A few weeks ago, Senator Tammy Duckworth announced that she is pregnant with her second child. When she gives birth later this year she will be the first Senator to ever give birth while in office. Predictably, her announcement has sparked questions about her capacity to serve in office with a new baby, and has generated conversations about the grossly insufficient family leave policies and lack of accommodations for new parents in the United States.
The United States is one the few wealthier countries in the world that does not require paid parental leave or other flexible policies for parents returning to work. It has generally been believed that this is largely the reason for the gendered wage gap. Interestingly, a new study out of Denmark, a country which offers 52 weeks of paid parental leave, demonstrates that despite this generous leave, the gendered wage gap persists and may even be exacerbated.
The authors of the study postulate that although Denmark’s paid leave is technically gender neutral, it is women who typically utilize it which takes them out of the workforce for longer than men. Additionally, due to cultural norms and social expectations, it is women who are choosing to spend more time with their children, whether by working a reduced schedule or by taking jobs that require less travel or hold more “reasonable” hours.
I see this reflected in my clinical practice. Many of my clients work for companies that have made efforts to be more “family friendly” by offering reduced schedules or ramp up time after parental leave. Many of my clients have chosen to shift their roles within their job to travel less, leave the office earlier to pick up their kids from daycare, or take advantage of work from home days.
Despite these policies, which are supposed to help working moms thrive professionally and have more time at home, my clients consistently report that there are professional and emotional consequences. They are passed up for promotions, they feel “off track” at work, they experience guilt when pulled away from the office, and they compare themselves to colleagues without children.
More than that, I hear a deep sense of guilt that because they have “flexibility” they “shouldn’t” feel stressed or overwhelmed, that this “should” be enough. The results of this study loudly affirm that it is NOT enough. Yes, longer parental leave, flexible work hours, and alternative work arrangements are a step in the right direction but they do not resolve the issue. Women are still primarily responsible for child care, women are still made to feel guilty for the false “choice” between work and family, women are holding themselves responsible for the structural problems around them. Put another way, the system is flawed.
For example, it is the problematic structure of the Senate rules which mean that Tammy Duckworth can’t nurse her infant on the Senate floor or vote while at home on maternity leave. It is a problem with the structure of work that many of my clients in “family friendly” offices have weaned their babies before they felt ready to because taking time to pump at work meant missing meetings. It is a structural problem that networking events and meetings are scheduled when kids need to be picked up from daycare and that other childcare options are not affordable. It is a societal problem that family leave and flexible work arrangements are not offered to men, and, when they are, that men are often discouraged from utilizing them. It is a societal problem that in cis/straight families with two working parents, the assumption is still that the woman’s job should be the more flexible one. These are all problems of deeply embedded sexism and a dated phallocentric model of the workplace.
To the working moms out there, this is not your fault.
The challenge of shifting the system away from one that punishes women for having children and truly supports working parents is large and multifaceted, but my hope is that we can start by letting go of some of the guilt that it engenders. So, when you are beating yourself up for not excelling at work, or telling yourself you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed because your job is flexible, please remember this is a problem with the system and not with your capacity or ability.