The way the American government treats families is a study in contrasts. And by contrasts, I mean hypocrisy. Politicians tout the beauty and importance of family values, but as any parent here will tell you, this country does not make it easy to have children or otherwise care for your family members. One depressing stat, oft repeated? We’re the only developed nation in the world whose federal government does not grant paid parental leave. At best, you win the employer lottery and are given paid time off by your company, or cobble it together through insurance. At worst, having a child can be tantamount to a financial burden, forcing parents to take unpaid time or leave their jobs altogether, or presenting a health (not to mention mental/emotional) hazard by which they return to work mere weeks after giving birth. Despite my own privileges as a college-educated, employed, and married woman, I felt the financial weight of taking an unpaid month from my former job five years ago, when my daughter was born; five years later, my husband and I pay what amounts to a second mortgage in childcare for her and my son.
And we are among the lucky ones. For “a woman earning minimum wage in America, full-time childcare costs an average of 2/3 of her income,” former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards tweeted today. ”This is a crisis.“
And yet, this crisis has functioned as a sidenote in the national political conversation and in recent presidential campaigns—plopped into speeches and paid haphazard lip service to without any meaningful action. (Hillary Clinton officially supported paid leave, and Ivanka Trump proposed a plan—which initially excluded fathers—on behalf of her father, but it was hardly a prominent issue.) Paid leave and affordable childcare—like climate change—are critical issues facing American lives, so the fact that they are typically only kinda sorta barely mentioned in the presidential race is maddening. That is, until now. Thanks to at least two of the women running in the 2020 Democratic primary, these pressing, dire everyday economic concerns—not just for women but for their entire families—are no longer playing second fiddle to the likes of Trump’s manufactured border-wall fiasco and, as in 2016, Hillary’s emails.
On Tuesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled a universal affordable childcare plan (to be funded by a proposed tax to the uber-wealthy) that would cap families’ childcare costs at 7 percent of their income. Last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, another 2020 hopeful, reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, a bill that would guarantee up to 12 weeks off, with up to two-thirds pay, for new parents and workers who need time to care for ill family members or deal with their own serious health issues. More proof that the politics of pregnancy, new parenthood, and childcare have been grossly overlooked: Gillibrand and the FAMILY Act’s cosponsor, Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, previously introduced the bill in 2013, 2015, and 2017, in male-majority Congresses. It has yet to make it out of a committee and progress to a vote.
This is one of the many reasons why we need women (yes, as in more than one) in the running for president. When women have been in the minority, or otherwise on the periphery of political power, so too have the issues—like paid leave and affordable childcare—that have misguidedly been assigned to only them. (Both paid leave and affordable childcare would greatly benefit women, but they are also issues with wide-ranging impact on our country’s economy and workforce.) It’s been easy for the men in power to gloss over the issues, to shout out their “family values” while failing to deliver actual policy support to families themselves. But now that women are occupying a historic number of congressional seats and at least five women are running for the highest office (Gillibrand, Warren, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and the somewhat controversial Representative Tulsi Gabbard among them), there is a chance, as Congresswoman DeLauro said last week, that family leave can be promoted to the “center of the debate, rather than the fringes.” (Step one: Stop wasting ink on Harris’s college playlists and Warren’s nebulous “likability” and actually give these policy proposals the attention they demand.)
It shouldn’t necessarily take a woman who has had children to make that progress, but it’s no coincidence that two mothers—Warren and Gillibrand each have two children—are elevating women and their families, and making them integral parts of their platforms from the very start of their campaigns. In announcing her candidacy in January, Gillibrand, a longtime advocate for paid leave, pointedly promised that as a “mom I am going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own.” It was a rare moment for me as a mom—for once, my interests weren’t afterthoughts. For once, I saw both myself and the issues I care about reflected back at me. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many.