Cara Cookson: Prioritize family leave

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Cara Cookson, of West Bolton, who is a lawyer and crime victim advocate.

When I was a little girl in the 1980s, I took at their word all those who told me that “girls can do anything.” For 33 years, I have worked to fulfill my half of the bargain. I became the first in my family to go to college. I shoveled horse manure through law school in exchange for rent. I interned through summers — I never went on spring break. My mom always told me to establish myself first before starting a family, something she didn’t have the chance to do. And so in January, when my daughter was born, I got to marvel at how a life that already felt so wonderfully full with my career could only continue to expand and grow.

If men were the primary caregivers during the first months of life in mainstream culture and needed six months or a year to jump start their little ones, it’d be happening.


When my daughter turned 11 weeks old, a mix of new emotions flooded in. At 12 weeks, I would go back to work and show her that girls can do anything — even though such young babies don’t sleep through the night yet and tend to struggle to nap in someone else’s arms. I’m supposed to be grateful that I have a job waiting for me, and that my husband and I could swing the reduced income while I was out. I’m supposed to be grateful that I didn’t have a c-section, and so I didn’t spend my 12 weeks simply recovering my ability to walk and sit and pee. I am grateful for those things for sure. My heart breaks for parents who are not so privileged or whose babies are not as healthy as mine.

But also, I am disappointed. Twelve weeks is not an amount of time that corresponds with a child’s developmental needs; it’s a political compromise. Current conversations about “scaling back” the proposed paid family leave program are not responsive to public health research or the daily realities facing working families, especially working moms. If men were the primary caregivers during the first months of life in mainstream culture and needed six months or a year to jump start their little ones, it’d be happening. Look at the tradition of the sabbatical in the legal profession or in academia — historically male-dominated professions that treat the occasional six months off as a professional necessity, not a vacation. When someone takes a sabbatical, no one says, “If you want to take a break to write a book (or clean your closets or take care of your sick parent or whatever) you might need to chose a different career.” But women like me must confront this question whenever we find ourselves wanting more time for our families.

I am more convinced now than ever that our family leave problem is a problem with our cultural values and our priorities as a country. As we pour money into health care and prisons but not paid family leave, we tell women like me that the girl power slogan I grew up with comes with a huge asterisk. Because we would rather run this country like an emergency room than recognize that women belong in every sector of our workforce, that being a human who responds to one’s biological instincts as a parent is not a weakness. I want my daughter to know that when we tell her girls can do anything, we mean it.

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  • Edward Letourneau

    Nicely written to get attention. Now the author should have included why other people are responsible for paying the cost to cover her choices in life, e.g., family leave…

    • Peter Langella

      She did when she said “that our family leave problem is a problem with our cultural values and our priorities as a country.” Many countries around the world have figured out tax structures that take care of their people and educate their people. We’re too greedy for that, and it’s very sad.

      • Neil Johnson

        We are too greedy for that, we put our own selfish needs and lifestyle ahead of our children. Why is it that only women are getting this family leave? Family planning is just that, how are you going to care for this precious gift? Men can stay home too.

        Women can do anything, Men can do anything. Can you have two career driven people and family? What is your primary focus, money or family?

        I deal with young couples all the time, the first thing they do, often before marriage is strap themselves into a house that requires both incomes. They max out their lines of credit, which is really a foreclosure ratio, if you go over this the government has determined you’ll be foreclosed upon so they don’t let the banks loan any higher. I explain this in my first meetings upon which they immediately max themselves out.

        You can to anything, no question. But we can’t always do EVERYTHING. We have to prioritize and live with our choices. New BMW or education for my child? These people have plenty of money, see its all about priorities, not money.

        • Peter Langella

          If everyone paid into these programs, everyone would benefit in some way. To say that it’s all about priorities seems incredibly short-sighted.

          • Neil Johnson

            Seems incredibly selfish/poor choices/planning to have someone else pay for family leave, the big push to pay for daycare/early education and if you are broke we’ll pay your way on welfare too!

            So tell me, who’s selfish, short sighted and making poor life choices? Where we would really benefit is if people considered raising their children an opportunity and something worthy of their time and money. Ask any teacher, the results are startling.

            Yet we push for more state sponsored parenting, absolving our responsibilities and expecting strangers to give the love and attention children actually need from their parents.

            Ask any person who works with children, “How drastically better do children fair with an actively, attentive parent who gives love, boundaries and discipline?”

            It’s ALL about priorities.

        • Michelle Fay

          Family leave is not just for women.

    • Kati Gallagher

      It’s an insurance program- everyone contributes, everyone benefits. Do you not believe in any type of insurance, or just the kind that covers working mothers?

      • Neil Johnson

        An insurance benefit is bought by those who want coverage. Or do you believe everyone should pay for your car insurance? See how that works? Same for house insurance. Same for business liability insurance.

        People choose to have a family, why don’t the have a plan? In family planning one of the considerations might be, how are we going to raise, nurture and pay for our new precious bundle?

        Would you ask everyone else to pay for your car insurance? After all everyone benefits.

  • Mary Daly

    If you believe in socialism, go live in a country that provides. Stop trying to make the USA socialist to meet your needs.

    • David Bell

      If you believe the US is not a mixed economy, please educate yourself.

      If you want to live in the capitalist utopia you pretend our success is based on, go to Somalia.

  • John Freitag

    Once again it comes down to a matter of what priorities we chose with the limited amount of funds we have. Vermont, after a good deal of tax and fee increases over the course of the Shumlin administration, is taxed out. This does not mean we can not make adjustments in how we spend the significant amount of money we raise. Governor Scott recognized this and made his bottom line this year no new taxes and fees. His proposed adjustments of priorities (including more emphasis on early childhood care) came too late in the process to be considered this year and it has been left to the legislature to put forth their priorities within his budget framework. The House to their credit has done just that and now the ball is in the Senate’s court for this year.
    However, long term adjustments still have to be made. This process will require considerable statesmanship and not partisan politics or narrow self interest to be successful. This will be a tough row to hoe given the national political climate of today. Yet, we in Vermont have the ability to meet this challenge and make these important decisions in a way that includes all points of view as we balance our many competing needs.

    • Neil Johnson

      By cooperating together we could easily have child care, education in our state for less than $100 per week. With cooperation of using free buildings, a contribution for heat (many churches for example) and 4 hours of participation from family members it can be done easily, very well, and inexpensively.

      But you see it’s the unions and lobbyists driving this bus, not the people solving their own problems in cooperation with each other.

      We’ll make it complicated and expensive rather than easy and simple.