The Best Mother's Day Gift

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 7 2010 5:29 PM

The Best Mother's Day Gift

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Sure flowers and chocolates are great, but I think I know just the thing for Mother's Day: Flexible work options. Earning a good living while still having time to take care of your family is the best gift ever. And I know it can be done, having recently witnessed family life in the Netherlands, where a mix of employer and government policies have made it possible for virtually anyone to work part time.

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Okay, maybe a change in employment policy doesn’t say "I love you" the same way jewelry and verse do. But the way things are now, far too many American mothers have to choose between working far more than they’d like to. And their limited options leave many working moms and many stay-at-home moms miserable.

For those who stay home, the financial consequences are dire. Despite the popular notion that most mothers who don’t work outside the home are mostly wealthy elites, stay-at-home moms actually tend to be less educated and poorer than the rest of mothers, as we learned from recent census numbers. Many of these moms, especially younger ones, simply can’t find work that pays enough to cover their childcare costs.

Meanwhile, mothers who work for pay often do so full time-even when they’d prefer not to. Indeed, the U.S. has one of the highest rates of full-time working women in the world. But, whether they’re doing it because they need the income, the health insurance or simply because they can’t find decent part-time alternatives, many of these mothers would rather be working less. According to a recent Pew poll, 60 percent of these full-time working women with children under 18 would prefer part-time jobs.

Our government and workplaces still haven’t accommodated the bumpy reality of parenting. We’re the only industrialized nation without paid maternity leave. Without that, paid sick leave, or much assistance with childcare, working full-time while being a parent is stressful. Working fathers often feel this same stress, though the stereotype of what men want doesn’t encourage them to say so.

It’s worth taking a look at how the Dutch approached the issue of building a truly family-friendly workplace. In the Netherlands, workers can tailor almost any job to a less than full-time schedule. So three-quarters of working Dutch women and almost a quarter of Dutch men have part-time jobs-and not the low-paying, low-status type most available here.

When I recently met with Dutch families in which both parents worked part-time, their lives seemed decidedly saner than what I’ve witnessed-and lived-in this country. All of which got me thinking about mother’s day gifts. Instead of the flowers and the chocolates, or perhaps in addition to the flowers and the chocolates, your mom might like a new kind of mother’s day gift-a pledge to ask your local Congressperson to champion flex-time work regulations. I know I would.

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at Demos and the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation. Follow her on Twitter or email her at fastlerner@gmail.com.