Moms often feel they can't do anything right: Either they're neglecting the kids to work, or neglecting work to take care of the family. I feel that way about 49 times a day, so I was delighted to talk with Sharon Lerner, a 43-year-old mother of two in Brooklyn, N.Y., whose new book has an ultimately comforting message: It's not our fault that we can't "do it all." We're living in a country that makes life harder for parents than in just about any place on the planet. But by helping each other, we can make motherhood, and family life, happier and more sane.
U.S. News: Your new book is called The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, which isn't exactly a cheery title. You studied how motherhood works in different countries, and said women elsewhere have a much easier time of it, thanks to family-friendly government policies. Is there any good news for us moms in America?
My agent said, "What, are you crazy? Nobody's going to buy this book." But I'm hoping that we can actually see it's uplifting. Other countries have evolved policies over the past century that acknowledge the fact that women are increasingly workers as well as parents. We have had a real lag here in responding to that reality. We're one of a tiny handful of countries that doesn't have paid maternity leave. That leaves women in a terrible position. Many have to go back to work days and weeks after giving birth. It flies in the face of how we like to think of ourselves as a family-friendly nation. If other countries can do it, we can, too. It's really hard for moms to find part-time work, or get flextime or family leave. You point out that that's not our fault, it's the system. So how do we convince bosses and lawmakers that these things would be good for our country, and not just us?
A lot of the changes that have to be made are good for mothers, they're good for entire families, and they're good for the economy—paid sick leave, for one; there's a lot of research to show that that's a money-saver for employers. When you're able to give people a much-needed break to deal with their domestic life, they're more likely to stay on a job. The cost of retraining workers is quite high. Also we need to think about children. It's hard to calculate the value of doing all this the right way, but there's clearly a monetary value. When parents are able to spend time with their children, kids do better. They're our future taxpayers, our future military, our future workforce. The healthier they are as children, the better they are as adults.
What country would you point to as the mom-friendly model?
There is something to drool over in most other countries. One I really enjoyed learning about is the Netherlands, which has the largest part-time economy in the world. Seventy-five percent of working women work part time, and a substantial number of men do, too. Employers are required to let workers go part time. People have the option of staying in the work force while still having time to take care of their families. I met a number of families where both parents work part time. Two parents work four days each, and then you only need three days of child care. Children and parents both seem saner and happier. Life doesn't seem the frenzied mess you see here. You've got first-hand experience with being a multitasking mom. How did you write this book with two young children to take care of?
I have a two year old and a four year old, both boys. I started this book right when my first child was born. My second was born in the middle of it. Readers, don't try this at home! It was a big crazy mess. Now, one of them is in a real [independent] preschool, the other is in a co-op preschool that we formed with 10 other families. We rotate teaching, and we hired a teacher. It has worked out really well. If you're having trouble doing it all, it's not your fault. It's not your own personal failing or weakness or inability to organize or keep things straight. Most working parents feel like they can't do it all; that's because it's actually not doable. What's helped me through this process to see the problem as largely external. So many times we feel guilt. We blame ourselves for our inability to do everything perfectly. A lot of the literature unwittingly feeds into that—all this stuff about how to improve yourself! A lot of the blame actually belongs elsewhere.
[Read I'm Happy Without Being Perfect.]
Are there little steps that we multitasking moms can take to make life better for us and our families?
Ask for help wherever you can. With the little co-op my son is in, it's amazing what we were able to do by banding together. There are ways in which trading off with other parents can be incredibly helpful, spreading and sharing the burden. In the bigger picture, banding together and making change on the broader level is really what we need to do. If you look at other countries, you can say, 'Hey, wow, they can do this.' Djibouti is a drought-plagued African nation that is so much poorer than us. If they can provide paid maternity leave, we can, too.
What groups do you like that are out there fighting for moms?
Moms Rising is doing a really wonderful job in getting the general public involved, as is the National Research Center for Women and Families, and Legal Momentum. We need more stories of what life is actually like when you don't have support for families, which I hope will remind women that you're not alone.