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Having More Kids (Or Not) Shouldn't Be a Perk for the Privileged
The gap between working parents with means—and those without—is getting even bigger.
Let’s make it easier for all families to experience joyful, purposeful parenting.
[CW: birth trauma]
Shortly after a surgeon removed my uterus in an emergency operation—a uterus that had stubbornly refused to contract during labor, perhaps in protest, after housing my son for 41 and a half weeks—I turned to my husband and groggily murmured, “We’ll have to adopt now.”
In retrospect, it was a bizarre response to nearly dying, but I’ve always been prone to powering through trauma rather than processing it. Lately, I’ve been reexamining the statement: Even after the sudden loss of my fertility, I was instinctively assured my husband and I would be able to have the two or three children we’d always wanted.
In the end, we didn’t adopt. Thanks to a health insurance plan that covered the cost of in vitro fertilization and tens of thousands of dollars given to us by our family, we were able to create embryos and pursue gestational surrogacy. Our second child, a daughter, was born in 2019. My husband and I have the family we want because we could afford it. That is the only reason why.
Had I needed an abortion at any point, I would have been able to pay for that, too.
That’s the troubling truth at the center not just of the abortion debate right now, but of family planning in America. Abortion bans don’t prevent abortion, just safe ones. Wealthy women will likely have access to the procedure no matter what. Similarly, the choice to have a child, and especially more than one, has also become, to borrow the common parlance, a lifestyle of the rich and famous. For those who live paycheck to paycheck, both growing your family and limiting its size is far more difficult.
That disparity is only getting worse.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it illuminated that care benefits are essential—especially for retaining working parent employees. Now, companies are ramping up those perks in an effort to woo workers during the Great Reshuffle. For example, Pinterest recently expanded its leave for birthing parents from 16 to 26 weeks, and began offering up to 12 additional weeks of paid leave to parents of newborns who spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit. Walmart is building a 73,000-square-feet child care facility with space for up to 500 children at its headquarters. Major League Baseball began offering back-up child and elder care. They’re not alone: A Care.com survey found that 57% of HR leaders say they are prioritizing child care benefits more in 2022.
Companies are also doing more to help employees grow their family. Nearly half (42%) of companies with 20,000 or more employees offer in vitro fertilization benefits, according to a Mercer 2021 survey on fertility benefits. And 9% now offer egg freezing, up from 6% in 2015. More and more companies are offering financial assistance with adoption and surrogacy, too. In the wake of tightening abortion restrictions, they’re also helping employees who don’t want to become parents (or have another child). Companies like Amazon, Citigroup and Salesforce have pledged to pay the travel costs for employees who plan to seek an abortion out of state, should it be necessary.
It’s a wonderful development for the women who work for one of these employers—the ones who are routinely named a Best Company or Great Place to Work. If you want to delay motherhood, you’ll be able to freeze your eggs. Later, when you are ready to become a mom, you’ll have insurance that covers IVF. If you struggle with infertility, you’ll have funds to help pay for adoption or surrogacy. Once your little one comes along, you’ll get months of paid parental leave. When you’re ready to return to work, you’ll be able to work from home on a flexible schedule. You’ll receive child care subsidies to defray the cost of care. You’ll feel more mentally and financially equipped to have a second child. And if you don’t, you’ll have funds for an out-of-state abortion.
For American women who don’t work at a leading employer, however, motherhood is both more precarious and burdensome. In the U.S., the only developed nation without paid maternity leave, one in four moms return to work just 10 days after giving birth. The price of child care is skyrocketing, and wait lists are getting longer. In fact, child care woes are the top reason women leave the workforce, and the top reason why they say they have fewer children than they envisioned. No surprise then, that more American women are having fewer children than they want.
It all adds up to a system where only a certain group of women can achieve working motherhood on their own terms—with the number of children they prefer, and the time to enjoy them.
We’re already seeing the impacts of this growing inequality. Despite predictions that the pandemic would set women’s labor force participation back by decades, that hasn’t been the case, according to two new data analyses reported in The New York Times. College-educated women with babies and toddlers actually became more likely to work during the pandemic, probably because remote work gave them more flexibility. Meanwhile, child care shortages and repeated interruptions from quarantines made it particularly difficult for mothers without college degrees to work.
Of course, the solution to this disparity isn’t to scale back on benefits. Companies should keep raising the bar. But we can’t stop at a system that only delivers a European-style safety net to college-educated moms of means. Parents who have access to paid leave, affordable childcare, workplace protections, family planning and more must stand up for ones who don’t and demand a national solution.
Joyful, purposeful parenting shouldn’t be a perk for the privileged.
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Child care benefits could ease the labor shortage. That’s the conclusion of a survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and Marshall Plan for Moms, which found that 45% of women who left the labor force cited child care cost or availability as the culprit, and that 69% of women looking for a job said child care benefits could sway their decision on where to work.
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