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Uncomfortable situations: mothers returning to work

"I have to request a key to the room in college each time I need to express milk - as if I am advertising my lactating status - and if there is a queue at the circulation desk I must wait my turn."

Veronica Czastkiewicz
8 March 2016
Lactation_room.jpg

Lactation Room. Credit: Wikimedia / lenarc

There is no denying that women have come a long way in the last century. We’ve earned the right to vote and formally participate in politics, our labor force participation rates have increased dramatically, and our access to higher education and more prestigious career options is unprecedented. This is true across Western contexts, and especially in the United States and the European Union (for comprehensive data on women and society, see a recent Economist glass-ceiling index, which ranks countries on the extent to which they have a women-friendly environment). But what happens when mothers decide to return to work? The trials of maternity leave, and the disparity of what is on offer between the United States and the European Union, are well-documented. This article explores two barriers for women going back to work and the way they are experienced in these two contexts.

Excuse me, where’s your milk bar?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, so far ratified by all member states except for the United States and Somalia, highlights breastfeeding as a human right. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding children for one year, and the World Health Organization recommends two years of breastfeeding. A report released by the European Commission in 2004 stated that breastfeeding has “beneficial effects for mothers, families, the community, the health and social system, the environment, and society in general.” If we agree with that statement, then it should follow that mothers returning to work should rightfully expect of communities, health and social systems, and society full support and accommodation for engaging in this activity. And although women choose to breastfeed – or not – for a variety of reasons, returning to work has been consistently cited as the biggest reason why women who choose to breastfeed initially stop doing so. 

In the European Union, women who breastfeed and return to work face a variety of obstacles depending on their country of residence. Only about two thirds of E.U. countries have some kind of policies for supporting breastfeeding mothers who return to work, and only about a third of those have policies in line with the Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding. Even in countries where there are protections for working mothers, many categories of working mothers, such as women employed for a brief period before applying for maternity leave, contract workers, irregular part time workers, or apprentices and students, fall outside of the scope of laws intended to support working mothers. The hap-hazard nature of E.U. laws regarding breastfeeding mothers and work is exasperating: if a vaccine was discovered that had the same benefits to communities in the E.U. as breastfeeding does, the development and dissemination of the vaccine would become a social imperative.

In the United States, the Department of Labor has issued requirements of employers to provide uncompensated break time in “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” But the vague nature of the law can make for some uncomfortable situations. For example, I am provided with such a room at one college at which I teach, but because it is a conference room in the library with special equipment, I must request the key to the room each time I need to express milk. Various student workers escort me to the room throughout the week (I am certainly not ashamed of what I do in that conference room, but I should not be made to feel as though I’m advertising my lactating status to random students), and if there is a line to speak to the student behind the circulation desk I must wait my turn.

At another college, there is a room dedicated to this purpose that locks from the inside. That makes sense – but if there is a line to get in, my situation can get physically uncomfortable – fast. Are these employers following the letter of the law? Yes. However, both scenarios outlined above also present me with potentially uncomfortable situations. Finally, in both contexts, mothers returning to work must ask for employers to accommodate them, often jumping through hoops to get to appropriate accommodations. Other requirements of employers to provide time for activities or breaks such as lunch, sick leave, or vacation time are default options, and take much less initiative from employees to enjoy. The fact that the status quo, coupled with inertia, are set against breastfeeding mothers in the workplace should be unacceptable. Employers should be proactive in providing sensible and compassionate solutions for lactating mothers.

Give us your firstborn…

An even bigger barrier to mothers entering the workforce is the financial cost of childcare and the social costs for women who choose to return to work. Simply put, the availability of affordable, quality childcare options for young families is abysmal, and the status quo dictates that mothers bear the burden for providing and paying for this childcare. In the European Union, only Sweden has roughly equal workforce participation rates for new mothers and fathers, however women’s participation has been increasing over time in almost all E.U. countries (In the United States, women’s workforce participation has flat-lined over time, at rates below most E.U. states).  A recent study found that the most effective policy to enable both mothers in general and low-educated mothers to remain in paid work appears to be generous provision of childcare services for children under three years.  Here I have several observations. First, the lack of affordable childcare for new families is a great example of the classic free rider problem. The burdens of providing childcare have almost exclusively fallen on low-income, low-education mothers in both the European Union and the United States. The benefits of these childcare services (rendered mostly by mothers) reach far beyond that of any one nuclear family. Early childhood care and education has known benefits to society writ large. And yet, legal entitlements to some kind of childcare mostly start after the age of three in both the E.U. and the United States. Is it right that the cost of providing such an essential service to society falls so disproportionately on one gender, and lower socio-economic classes?

Related to this is the unfortunate and unfair calculus that often occurs when mothers start considering paid work after childbirth. Although the law treats married couples as one unit for tax purposes, during divorce proceedings, on mortgage applications, etc., when it comes time for mother to go back to work couples engage in a sort of math trying to determine if the mother’s salary will be “worth it.” In other words, will mother’s salary “cover” the cost of childcare? Or does it make sense for her to stay home, given the fact that in many instances her paid work will not or will barely cover childcare bills? Never mind the other benefits of mother returning to work – keeping her resume fresh, career advancement, and engagement with the professional world. Somehow, a conversation about dad scaling back, the holistic costs and benefits to childcare, or what it means for the family unit if mother goes back to work is lacking. The calculus is made using currency only, and mother’s ability to earn it in a sufficient amount as to cover childcare costs.

In terms of social perceptions, the Pew Research Center recently released the results of a poll which showed that 34% of respondents believed children are just as well off if the mother as opposed to the father returns to work, and 51% said children are better off if the mother stays home. 76% said children would be just as well of if the father stayed home, and only 8% of respondents thought children would be better off if the father was at home. These huge differences begin to scratch the surface of how little our society has come in viewing parents as equal partners in the care and development of children. Anne Marie Slaughter, now famous not for her foreign-policy expertise but for her article on “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” has called for a “resocialization” of men and boys that takes into account their equal roles in child rearing. By not trusting fathers with childcare, or infantilizing their abilities to be the primary caretakers, society will continue to view women’s roles as domestic-bound – whether we like it or not.

The barriers to returning to work outlined here - difficulties for breastfeeding mothers and the cost and perceptions of care giving for children - capture only a few policy and social observations in a small moment of women’s lives. This snapshot is incomplete, and will hopefully begin a much more layered and inclusive conversation for women’s progress in the 21st century. By identifying specific problems for mothers in the workforce, we can work together to create specific solutions that will benefit not only individual families but our communities and society writ large.

Read our series of articles for International Women's Day 2016

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