points to the lagging economy as a contributor to the increase.

Healey concludes her essay with a nod to the technology currently available to would-be mothers looking to delay pregnancy. However, given the less acknowledged economic/cultural factors that have contributed to the rise in age of mothers, Healey concludes her piece with a plea to support working mothers, in the hopes that culture will follow and once again change history.

Written by: Jenny Nigro, M.o.M online intern

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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Reading Research on the Family

1024px-Stephanie_Coontz_(5105167078)A few years ago, my sister forwarded me a link to an op-ed in the New York Times written by a guest columnist who we both counted as one of our favorite academics to read when we were in college. Stephanie Coontz, a foremost expert on the contemporary American family as a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, had written this particular column about taking popular research with a grain of salt. Though by no means her most important work to date, the message behind this piece has stayed with me for some time.  It reminded me that averages, as interpreted through published research, are useful. They help us in community planning, as well as giving us the peace of mind that we are within the realm of “normal.” But, sometimes, numbers are, in fact, misleading…especially when interpreted to push for reactionary reform and legislation. She gave this example following the horrific rape of a young girl in Steubenville, Ohio: in 2011, the average income for the residents of Steubenville was $46,341. But if Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffett moved to town, that average household income would rise 62%. So we should always read more than one source and check out how other researchers may understand data.

As I mentioned, Coontz’ article has stayed with me for some time. I think back on it often when I read articles that demystify new research, especially those having to do with the family. There is a lot of chatter in our media about the American family – the family in transition, the family in decline, the demise of the American family. But, the fact remains that the institution of the American family is just that: an institution. Perhaps dependent on how you choose to define the American family, for the foreseeable future, it is not going anywhere.

I was reminded of Coontz’ warning about research when I stumbled upon an entry in a Washington Post blog that discusses the “unbelievable”/”breathtaking” rise of single motherhood in America. Quick to analyze this trend within the scope of the African American family, this article resurrects some ancient (and, judging by the name, most likely controversial) paper, which had predicted that the growing number of African American children being raised without fathers would have a difficult time emerging from poverty. There has been a chorus of research that demonstrates how families led by single mothers are more likely to live in poverty, both among divorced mothers and women who were never married to their children’s father. I don’t take issue with this fact. Rather, it is how the article uses the research to present a doom and gloom attitude about the inevitability of poverty for African American children born to single mothers that had me second-guessing.

In order to clear my head, I sought out more literature about single motherhood trend and found a piece called “The Changing Economics of Single Motherhood”. Right off the bat, I felt more at ease. I immediately feel anxious when I see the words “unbelievable” and “breathtaking” next to “rise”. “Change” is a more comfortable term I can get down with.  As I read on, I found that “The Changing Economics of Single Motherhood” was less black and white, literally and figuratively.

The nature of single motherhood is changing. Back in the 1980s, most single-mother families were produced by divorce. Nowadays, with over 40 percent of births occurring outside of marriage, there are many more single-mother families resulting from premarital fertility than failed marriages. But this distinction has been lost on most poverty researchers, who see all single mothers as similar. Scholarship on teenage childbirth also misses the mark—over three-fourths of women who give birth out of wedlock are older than 19, especially nowadays, and a few teenage parents are married.

By the time I got to the end, I saw that both articles discuss the economy of single motherhood, but take very different approaches to get to a similar conclusion: greater educational and career opportunities should be available to women (with/without children) to give them options when deciding to raise children/raising them. This is the key to ending the cycle of poverty for single mothers. My sojourn into family rhetoric took me a roundabout way to get to this same conclusion that I wholeheartedly agree with, and I see again how wise Stephanie Coontz is. There is so much noise that we hear about trends in the family, it is no wonder that we have anxiety about its vitality. Luckily, I have Stephanie Coontz to help me navigate discourse on single motherhood and keep my head on straight. It was, after all, Coontz, in her book The Way We Never Were, who alerted me to the fact that marriages dissolved at about the same rate at the turn of the century as they do now. We are quick to talk about the decline of the two-parent household, but we fail to realize that due to high mortality rates, children 115 years ago experienced the loss of a parent in the home about as much as kids do now. So, with that in mind, I will rest assured that the institution of the American family will forge on.

Written by: Jenny Nigro, M.o.M. Online Intern

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons