The Mother Load
It’s a presidential election year, and—so far—there are no “moms.” No soccer moms or hockey moms. No welfare moms. No security moms or stay-at-home mothers. “It’s still primary season, and things are slicing a little differently,” says Susan Douglas, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies. “We’re not yet hearing that perennial term “gender gap,” and we’re not getting the new media construction of soccer mom or whatever the latest mom will be.” How, then, is motherhood talked about in the news media? “For the most part,” Douglas says, “it’s not.”
Douglas, whose research focuses on gender issues, American broadcasting, and the media, has tracked the way the media have covered women’s issues since the 1970s. “There was a great deal of news coverage related to motherhood in the early 1980s because there was such a revolution going on in the family,” Douglas says. “Between 1975 and 1985, in particular, there was a tremendous shift, with a greater number of mothers of small children than ever working outside the home, so there was a huge daycare crisis. There was a lot of media coverage about that.”
And there are still pressing issues related to motherhood, but, Douglas says, “we’re not seeing these stories on the nightly news. Because it’s primary season, we’re swamped with horse race coverage of the campaign. In the last few years, there has also been a huge increase in the number of news stories about weather—but not much about issues of concern to mothers.”
If one of the candidates raises a family-policy question during an appearance or a debate, Douglas notes, it gets reported, but usually without much follow up. Douglas believes there should be. “Affordable daycare, quality preschool, and paid family leave are all issues for mothers that also have lasting achievement effects for their kids.”
Lonely at the Bottom
The United States is nearly unique among developed countries when it comes to paid maternity leave: We, Suriname, a handful of island nations—the Marshall Islands, Palau, Tonga, Nauru, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea—are the only countries in the world that don’t mandate it.
The United States can claim a similar distinction when it comes to childcare. American families with two working parents pay more than twice the amount families pay in most European countries. In 33 states, the average cost for a year of childcare exceeds one year of in-state college tuition. There is also a notable gap when it comes to preschool, where the United States is also behind its peers by many measures: in terms of enrollment, in child-teacher ratio, and in investments made to early childhood education programs.
“These issues—daycare, maternity leave, preschool—would have been at least covered, sometimes poorly, in the news in the 1980s,” says Douglas. “And these are essential issues.
The child who’s had a good preschool education and good daycare is much better off than the child who hasn’t. The achievement gap begins in those early years, and it just keeps growing. It exacerbates generational poverty. Often by the time a child gets to kindergarten or first grade, the die is already cast.”
Along with a lack of coverage on these issues, Douglas also notes a dearth of coverage about the harsh effects they have on single parents and low-income families. “We don’t see even poorly reported stories about welfare mothers or lower income mothers on the news anymore,” Douglas observes. “We don’t hear about them. They just fell out of the conversation.”
Thanks to the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, the United States does guarantee 12 weeks of unpaid leave if you’re a government worker or work for a company that employs more than 50 people, and if you have worked there full time for 20 weeks. About 13 percent of workers in the United States private sector have access to paid family leave, and this number is starting to grow. Last month, New York joined Rhode Island, New Jersey, and California as a state that requires some type of paid family leave. Last month, San Francisco signed legislation that gives workers access to six weeks of fully paid leave.
The family breadwinner is also changing. Thirty-four percent of moms are now the sole financial provider for their families, compared to 39 percent of dads, a dramatic change caused in large part by the Great Recession. Along with this shift, Douglas has also seen a corollary decline in the media messages about choosing to be a stay-at-home mom and the ideal that these are better mothers. “I think the Great Recession did that in,” Douglas says.
With Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders insisting it is time to guarantee 12 weeks of paid family leave to American workers, and a proposed bill in Congress to do just that, might our country be on the verge of enacting what most would consider an extremely overdue, family-friendly policy? Seventy-one percent of women in a recent poll strongly supported such a law. “I think millions of mothers would forego the Mother’s Day flowers for that,” Douglas said. “But of course, they should get both … and more.”