As the mother of two with a demanding career, I often feel stretched to my absolute limit. I see the same existential exhaustion in the faces of my fellow working moms: tired, frayed at the edges, not feeling satisfied with either our work performance or parenting. We shuffle from our cubes to the bathroom like zombies, pump breast milk under fluorescent office lights, wonder how the hell the laundry will get done, lament the fact that both baths for the kids and that project are overdue.
You see it in the headlines too. Increasingly full-time employees who are exempt from overtime pay are expected to put in well over 40 hours a week, gladly giving nearly every bit of our energy and productivity to our employer in exchange for a decent salary and benefits.
Where then does nurturing and raising our children fit in when both parents are on this merry-go-round of constant deadlines, ever-increasing demands? I know I struggle with it. I also understand that my struggles are nothing compared to those of moms that are raising kids on their own, or of moms raising families with pay at or near our paltry minimum wage.
Increasingly, I think of all the work that goes into caring for and raising children that goes completely uncompensated. I had been extremely privileged with both of my children to have the majority of my maternity leave compensated (by hoard and piece together vacation, personal, and sick leave). Only 12 percent of U.S. private sector workers have any paid family leave, thus most mothers must return to work shortly after giving birth.
Sadly, for most American moms, (even high earners) once her child is a few months old, the labor of that child’s care (often 8–10 hours a day, 5 days a week of diaper changes, potty training, comforting, socializing, teaching, loving, and role-modeling) is outsourced to another woman who barely earns enough to care for her own family.
It’s a tragedy for working moms and for the women paid to raise their children. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge proponent of women in the workplace. Women must have equal standing, equal pay, and equal treatment. It’s an economic necessity for most women, and all women deserve the independence and control over their own lives that comes with being able to work outside the home and compete on a level playing field with men. I was raised by a single mom, who struggled to raise three children on a woman’s earnings, always robbing Peter to pay Paul, barely keeping afloat with student loan debt, the mortgage, and our living expenses.
I remember reading an article in a women’s magazine, Cosmo I believe, some years back. It featured advice from a very successful older woman to younger women about how to get ahead in the world of business. The pieces of advice that stuck with me:
1) Reconsider having children. But if you absolutely must, for the love of God, only have one child; and
2) Adjust your standards of cleanliness to your husband’s low standards.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this very practical advice taps into a solution to the problem of avoiding as much as possible the uncompensated labor of caring. One can maximize one’s lifetime earnings, the argument goes, by avoiding as much as possible the uncompensated labor of, for instance, walking the floors at night soothing a baby who won’t sleep or cleaning the bathroom before your relatives visit. Reject the duty of the constant maintenance that a family requires — from soccer practice drop-offs to kids’ dentist visits to loading the dishwasher — and you can shine in the workplace, it promises.
The problem is that life doesn’t typically work that way. Surely, not having children is a valid option. Many women and many couples are choosing to forgo parenthood in favor of a child-free life. Still most people want children, and our society still needs people willing to have children, for the continuation of our species, if not for our economic and national security.
Many mothers have found joy and purpose outside of the traditional labor market — and so too are a growing number of fathers. They don’t want to sacrifice 50+ hours a week to stay on the career track, and the truth is for many families, with the cost of childcare through the roof, it makes no sense from an economic standpoint. Nor is it the rational choice from the standpoint of the sanity and joy of a family.
A number of friends — truly brilliant women who had very promising careers — decided that raising more than one child and working full-time at the same time as their spouses was just not worth it. They’re piecing together work that matters to them, producing a community newsletter, starting an online coaching business, writing blogs. But they’re forgoing huge amounts of income over their lifetimes. They’re far from lazy. In fact, they work their asses off.
In our current precarious world of work, this is both a luxury and a danger. These “opt-out” moms are only able to do so because they have a spouse who can support their families, and they often must cut their standards of living dramatically to make this choice work. Few women can afford such a “luxury” and, if the need arises because a spouse’s income is lost, whether and how these women will be able to reenter the workforce full-time remains to be seen.
So what is the solution to this mothers’ conundrum? Universal healthcare and universal basic income.
A movement is sweeping Europe (where universal health care has been a reality for generations) to create a guaranteed level of income — not a fortune but enough to survive on — for every citizen. Swiss voters will soon considering a universal basic income, and Finland will pilot the idea in 2017.
With automation, we are moving toward a world — like it or not — in which many traditional forms of work will no longer be done by humans. At the same time, fewer people want the lifestyle of absolute self-abdication that’s expected of overtime-exempt employees. So why not give every citizen a threshold income that they can survive on and allow them to create, work and live according to their terms?
While it sounds revolutionary, the universal basic income isn’t a new concept for Americans. Alaska has had the closest thing to it in the world today for years with the Alaska Permanent Fund, an oil investment dividend for every resident. Thanks in part to this small annual payment, Alaska enjoys one of the nation’s lowest poverty rates.
Social Security is another example. This guarantee of an income floor for seniors is widely recognized as the most successful anti-poverty program our nation has ever undertaken. This basic income doesn’t mean that seniors sit around doing nothing all day. My mom’s life improved markedly since hitting the age of Social Security and Medicare retirement because she now has the time and security to pursue her joy. She lives very simply, tutors local students, volunteers at the library, takes classes at the seniors center, holds a seat on the board of the local housing authority, participates in a book club, and is writing a novel.
Imagine if everyone was guaranteed healthcare and an income floor. People would still pursue their calling in life. In fact, they could do so more freely with more creativity and daring without the fear of not making ends meet. It would unleash the enormous creative potential that lays dormant within the hearts and minds of so many office workers, toiling away as their best ideas and dreams wither away.
It would also reduce the stress on working families — especially low-income families and single-parent households. Middle-income mothers and fathers could take a real period of leave to raise their children — part-time work would become a legitimate option for more people. And working men and women without children could more easily take a mid-career break, or a sabbatical, once widely recognized as the perfect antidote to burnout among big thinkers and the creative class (i.e. university professors).
As the nature of work changes, so too must our conceptions of it, and of our understand of the relationship between work, family and society. Job sharing, more small entrepreneurial efforts, teleworking — all of these things could be bolstered by universal healthcare and a universal basic income. All of them benefit working people, especially low-income families and parents struggling to balance meaningful work and the needs of their families.
A universal basic income would also put a small dent in the deficit created by the mountain of uncompensated labor done mostly by women — mostly by moms.
This Mother’s Day my wish for all mothers is a universal basic income.